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Malls, Fordism, Socialism


September 12, 2022

Malls, Fordism, Socialism Patrick Roesle March 21, 2023 The enclosed shopping mall, a once-mighty American institution, is lately being reevaluated. As it risks joining the automat, the video rental store, and the internet café in the boneyard of twentieth-century innovations obsolesced by technological and economic paradigm shifts, the mall finds itself in an unusual position. On the one hand, its cultural legacy has made it an object of historical curiosity and nostalgic remembrance; on the other, property owners, investors, and members of the chattering classes are busy contemplating its future. Though we sometimes talk about the mall as though it’s already dead, only a quarter of the United States’ 1100 or so shopping centers are expected to close in the next five years . The question facing the survivors’ stakeholders is how to keep them healthy and profitable, which may entail a radical rethinking of what these spaces ought to be and do. In Meet Me By the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall , design critic Andrea Lange attempts to augur the mall’s best future by examining its past. The book’s seven chapters, roughly corresponding to the seven decades between 1950 and 2020, chronicle the mall’s rise, decline, and ornery survivability with a focus on urban design and cultural impact. It is a consistently digestible, informative, and buoyant read, and aroused the interest of Lange’s peers in the chattering class during the months after its publication in June 2022. Among other venues, Lange has been featured on NPR’s Marketplace , the Vox podcast Longform , and the Slate podcast Decoder Ring . You can read a listicle inspired by Meet Me By the Fountain over at Fast Company . It’s the buoyancy that sells Meet Me By the Fountain . Even when Lange details the social problems exacerbated by the mallification of America—urban decay and suburban sprawl, racial segmentation, the elimination of public space, and so on—she makes unambiguously clear that she loves malls, warts and all, and doesn’t want to see them disappear. The occasional shots she takes at “aesthetes who pretend they never shop at chain stores” and “socialists who think there are better reasons to gather than shopping” reassure her readers that there’s no shame in having once been an enthusiastic mallrat, or in still having fun spending an afternoon browsing apparel, sipping a frappe or bubble tea on a bench near the food court, and availing oneself of shops and gimmicks increasingly developed with social media in mind. I’m reminded of a line from Guy Debord’s Society of the Spectacle —“that which appears is good, that which is good appears”—but surely Lange would call Debord just another joyless socialist aesthete. Perhaps it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Lange has written an affluent Brooklyn liberal’s history of the shopping mall. Despite the occasional moment of cognitive dissonance (such as when she admits the mall has always been “a corporate takeover of what should by rights be public space”), Meet Me By the Fountain is ultimately convinced of the mall’s essential goodness , and never seriously questions the capability of private capital and the invisible hand to make enlightened, civic-minded decisions about the kind of world in which the rest of us ought to live. * * * What do architect Victor Gruen, real estate developer James Rouse, and author Ray Bradbury have in common? Lange gives two answers in Meet Me By the Fountain . First: Walt Disney tapped each of them for ideas while planning EPCOT—which he originally conceived as a “community for tomorrow,” a futuristic and fully-functional city over which he’d preside as owner, mayor, and dictator. Second: all of them contributed, in one way or another, to the inception and evolution of the American shopping mall. Victor Gruen and his firm were responsible for fifty American malls, including Minnesota’s Southdale Mall—the world’s first fully enclosed and climate-controlled shopping center. James Rouse built Maryland’s Harundale Mall, the world’s second fully enclosed shopping center, pioneered the now-ubiquitous food court at New Jersey’s Paramus Plaza, and actually coined the term “shopping mall.” Ray Bradbury unwittingly provided the template for Jon Jerde’s Glendale Galleria in California with his 1970 essay “The Girls Walk This Way, the Boys Walk That Way,” and was subsequently tapped by Jerde into serving as a sort of vision consultant for San Diego’s Horton Plaza. The overlap is meaningful. Disney’s plans for EPCOT and the conception of the shopping mall during its genesis and expansion were colored by a strain of futurism that bordered on utopianism—a distinctly American utopianism in which the aspirations commonly associated with socialism would be realized through the operations of private enterprise. Oddly, I suspect it’s easier for many of us to accept Epcot Center’s inception as a millionaire control freak’s dream of a space-age company town than to believe that a dense agglutinate of shops surrounded by a hundred acres of oil-stained asphalt was once regarded as a symbol of the United States’ status as the world’s richest, most advanced, and most livable nation. But it’s true. The mall was once new . Ambitious. Iconoclastic, even. Superstar architects and designers were interested in making them. Influential critics in magazines like The New Yorker and Architectural Forum gushed over them. Women’s Wear Daily columnist Samuel Feinberg was so impressed by the ultramodern regional shopping centers of the late 1950s that he deliberately echoed the famous pronouncement of muckraker journalist Lincoln Steffens upon his return from the fledgling Soviet Union: “I have seen the future, and it works.” Some of this enthusiasm must be understood in the context of not only 1950s prosperity, but of the political-economic and ideological complement to the United States’ postwar golden age. The ascendent consumer economy, fueled by the mass production and consumption of luxury goods, “stood for an elaborate, integrated ideal of economic abundance and democratic political freedom, both equitably distributed, that became almost a national civil religion from the late 1940s into the 1970s,” writes Lizabeth Coen in her epochal A Consumers’ Republic . “The ideal…provided the blueprint for American economic, social, and political maturation, as well as for export around the globe.” (Coen notes that this particular strategy of guaranteeing and flouting American greatness had the Cold War-era appeal of putting money in people’s pockets by increasing the size of the economic pie without the socialistic resizing of any class’s slice—and for a while, it seemed to work.) If the consumer economy was a civil religion, then the modern shopping mall was its cathedral. Lange’s lavish description of the Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota is invaluable in helping the jaded millennial understand why Americans once found the mall so captivating. Imagine being a thirty-something who grew up during the Great Depression, came of age during World War II, and settled down in a bland Midwestern suburb. When you stepped for the first time into Southdale’s air-conditioned atrium with its two-story metal sculptures, mosaic murals, magnolia and eucalyptus trees, imitation sidewalk café, and carousel, astonishment would have been your most probable response. Opened for business in 1956, Southdale became the template for the American mall: an atrium with a mezzanine and a perimeter of inward-facing shop entrances, bracketed by department stores, enclosed in a composite, air-conditioned box. The dull, flat exterior of this box, replicated in hundreds of other malls apparently by rote, was in the first instance a deliberate statement by architect Victor Gruen. “No signs, no lights, no show windows, and no decoration, writes Gruen biographer M. Jeffery Hardwick in Mall Maker , “The exterior was supposed to be serene and uninspiring, a reaction to the bright lights of the commercial strip." “Reaction” is an apt word choice. The familiar form into which the mall solidified can’t be understood but as a deliberate (though botched) response to a growing problem in the United States’ burgeoning postwar suburbs. * * * After thirteen years of depression and four years of a war economy, the United States faced a desperate housing shortage in the late 1940s. The Federal Housing Administration, a New Deal-era agency, worked in tandem with the 1944 GI Bill to propel the construction of millions of serially-manufactured single-family homes at the undeveloped fringes of existing towns and cities. This particular solution to the crisis was aggressively pushed by the National Association of Real Estate Boards and its ally Senator Joseph McCarthy, a vociferous opponent of planned communities and public housing. (Naturally, he associated both with communism.) NAREB’s lobbyists and McCarthy’s senate cohort won the day, and the crisis was addressed through government support to private builders such as William Levitt, mastermind of the eponymous Levittowns . To be fair, the Levittown template for suburban development did put people in houses. “Quite literally you could buy a house in the 1950s cheaper than you can rent it,” says historian Kenneth Jackson . (Of course, it helped if the buyer was white.) But these settlements, exclusively zoned for single-family dwellings, typically provided homeowners with nothing but housing. If a resident needed to buy food, clothes, housewares, etc., they had to go elsewhere: to the main streets of prewar towns, back to the city, or increasingly to the outer roadways, where bristling, haphazard development was quickly becoming the commercial reflection of residential sprawl. This arrangement assumed that suburbanites had the means to reach these places, which were typically far beyond a reasonable walking distance. From the beginning, life in the American suburbs was predicated on automobile ownership. Because of Detroit’s rapid embrace of Fordism, America motorized more quickly than the rest of the world. During the 1930s, there was already one vehicle for every two households . General Motors’ dazzling futurist propaganda was impressive enough to catch the interest of President Roosevelt, setting in motion the passage of the Federal-Aid Highway Acts of 1944 and 1956, which provided for the construction of the Interstate Highway System and smaller roadways in and around existing downtowns. The supremacy of the automobile was all but ensured by the 1950s. Like the Levittown-style suburb, it was a case of private capital getting exactly what it wanted in a ribboned box from the government and promising the public that it was actually a gift to America. Early advocates of the shopping mall claimed they were inventing a new form of urbanism adapted to the dispersed, automobile-centric infrastructure of the new provinces. “Suburban urbanism” might be a twee way of putting it, but that was thrust of it. They felt that more was required of them than simply dropping a cluster of shops onto a field someplace near a major highway; the environments they designed had to be attractions unto themselves, requiring as much attentive curation as an art gallery. A mall had to be commercially viable, of course, but doing the job right entailed integrating malls into suburbs as the vital cores they sorely lacked. During the 1950s, Victor Gruen was the true believer, the shopping mall evangelist. In 1960, he and coauthor Larry Smith (an economist) published Shopping Towns USA: The Planning of Shopping Centers , which begins with a manifesto condemning the shambolic, alienating centerlessness of postwar suburbia, which had “neither the values of a rural community nor those of an urban environment,” and where “properly situated” sites of leisure and community activity were nonexistent. After criticizing the modern suburb in its residential aspect, Gruen and Smith proceed to its commercial side, epitomized by the coarse rows of businesses straddling an arterial roadway, which Gruen would later call “a garishly advertised parade of filling stations, hot dog stands, department stores, snack bars, liquor stores, supermarkets, chain stores, used-car lots, and funeral parlors.” He and Smith accuse them of causing deplorable traffic conditions, bringing noise and pollution, spoiling the landscape, and incentivizing the construction of more ad hoc housing divisions by degrading living conditions in nearby residential areas. The cure Gruen and Smith prescribed for what ailed suburbia wasn’t the shopping mall per se, but planning : Planning is needed not only to bring order, stability, and meaning to chaotic suburbia; it is necessary in order to establish a strong logical framework within which individual merchandising enterprises can flourish and provide crystallization points for suburbia's community life. No democratic society can flourish without law and order which, when applied to the physical environment, necessitates planning. In a complex and highly mechanized society environmental planning safeguards the basic human rights. By providing the best conditions for physical and mental health, it protects life . By establishing barriers against anarchy and the infringements of hostile natural and man-made forces, it protects liberty . By the creation of a humane environment it invites and encourages the pursuit of happiness . Gruen and Smith justify their emphasis on “merchandising enterprises” amid such high-flown discourse about life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness through an appeal to history. The marketplace, they argue, from the Athenian agora to the medieval town square, has always been the heart of local community and culture. In the American suburbs, however, the “crazy quilt” of shops and businesses strewn across a pedestrian-unfriendly thoroughfare replicates the economic purpose of the agora, but defers the fulfillment of its social function to some other unspecified agency. A well-designed shopping center, Gruen and Smith propose, can be the new agora, the new village square: a place people routinely visit for business and pleasure, where they can mill about with friends, relax with a book, go out on dates, attend civic and religious gatherings, and engage in every other activity that elsewhere belongs to the urban boulevard or the small-town main street. They write about flower shows, art exhibitions, barbershop quartet and symphony concerts, church group meetings, public lectures, and charity bazaars—and name the contemporary shopping malls hosting such events. Expecting their book to be read by real estate developers, urban planners, and retailers, Gruen and Smith essentially make the case for a pragmatic alliance between commercial and community interests. Setting up and maintaining the shopping mall as a true successor to the village town square, and not merely as a site of consumption, is good for business, they argue. Suburbanites get a designated site for communal leisure, retailers get a captive audience, the shopping center’s owners get a reliable source of rents. Everybody wins. Moreover, Gruen’s plans for shopping centers typically extended to the land in their orbits. For Southdale, he envisioned high-rises and garden type apartments, churches, schools, hospitals, and office buildings, all deliberately arranged as a “blight-proof” miniature city—livable, workable, and walkable—with the shopping mall at its axis. In his drawings, the mall emanates order like a bar magnet arranging metal shavings along its field lines. The successful realization of the project would surely inspire other developers and municipalities to emulate the results, and suburbs across the country would willingly submit to the good sense of forward-thinking, mixed-use planning—because clearly the alternative was more pell-mell sprawl, everywhere, endlessly. Obviously something went wrong. * * * Andrea Lange casts Victor Gruen as something of a protagonist in Meet Me By the Fountain . His name appears repeatedly in every chapter, even the ones set after his return to Europe in 1968 and death in 1980. No other figure involved in guiding the evolution of the mall receives so much biographical attention. Lange introduces him as an Austrian Jew who emigrated to the United States in 1938, relates how he built his career designing department stores, enjoyed a professional partnership with his second wife Elsie Krummeck (whom he divorced in the midst of an affair with Lazette Van Houton), and so on. She mentions in passing, as though it were an inconvenient truth not to be dwelled on, that Gruen was a socialist. Given Gruen’s line of work, this seems to deserve rather more elaboration than Lange is interested in. Perhaps it suffices to say that Gruen saw his shopping centers as commercial means to humanitarian ends, and was constrained to operate within the economic framework and Overton window of the Cold War-era United States if he expected to have a career. What Lange altogether omits from Meet Me by the Fountain —probably because it would have thrown too dark a cloud across her sunny portrait of the mall—was how Gruen came to feel about the institution he played an indispensable role in building. In his later years, his relationship with the shopping mall was reminiscent of the later chapters of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein as he fled the creature he created and urged his European colleagues not to attempt the experiment on the Continent. A passage from Shopping Town: Designing the City in Suburban America , Gruen’s posthumously published memoir, sums up his disillusionment: Originally, these centers were created to counteract the desolation of the vast American suburbs. The aforementioned New Times article [“The Malling of America,” May 1978] states that the visionaries of the centers said they would create community facilities in the middle of the suburbs. But the original objective, to eliminate existing abuses, has disappeared and been replaced by a selfish pursuit of profit, which has created new evils: traffic avalanches, energy waste, and runoff from these centers of increased purchasing power. Cesar Pelli, a former Gruen Associates partner, now dean of the School of Architecture at Yale University, once observed that the mall has become a great machine. Shopping centers were initially successful because they were designed on the basis of idealistic motives. But now they have simply become too successful, in the same way the car has become too successful. They are so overwhelming that nothing is able to restore the balance. Settlements and even cities simply disappear. Even the president of the International Council of Shopping Centers, Albert Sussman, has admitted that some centers have raped the landscape, created ugliness and chaotic traffic conditions, and destroyed local community life. Gruen’s biographers color him as a man embittered nearly to the point of derangement (another detail Lange omits), but the facts are on Gruen’s side. Regional shopping centers gutted established towns and small cities. In my home state of New Jersey, the long-beleaguered city of Paterson was a victim of the nearby Garden State Plaza. The mall I frequented as a teenager, the Rockaway Townsquare, opened for business in 1978. Over the following decades, the neighboring towns of Dover and Wharton—both predating the postwar suburban explosion—were reduced to highway-dodging passages to the mall via their enervated main streets. They were not exceptional cases. Rather than promoting community, the sum effect of the mall was to reinforce alienation. It normalizes and inures us to drifting through ahistorical landscapes which are only to be considered in terms of travel times, businesses, and proximity to thoroughfares. We go to a mall to conduct transactions with distant firms’ front-end representatives, who are as estranged from the work they perform as they are from the people they serve and the merchandise they stock and sell in exchange for a pittance wage. Teenaged mallrats, who get their parents to drop them off at shopping centers on evenings and weekends because there often isn’t anywhere else in a given suburb where unsupervised and unplanned socialization with other people their age is possible, are an advertiser’s dream: young people conditioned for life in a culture in which purposefulness, social relations, and self-identification are all grounded in consumption. (My conception of myself as a teenager practically had a Hot Topic price tag pinned to it.) As a replacement for the space of the old village square or main street, the mall leaves much to be desired. Gruen wanted to outfit malls with designated facilities for lectures, stage performances, and community gatherings, but increasingly few developers and property managers shared his interest. In practice, the civic functions appropriate to a few tables pushed together in front of a Cinnabon are decidedly limited, as are the kinds of activities that management is willing to tolerate on its property. (Strum your guitar or hand out political pamphlets in an atrium and see what happens next.) Parts of the previous two paragraphs ought to be read in the past tense. The American mall is, after all, adjusting to a market correction and technological disruption. Gruen's grand vision of the mall as keystone of planned suburban communities failed to pan out from the very beginning. Despite the success of Southdale as a citadel of commerce, his vision for it was only half realized. Instead of following through with Gruen’s original design, Dayton Company (the landowner) and some of the center’s co-investors sold off hundreds of acres surrounding Southdale to developers, who proceeded to build single-family residential divisions. “No one seemed interested in the denser, mixed-use planning Gruen had imagined,” Lange writes, “when, as anyone could see in hundred other places, houses made for an easy return on investment.” Much to Gruen’s chagrin, this became a recurrent scenario throughout his career. Certainly Gruen was naïve about the priorities of the people he was doing business with. Perhaps he never got far enough into his copy of Das Kapital to arrive at the lines about the capitalist being the personification and soul of capital, aiming at “the restless never-ending process of profit-making alone.” Maybe he was ignorant of the irresistible financial incentives that made his vision beside the point where investors were concerned: it’s telling that the phrase “accelerated depreciation” doesn’t appear once in his memoir when the tax loophole by that name did more to fuel the explosive spread of malls in the mid-twentieth century than any of Gruen’s pitches or publications. Gruen’s optimistic belief that he could persuade a pack of rentiers to listen to the better angels of their nature when they would profit better from plugging their ears is perhaps less baffling than his apparently pathological inability to come to terms with the infrastructural barrier set against his grand design. Lange sums it up in one sentence: “Even if you lived in Gruen's planned [Southdale] high-rise, the walk from your home to the mall would be unpleasant: across a multilane boulevard and a sea of parking.” Gruen realized too late, and was too stubborn to recognize the early signals, that he was working at cross-purposes with himself. He was aware that dependence on the automobile was an irrefutable reality of postwar America (and had incidentally played a small part in bringing it about by working on General Motors’ influential “Futurama” exhibition at the 1939 World’s Fair). He knew that a shopping center couldn’t exist without making ample provisions for motorists, and was prepared to make every necessary accommodation. Even so, he knew well that the more generously a planner provides for the car, the less effectively he or she constructs places suited for people . This paradox at the heart of his ideals confounded him. * * * The automotive revolution was a switch point in American history. As Gruen said, the automobile was too successful . “Move fast and break things” as a business philosophy didn’t begin with Silicon Valley, and much of the United States’ twentieth-century domestic history can be understood as the ripple effects from a singular technological disruption wrought by private industry and abetted by its allies in federal, state, and local governments. It was the automobile (plus the United States’ surplus of unused land) that allowed the postwar housing crisis to be resolved through the construction of barely planned, readymade suburban settlements. The hassle of driving back to the city or to a prewar small town to shop, sitting in traffic, searching for curbside parking, dropping money into a parking meter with a two-hour maximum, and trying to cross the damn street without getting run over stoked desire, if not demand, for an alternative. Private enterprise answered by building shopping malls, where parking was abundant, free, and didn’t require one to sweat and be honked at while they impeded traffic attempting to parallel park. After hiking across a few acres of asphalt, visitors came into a placid, air-conditioned oasis of car-free pedestrianism. The problem was that the presence of the mall intensified the conditions that suburbanites visited it in order to escape. Far from imposing order on their surroundings, as Gruen hoped, malls radiated chaos. Investors eager to make a quick buck by building a giant shopping center, recouping the cost through tax loopholes, and then selling it to a firm seeking to extract rents couldn’t have cared less where a mall was built. The cheaper the land, the better—so malls typically popped up on towns’ remote borders. Instead of following suburban development, new malls fueled it: wherever one was built, a real estate gold rush followed. The inevitable outcome was more of the rank sprawl that drove Gruen crazy. The gravitational pull of the regional shopping center bled revenue from large cities and smaller “shopping towns,” exacerbating the white flight phenomenon, hastening urban decay and suburban spawl, and drawing a geographical color line between the old metropolis and the new province. Increased vehicular traffic on roadways leading to regional shopping centers made the unoccupied land around them attractive to commercial developers; the result was the unchecked advance of Gruen’s “garish parade.” The stultifying frustration of commuting along these overburdened routes stimulated the paving of new roads (at great public expense), prompting more haphazard residential growth farther afield, which in turn seeded more roadside strips like so many thistles. The opening of a new commercial corridor invariably blights an existing one; a line of abandoned businesses and decrepit strip malls cutting through a township turns the place into a backwater; residents who can afford to seek greener pastures do so; and the pattern replicates like a malignant fractal across the face of the Earth. Shopping malls aggravated the worst effects of automobile culture while simultaneously muffling or counteracting negative feedback from the methods of diffuse, anarchistic suburban expansion of which the personal vehicle was the sine qua non. In its function as a palliative, the mall helped to ensure the spread of these methods across the country and contributed to their becoming too deeply entrenched to admit of an alternative. * * * As Lange and others have observed, the internet isn’t solely responsible for crippling shopping malls. Amazon and its ilk only accelerated a decline that had already begun by the end of the 1980s. The simple fact is that far too many malls were built to begin with, and the bubble was bound to burst eventually. The correction we’re seeing now was forced by a combination of cyclical economic downturns, the hollowing out of the American middle class, and the siphoning of customers by increasingly popular big-box discount chains, power centers, and, well, the internet. (Live by social anarchy, die by social anarchy.) The numbers tell us that the American mall isn’t dead, or truly in danger of disappearing altogether, but we can nevertheless expect the thinning of the herd to continue for some time yet. In the last chapters of Meet Me By the Fountain , when Lange isn’t waxing rhapsodic about the aesthetics of vaporwave and dead mall photography, or lauding the malls of the Californian and Floridian ethnoburbs as hothouses of POC entrepreneurship (as though the problem with American capitalism was only ever the lack of racial diversity among the petty and full-blown bourgeoisie), she ponders the questions of how to bring new life to moribund shopping centers and what to do with the dead ones’ carcasses. She arrives at the now-familiar answer of an adaptive reuse strategy that would bring shopping centers more in line with Gruen’s early hopes for them: Imagine the return of the grove [the mall] was named after. Imagine the growth of housing into the parking lot from the surrounding neighborhood. Imagine the department store reborn as a spa or a rec center, community college classrooms cheek by jowl with Forever 21 and a branch library. Imagine the mall being as physically embedded in place as it already is in culture. The mall was made to be responsive. It can still be Somewhere To Go. Lange’s pointed inclusion of the ghoulish fast fashion chain Forever 21 in her beatific dream of the mall’s future speaks to the blithe bankruptcy of the neoliberal imagination, as does her admonition that the repurposing of endangered shopping centers “be fueled not by the historic disdain malls have engendered but by a positive spin on nostalgia.” Sure: only through the smoke of nostalgia can the mall seem like anything other than an egregious national mistake, and its future worth safeguarding. "Private ownership is the price we pay for a bit of city that's a little easier to take,” Lange writes in the introduction, and the statement might as well be Meet Me By the Fountain ’s covert thesis. Its corollary is that the only thing ever wrong with the mallifcation of America was private enterprise’s susceptibility to making the occasional oopsie—and despite past mistakes and abuses, we have no alternative but to trust the probity of financiers, real estate developers, and property management firms to do right by the public. Lange is excited to see what wonders they’ll build for us next. In the interest of not making perfect the enemy of the good, it must be admitted that a nationwide retrofitting of struggling shopping centers as mixed-use, pedestrian-oriented sites where residential, commercial, and civic spaces overlap would amount to a small but welcome improvement in the texture of the American landscape. But as things stand, the form taken by any forthcoming mall renaissance will ultimately depend on how private capital understands its own interests—and another German-speaking immigrant who arrived in the United States six years before Victor Gruen had a famous (though apocryphal) witticism about what it means to try the same thing more than once with the expectation of different outcomes. Any attempt at a radical renewal of the shopping mall that occurs outside the context of fundamental reforms involving land use, affordable housing, transportation, reinvestment in public capital, the pinioning of the rentier class, etc. can only result in a continuation of the mall’s original function as a mint for private firms and a palliative for the rest of us.

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