Saturday, February 28, 2004

The Malling of America goes to the Mall of America

By William Severini Kowinski

Consider this a symphony, done in the old way---3 movements, then an intermission before the final movement. In order from here down are three long sections written shortly after my visit to Mall of America in 2001. Then the intermission---the "Consuming the Future" speech---before the final movement, "Carol Kennicott's Revenge." Again, the order is from here down, not by dates. In that sense you're going backward in time---woo ooh.

I Approach
A partial full disclosure

I took a taxi to the Mall of America, there to find the one thing I absolutely had to have before day's end.

I wasn't supposed to be going there to shop. The BBC had flown me from California to Minnesota to meet their TV documentary crew for a weekend of research and taping. They would be there because the Mall of America is the biggest shopping mall in the United States, and pretty close to the biggest in the world. I was going there because I wrote the first and so far only general interest book on shopping malls, and presumably because better known authors with trenchant observations on the subject were too busy or too smart to bother.

But I did have this other agenda. I was going to a mall with four major department stores (Bloomingdales, Macy's, Nordstrom and Sears) and more than 500 shops( from ambercrombie, Bead It! and Claire's Boutique, to Wet Seal, Wedding Day Jewelers and Zap "Create Your Own Cap.") Not to mention the huge Camp Snoopy Theme Park, Golf Mountain, LEGO Imagination Center and the Nascar Silicon Motor Speedway. But I would likely start my search among the 50 or so places you could go to eat, probably in one of the Food Courts. That's because at the Mall of America I would be looking for a spoon.

A plastic spoon would do. I'd flown in the evening before, and spent the night at the motel where the BBC crew was staying. I've gotten in the habit of eating a bowl of oatmeal before bedtime, and I don't seem to be able to sleep without it. My motel room did have a miniature coffeemaker which would heat the water for the packs of instant oatmeal I brought along. I could make it in a coffee cup, although the ones supplied were disconcertingly made of paper with a thin plastic lining. The problem-the pretty much insurmountable problem, as it turned out-was the absence of a spoon, any kind of a spoon, not only in my room but apparently in the entire motel. And I'd neglected to pack one.

I wasn't traveling as much as I once did, and I'd forgotten some of the survival gear needed out on the motel frontier, such as a spoon, and a 100 watt light bulb so I could actually read by the lamplight. The vending machine fare wasn't quite adequate for my midnight snack needs, and this-plus the noisy chatter of teenagers grouped in the hall at 3 and 4 in the morning-made for a bad night. But the most peaceful hours in a motel are just after 7 a.m., after the showers and the early check-outs and before housekeeping becomes too insistent, and that's when I slept. That's how I missed meeting the TV crew before they left early for the mall, and why I was going there in a taxi. And why I was intent on bringing back a spoon.

The motel was in the suburb of Eagen, about six miles from the Mall of America. (There are hotels a lot closer, some of them posh, and one of them advertises on the side of its vans, "for a hotel at The Mall of America call 1-800-HOME.") But the proximity of the mall was a selling point, its map and directory, decorated with colorful drawings reminiscent of the Harry Potter book illustrations, was available at the desk, and a van was supposed to go between motel and mall every hour. But their van also went to the airport, so they required a two hour advance reservation for the mall. Which is another reason I was in a taxi. Going to the Mall of America for the first time, on a Saturday afternoon, determined to bring back a spoon so I might have a better night.

You'd think I'd seen enough malls. I certainly felt that way. I saw at least a hundred when I was writing about them. Then I traveled to speaking engagements all over North America (Portland, ME to Portland, OR; Toronto to Wichita, Orlando to Halifax), my hosts invariably would show me their malls. I'd even been to the world's biggest, the West Edmonton Mall, up on the tundra of Alberta, Canada. But I was thinking about republishing my book, and this seemed like a trip I had to make. As it turned out, it did bring me full circle in a way. Still, I had purposely avoided coming to this mall.

Though the Minnesota mega-mall and I had not yet met since it opened in 1992, we already had a curious relationship. I wrote a long article called "The Malling of America", for New Times magazine in 1978, and a book of that same title published in 1985. Since my intentions were literary and journalistic, the idea of devoting my life to the subject of shopping centers never entered my mind, but I did have a few more ideas inspired by my various mall treks. So in the year between the last draft and my book's publication, I began writing a movie.

It was a comedy about a small, old and hapless mall confronted with the biggest mall in the world opening just down the highway. Since the oldest enclosed mall in the country is in fact in the Twin Cities suburbs, I set my movie there. I hoped that The Malling of America would be successful enough to interest moviemakers in my script.

But then one evening my agent called while I was cooking spaghetti. She chatted a little with her usual upbeat enthusiasm before finally breaking the bad news: my book was being mid-listed, the print run cut by more than half, the ad budget cut by the round number of 100%, and my author tour cancelled. I was never told why but when The Malling of America attracted some attention anyway, an NBC radio network reporter told me that someone at my publisher said my book never should have been published because the big bookstore chains weren't going to feature a book that might criticize the places where most of their outlets were located. At the time, that was the shopping mall.

Among the many consequences of this turn of events was the non-appearance of Hollywood at my door. My agent got only one moviemaker to read my script. Then some months later a reporter from Minneapolis called, for a comment on plans just announced to build the biggest mall in the world in one of their suburbs. It was going to be built just a few miles from Southdale, the first enclosed mall in America. The premise for my unmade movie was becoming reality.

The Ghermazian brothers, who had already built the West Edmonton Mall, had even bigger plans for Minnesota. Eventually their project was scaled back, but not by all that much. The project acquired more credibility when Melvin Simon & Associates became the managing partner. Mel Simon was a solid and increasingly prosperous mall developer, despite having also bankrolled a couple of Porky movies. In fact, it was a Simon family member in the movie business who read my script. She hated it. My movie mall in Minnesota was called the Twin Towne Maxi-Mall. They built theirs, and called it The Mall of America. Now why didn't I think of that?

Don't get me wrong, I'm not trying to build a copyright infringement case here-- just suggest some of the ironies coloring my attitudes towards the mall I was about to visit, as well as my lack of enthusiasm for visiting any malls at all. So let's review: the mall (speaking generically) gives me a great subject for my first book, but the mall is allegedly the reason few copies got into bookstores. My idea for an outrageous movie comedy is co-opted by reality, and the company that builds it had rejected my script. (Maybe it wasn't literally the same company, but you get the drift.) Then with the confident impudence so characteristic of the mall ethos, they take the title of my book for the name of the biggest mall in the country. The Mall of America.

Wait, it gets better. There was apparently a theory at my publisher (later shared by my agent-I argued with her about this the last time we spoke, and she hung up on me) that one big barrier to my book's salability was the title. They wanted to get rid of it. The Malling of America-too negative.

Of course there's a world of difference created by those three little letters, that "ing" at the end. In the interest of full disclosure, I didn't make up the title anyway (John Lombardi, my editor at New Times, suggested it, although I think he may have gotten it from someone else) but I loved it immediately, partly because to my knowledge it is the only "...of America" title (before or since) that puns. It turns out to be quite an elegant pun, too, because etymologically the word itself embodies both senses of the pun-the mall and the mauling. It is, in a way, both positive and negative.

The word mall comes from a game, pall mall, played in England until the eighteenth century. It was a kind of predecessor combination of golf and croquet, played on tree-shaded green fairways with mallets rather than clubs. The mall is the green open space, enclosed with trees, where the game is played hence London's Mall in St. James Park and the Mall in Washington. (Pall Mall in London was once a site for the game.) So it is the pedestrian space surrounded by the shops that puts the mall in shopping mall.

But what is especially pungent is that the pun word implied in my title-maul-also comes from this same game. It's the instrument with which the game is played, the maul (or mall-et) that is supposed to hit the ball, but often digs up the fairway in the process.

This doubleness is oddly appropriate for my book, which had the additional marketing problem of being too balanced to produce a "pro" or "anti" label. (It's since been cited favorably, and I imagine criticized, by all sides.) But as I was to realize even more when exploring the Mall of America and in talking to the BBC camera, that doubleness is at the heart of my approach to the mall. It's not vagueness, not even ambiguity exactly, and certainly not indifference. It's simultaneously and fiercely holding at least two strong views that are in some way opposed, because that's how I see the mall: as the sunny green field and the instrument that darkens and destroys it. Like the word itself, the shopping mall is a self-contained contradiction, a living statement that includes its own thesis and antithesis simultaneously, in the same comfort controlled environment.

Still, I hadn't written anything about malls for at least a decade. I avoided even going into them. They gave me headaches.

The drive from Eagen to the Mall of America is a drive along the all-American Everyplace, which is No Place. It is the same straight gray highway connected by long tight single curve ramps, with the same roadside detractions--neon branded commercial shacks among anonymous office and manufacturing buildings proffering corporate blank stares: a swamp of concrete and the dull shouts of brand name signs consuming the landscape. It's too ugly, familiar and embarrassing to actually look at.

We were heading for a spot in Bloomington which had been the site of Met Stadium, where the Twins and Vikings played until 1982, before they moved to the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis. It's a crossroads for four big highways, and a mile and a half from the airport-the kind of prime shopping mall location that doesn't come along very often these days. By 1989, the Ghermazians and the Simons were joined for the ground-breaking by Teachers Insurance, who together put up some $650 million. Local governments chipped in another $100 million in road upgrades and the huge multi-story garage facing the mall, and connected to it by glassed in walkways, very popular items in Minnesota. The Mall of America opened there in the summer of 1992.

I visited in early March of 2001, and there were clumps of dirty snow here and there along the desultory route. A thin waft of new snow was starting to fall as my cab approached the mall's main entrance. I buttoned up and braced for the one moment of cold I would feel for the next twelve hours. In fact, I was overdressed. Despite sub-freezing temperatures, nobody I'd seen so far in Minnesota had been wearing a coat. People simply shambled affably from heated car to heated buildings in shirtsleeves, although some wore as much as a suit coat or a down vest.

I looked up at this massive, solid structure of red brick, stone and concrete. Neither a splashy postmodern Bilbao nor a debased Mies modernist blank gray fortress, it seemed oddly warm for all its hugeness. It looked like a comfortably trustworthy building, something like a very large urban hospital built before World War II. But the sign on the big marquee above eight-door entrance was big and bold: the logo fashioned from the stars and stripes, featuring one big red, white and blue star and stylized stripe, with the brand name below: Mall of America.

I approached the glass doors and entered.

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