Saturday, February 28, 2004

2. Shopopolis
exploring the city of now

The size of it doesn't hit you immediately. Just inside the East entrance is a self-contained and nondescript area with a plain help desk and a city-style newsstand store next to it, some sturdy benches in the center and rows of lockers on the opposite side. It's a cross between high school (complete with clots of teenagers) and a subway station, except that here the steps going down lead to the Underwater Experience, where you can glide on a moving sidewalk and watch a shark dart over your head. ( Not a metaphorical shark-not even an artificial one. A shark. A small one.)

The shops are this way and that way, but I was immediately drawn to the center, to the black stone pillars framing a glimpse of green trees and the red and gold of a merry-go-round. This is Camp Snoopy, an enclosed amusement park in the middle of the mall, a product of Knott's Berry Farm of California. It covers seven acres of ground, but the wonder of it is the vertical dimension. The mall holds three levels of stores and a partial fourth with clubs, bars and movie theatres, but the transparent dome over the amusement park center is much higher still. Plenty of room for the roller coaster and the Ferris wheel.

Los Angeles architect John Jerde, who previously designed the Horton Plaza shopping center in San Diego, and has since become known for Universal City Studios' CityWalk and several major projects in Las Vegas, designed the Mall of America. As a student, Jerde visited the towns layered on the hills of Tuscany, and he's told reporters this trip had a profound effect on his own aesthetic. In a way he has mimicked the basic structure of such towns here, except there is no mountain, just a hollowed out space as high as one, with four avenues of shops layered around it, a circle surrounded by a rectangle. The levels of shops twist and wind around this space, but they face inward, towards the invisible, impalpable mountain.

I walked along paths and midways-the surface was chocolate brown cement, with slight rises and dips that suggest an outdoor fairgrounds while also facilitating drainage-- past rides, games and ticket booths, until I saw levels of patios going up and up, as an eating area of the amusement park met one of the mall's Food Courts above. I saw a set of narrow stairs, and I climbed them. I kept climbing the mountain and looking at the amusement park becoming ever larger below me, while the lights of the shop levels gleamed brighter. Until I was on the fourth level, just outside Planet Hollywood, looking down and across at it all.

Of course there was quite a bit I couldn't see, but clearly, it is big. I was in a shopping mall with an amusement park in its center that together are seven times the size of Yankee Stadium, twenty times larger than St. Peter's Basilica in Rome, five times larger than Red Square. You could fit all the Buckingham Palace gardens in here, or 258 Statues of Liberty, or 67 Washington Monuments...you get the idea. It's big.

When I was dreaming up the mega-mall for my screenplay, I worried that setting it in the Twin Cities' suburbs, while an elegant and droll idea stylistically, might lack sufficient credibility even for a comedy. Apparently some observers had the same problem with the Mall of America when it was first proposed. Local critics pointed out that the Twin Cities suburbs already had 14 good sized malls, not to mention downtown Minneapolis with several solid department stores, including a Neiman Marcus. By the time Simon and the other investors completed the deal it was 1990, the country was entering a recession, consumer spending was off and retail was hurting. Forecasts were bleak-a story on the proposed Mall of America in the Wall Street Journal quotes a Chicago bank as expecting the 1990s to be one of the "most challenging" decades for retail since the Great Depression, and a consulting firm that predicted that more than half of existing retailers would fail by the year 2000.

Malls in particular were likely to suffer from several accelerating trends. An eventual and devastating switch to electronic shopping had been predicted as far back as the early 1980s. More women were working and people in general were working more, so they had less time to shop, and experts predicted that shoppers would prefer places where they could run in, get what they wanted, and run back out. "It's hard to imagine anybody zipping in and out of the 4.2. million square-foot spectacular that will be Mall of America," the Journal article concluded.

It also quoted the reaction to the planned megamall by John Borchert, a University of Minnesota professor and land use expert. "If you had just arrived from Mars and were trying to figure out what the human race is doing," he said, "you'd look this over and be baffled."

Today if you arrived from Mars, you'd probably be on a special discount flight for a shopping spree at the Mall of America. It's the number one tourist destination in Minnesota (the Grand Casino on the Ojibwa reservation is second.) It outdraws the Grand Canyon, Disney World and Graceland, combined. Some 40% of its shoppers are tourists. Most malls would be deemed quite successful if they drew the equivalent of, say, their state's population. The Mall of America draws ten times the population of Minnesota. Annually.

It's true that most of these visitors don't zip in and out. They stay an average of three hours, triple the national shopping mall average. Entertainment is emphasized precisely because it can hold customers longer. The philosophy is clear in Mall of America's first slogan: `There's a place for fun in your life.'

So customers wind up spending a lot of time and a lot of money at the mall-to shop, eat, play games, ride the roller coaster, go to the movies at the 14-screen cinema, patronize the entertainment bars like Planet Hollywood and the huge Original Sports Bar complex. And those who come from some distance spend additional money getting there, staying there and even shopping and eating elsewhere in the vicinity. Some of them probably even venture to downtown Minneapolis, about 20 minutes away.

Though things didn't look auspicious when it was being planned and built, when it opened the Mall of America benefited from particularly good timing-first the favorable currency exchange boom in tourism from Europe and Japan in 1992, and the booming economy in general for the rest of the decade. Still, its success is not unique. It was a tough decade for malls in some ways, but they didn't disappear. The 1990s saw the rise of Wal-Mart and the Big Box retailers, and a phenomenon unprecedented in the previous 40 or so years: some regional malls actually went under. But more old malls spruced themselves up with skylights and earth-tones, and along with their restorations they "re-stored" with new shops to appeal to new segmented markets, including new immigrant communities, such as Southeast Asians in suburbs of Washington, D.C., as well as previously ignored communities and constituencies of black and Latino shoppers.

Though new mall construction slowed, it didn't come close to stopping. By the turn of the century, the number of shopping centers in America had roughly doubled since 1983. Shopping centers still account for a touch more than half of retail sales, as they had in the 1970s. The number of adults who shop in shopping centers at least once a month increased to more than 190 million-that's 94% of the population over 18 years old.

Malls weathered the first storm of on-line shopping-though so far it represents about 1% of retail sales-- and like everything else that's happened since the first enclosed mall opened in 1956, they've worked hard to co-opt it. Malls have their own web sites and web shopping, some have signed up for high speed broadband with on-line inventory and merchant-to-merchant access, and several developers partnered up with high tech firms.

Regional malls contain 400,000 to 800,000 square feet of leasable space, and there are about 1400 of them in the U.S. There are some 700 super-regionals, and about 400 of them have more than a million square feet. Since Y2K, some 35 new regional and super-regional malls have either opened or are expected to by 2002. They include Opry Mills in Nashville, the Lakes Mall in Muskegon, Dolphin Mall in Miami, Monument Center in Toledo, Jordan Creek Crossing in Des Moines and the Grand Salt Lake Mall in Salt Lake City. Look for Centre of New England in Coventry, Rhode Island...Polaris Fashion Place in Columbus, Ohio... Meadowlands Mills in New Jersey...and The Shops at Willow Bend in Plano, Texas.
The Mall of America is part of the strongest construction trend: fewer but bigger malls, with lots of entertainment. It has also been very, very good to the Simons. In 1990, they were the second largest mall developer in the U.S., as measured by total square feet developed. Only the Edward J. DeBartolo Corporation was bigger; it had been the biggest for decades. In 1996 the Simons bought the DeBartolo empire, and now the Simon Property Group is not only the top developer, it is more than twice the size of the next largest.

There's method in the apparent madness of the Mall of America's sheer size. The West Edmonton Mall proved that outsized showmanship could be outrageously successful. It put a roller coaster indoors, and out there on the frozen prairie under glass it offers a spectacular water park-- so big that it has its own regulated tides. Given that model, John Jerde was an inspired choice as Mall of America's designer. With Horton Plaza and subsequent projects in Warsaw, Osaka and Rotterdam, he became the impresario of stylish fantasy. His goal was "to make the ordinary extraordinary" by building "highly lyrical and visceral" bigger-than-life environments that stir emotion.

But in another way he was an odd choice, because his forte was doing this within existing urban settings. Horton Plaza in particular was visibly eccentric and playful, but also solved practical problems for city planners and retailers. As a design director in a firm that worked with retailers in other urban mall settings, Jerde had learned how to use the design principles and technologies that the shopping mall uses to attract and hold shoppers. He wanted to add his own ideas to this model, fresh designs inspired by how old cities and towns manage common spaces for work and play, like those Tuscan towns with their courts, promenades, canopies, cafes and crumbling palaces. But he got so much resistance that he quit architecture altogether until rescued by shopping center magnate Ernest Hahn, one of the most creative of the first generation mall developers, who hired him to design Horton Plaza.

The Mall of America is not, however, part of an urban space. It was designed to eventually be a city in itself. The present core, what might be called the Shopopolis, has been so successful that the Mall of America has announced its second phase, which will double its size. The expansion will center around elements it doesn't yet have: its own hotels, an office complex and a performing arts center. (The Simons will have to hustle, though, if they want to stay Number One. In early 2001 Carousel Center of Central New York announced an expansion that will include a four story aquarium, an indoor golf range, indoor bass fishing and other entertainment facilities, which altogether will make it about half a million square feet bigger than the current Mall of America. Both the New York and Minnesota expansions are breaking ground in 2002. )

Even now, this Shopopolis provides products, services and locations for elements of the full human life cycle. There are birthing classes in the Sage Women's Clinic, daycare in Kids Quest. There are courses for high school students through the Metropolitan Learning Alliance, adult basic education and English as a second language, and the first college campus in a shopping mall. The National American University (headquartered in Rapid City, South Dakota) operates a campus inside the Mall of America, with M.B.A. and B.S. degree programs in business administration and accounting, and other certificate programs. Many of its students also work in the mall, so it's an easy commute from Quantitative Analysis, Web Page I, Strategies for Success, Modern/Contemporary Novel, and Business and Society to Baja Tortilla Grill, Old Navy, Air Touch Cellular and Alamo Flags.

There is a full menu of evening courses as well, including International Relations, Franchising, Macro-Economics, Visual Basic and Intro to Film. Students can buy their books at B. Dalton or Barnes & Noble, supplies at Franklin Covey and Circuit City Express, get dressed for success at Brook Brothers and Ann Taylor, or do the college thing with stuff from Custom College Shop and Hat Zone of America. They can stop for a chai at Cinabon or get retro with a malted or a cherry coke at Johnny Rockets, and book their spring break at the Florida Vacation Store. They could start their careers at Dean Witter Reynolds or The Great Train Store, or sign up for the National Guard, all without leaving the mall. Should that flirtation in Money and Banking turn serious, the Chapel of Love wedding chapel is on the third floor near Bloomingdales.

Also in that part of the mall is the Oasis Kiosk, a religious information and hospitality center, where volunteers will counsel or provide contacts for dealing with bereavement, for example. There is also a Where to Worship signboard, with information on the locations and time of worship for nineteen local congregations, at the All Seasons Wild Bird Store. Both of these are programs of the Mall Area Religious Council, which includes members representing Baha'i, Baptist, Buddhist, Catholic, Muslim, Lutheran, Parliament, Workplace Ministries and United Methodist organizations and traditions. This year their annual meeting at the mall opened with an address entitled "A Brief Encounter with Buddhism" by Lama Pamela Holtum, the first Minnesota woman to complete the Three Year Retreat of Tibetan Buddhism.

Three thousand mall walkers---including many seniors-- are registered to perambulate the mall in the early morning, and even after the stores are closed and Camp Snoopy is asleep, the clubs on the fourth level pulsate with the hormonic beat far into the night.

As far as anyone knows, nobody actually lives at Mall of America yet (although there is already at least one hotel within walking distance). Most people arrive by car, but there are only 13,000 parking spaces, mostly in the 8 story parking garage. It is so large that the upper level ramps provide a unobstructed view from horizon to horizon, which is where one local artist steals to photograph lightning. You can see the results on his website: www.lightingboy.com.

So the Mall of America is also a public transportation hub, served now by several bus lines, and in a few years by the Hiawatha Corridor light-rail line connecting the two airports and downtown Minneapolis. Financed mostly by public funds and run by a public agency, this $675 million project will reach the mall in 2004, and connect it with another 64 bus lines feeding into light rail stations.

All of this serves to further connect John Jerde and Mall of America with that first-of-all-malls down the road, Southdale, and its designer, Victor Gruen. Austrian-born Gruen also thought in terms of European models for his shopping center projects, and though his announced intent was to provide a human-scale center for the car-dominated suburbs, with cafes, greenery and sculpture gardens, he also knew how to meet the needs of retailers. At first those retailers scoffed: put plants in a public access area? People will steal them! Have shops open to a pedestrian mall rather than the parking lot? No one will walk that far!

When they saw what the enclosed mall did, developers quickly stripped it down to the bare minimum and replicated it all over the country. Gruen turned his attention to cities, but America was too enthralled with making places principally for its cars, and he eventually went back to Vienna.
Since then the mall has gradually becoming not only suburbia's downtown, but its organizing principle. Malls may induce and extend sprawl to some extent, but more than ever now they are physically absorbing sprawl and networking with other elements and entities, from churches to cities. Four-fifths of the American population lives in suburbia now, and new suburban-like communities are extending out beyond old metropolitan areas. Malls are the nucleus of such communities, the center of the culture.

The malls provide the supplies of life and identity for almost everyone here, from lowbrow to nobrow, bobo to hip-hop. Volumes of Plato and Homer, maybe even Sappho and Hesoid, caress Shakespeare and Austen on the classics shelf of bookstores, while today's archetypes and icons are dominantly displayed: the shaman's apprentice Harry Potter and the magical trickster Bugs Bunny at the Warner Brothers Studio Store; the pantheon of superheroes arrayed in F.A.O. Schwarz ; the Odysseyan/Arthurian/anti-Columbian Star Trek, and the Star Wars elementary level course in the power of myth, on video and DVD at Suncoast Motion Picture Company. And of course the suburban domestic god Snoopy-- the most human of gods in the figure of an animal, except perhaps for Mickey and Donald at the Disney Store-has the largest statue in the place, both mascot and master of this domain.

Malls have always reflected the particular culture of suburbia, and now that culture is becoming more complex and yet more separated from what might decently be called reality. The mall provides a significant perspective, to look into it and the culture, and look outward from it. Put another way, the glass you see more and more in malls is sometimes transparent, sometimes reflective. Malls are a window, and a mirror.

I descended from the fourth floor view of the mall's visible expanse and headed inward to the third floor shops, pausing for a moment at the railing of the Food Court. Did I mention the people? There were thousands, of every age...infants suckling, toddlers surveying the tall world from strollers, families with multiple children-one such family wisely wore identical green sweatshirts so they could keep track of each other... women in avid shopping gangs, men in walking clumps, couples young and old, elderly in laughing groups or intently piloting their "electronic convenience vehicles"...There were many, many teenagers--both the state hockey tournament and cheerleader competition was in the Twin Cities this weekend, which accounted for some of this crowd, and the noise in the motel hallway that kept me awake. They were, perhaps surprisingly, of all races. I heard at least five languages spoken.

There are so many people here that their body heat, together with the mall lights, is enough to keep this huge mall warm in winter. Except for the parking ramps, mall management claims, the furnace is never turned on.

Below me I saw and heard a marching band, crammed into the 42 passenger car of the tall ride called the Mighty Axe, playing "When the Saints Go Marching In." As the song reached its final chorus, the car started its 82 foot ascent and flipped over in the first of its 360 degree spins, while the band kept playing. When they finished, the ride picked up speed and thrill-screams replaced trumpet notes and drum beats. Near the base of this huge ride, men pawed over the new cars on display.

Behind me a line snaked into Tony Rome's ribs, next to the Nascar Speedway. On the courts the flow of people is fast and constant. These crowds, this purposed quick onward movement is not something you associate with suburbia. At the peak of Saturday afternoon, this movement slows to a compressed shuffle as the crowd streams relentlessly forward. Thousands of people, many clutching their cel phones. Their moving and murmuring made a steady low roar, cut by waves of gentle screams drifting from the roller coaster and other rides.

On any given day, the Mall of America is already the third largest city in Minnesota.

1 comment:

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