Saturday, February 28, 2004

Kowinski photo: Mall of America Posted by Hello

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.

Kowinski photo: Mall of America Posted by Picasa
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 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:

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.

Mall of America Kowinski photoPosted by Picasa
3. Virtuality in Concrete
mall as symbol and as place

For the next several hours I explored this mega-mall, from East Broadway to West Market, from South Avenue to North Garden. For those who regard malls as non-places, this would seem silly, or perhaps an affront, but certainly futile. They aren't real places, but living symbols of sameness.

Especially in the journalism of the past decade, the mall has been frequently used as a quick and clever symbol for uniformity ("stadiums seem as alike as shopping malls"; Richard Ford in a piece on baseball, New York Times Magazine) and other characteristics it shares with our age: aridity of soul ("If Peretz has the congested soul of a kibbutz, Kinsley has the air-conditioned heart of a shopping mall": James Wolcott, Vanity Fair), materialist values ("And is power just a beast in a bureaucracy, a monster in a mall?" Michael Levensen, Lingua Franca) and just general soullessness ("Perhaps the first cruise ship with the soul of a yacht instead of a shopping mall"- an ad for Club Med1.) In a more literary context, it is a symbol of contemporary materialism versus the past of more agrarian values in Anne Tyler's novel, Back When We Were Grownups, when an elderly grandmother declares: "After they built that mall where the duck farm used to be, why, seems we just got hollow at the center."

Though sometimes an apparently value-free symbol of the suburban middle class ("the theory of middle class decline has crossed over-from left to right, and from the campus to the shopping mall" James Lardner, New Yorker review of a Kevin Phillips book,) contemporary teenagers(baseball may recapture "its lost mall-rat audience" Roger Angell, New Yorker) or society ("At the Orange County Register, journalism for the age of the mall," headline in the New York Times), it is typically a symbol of cultural decline, as art critic Suzi Gablik makes explicit in her book, The Reenchantment of Art: "Other civilizations have created Altamira, Stonehenge, the Pyramids and Chartres; ours has produced the shopping mall and the cooling tank. "

At the same time that the mall has become the same old symbol for sameness, a clichéd metaphor of cliché, it has become a model, a meta-concept, especially in cyberspace. Electronic shopping might not have caught on without this concept firmly rooted for easy reference in the minds of potential customers. Now the Internet is replete with everything from the Sleep Mall to Porn Star Mall.

It's true the experience of perusing the Mall of America's shops and malls was partly a stroll through images and ideas, a walk through virtuality in concrete. It goes far beyond the same old stores (for one thing, there are so many shops here that a high proportion are not found in most other malls.) For me, walking this mall was an unexpected tour of the concepts I'd learned are the basis for shopping mall success, mostly because those elements are done so well here that they became visible again. This truly is the mall of malls: its physicality determined by concepts, its concepts express in physical terms.

Eventually I found myself back near the East entrance, in the first level Sears Court at the corner of East Broadway and North Garden. Had I headed this way when I first arrived instead of straight ahead to Camp Snoopy, I would have begun the day with an almost eerie recapitulation of shopping mall history. This area looks pretty much like a typical suburban mall built in the 1960s and 1970s, the heyday of Sears in the mall business, and what I called the Bread and Butter mall, serving the basic needs of every suburbanite---the lawn mowers, washer-dryers, school clothes and housewares, plus cute shops and a city department store branch. It has the same style of hard tile in grays and browns, the same florescent feel to the relatively bright lighting, and the same faint concrete swimming pool smell as those first malls.

These days, such are the characteristics of lower to middle-middle class malls or sections in malls, and sure enough, near Sears there is a big discount drug store, and today in the court itself, tables laden with off-price sweatshirts. Directly above on the third level, across from Marshalls (a basic juniors department store) there was Nail Trix and Alpaca Connections, with the furry equivalent of velvet paintings.

But the Nordstrom court is different. The lighting is more subdued, and slender, graceful trees poke up through the three-level opening. The first level court is carpeted, and carpeted lanes lead to it on other levels; the architecture is both more subtle and more ornate: a gold clock stands nearby. Many of its neighbors are upscale: Benneton, Cache, Progressive Aveda Salon, several jewelry stores and Godiva Chocolatier. New malls began to go upscale by the 1980s, with similar decors. Nordstrom, the fashionable department store success story of the 90s, is an appropriate representative.

These stylistic differences are less consistently carried out here than in other malls I've seen, especially those that have lived the history by adding a second level of high fashion over the original bread and butter mall. There the distinctions (right down to what shoppers are wearing) can be so pronounced that an archeologist unearthing such a mall might conclude that like succeeding cities, one had simply been built on top of the ruins of the other. But even more striking that these historical recapitulations is the Mall of America's grasp of the basic mall technology: how the mall creates what one mall trade magazine article called "the retail drama."

You can see it all here. In general, the lighting is dimmer in the mall courts, and much brighter inside the shops. The entrances are open, there are no doors, and the shop facades are smaller than they would be on the street-the formula adapted from the highly successful Main Street of Disneyland is three-quarters size. All of this is to make the shops alluring and inviting. The courts are meant to soothe, even to mesmerize. The shops are meant to attract and incite. It is the clear and intended equivalent of the brightly lit stage and the audience in the dark.

The mall makes the retail drama possible in the same way a theatre enables its performances: by enclosing the stage and audience and separating them from the outside world, by protecting that world from dangers and distractions (from crime and rain, cars, noise and snow), and by controlling what happens inside it. So the mall is walled, even if these days it is partially open to selected views and access points. It is protected by its own security, maintenance and its hype of safety. And it controls the show: the shops have certain design rules, the mall "common areas" are maintained to keep the mood of a never-never land that is always the same, yet always new.

There is a kind of standard underlying theater space common to all malls, directly derived from the Disney model of Main Street-the quaint (but not too quaint) shops along the friendly, pleasant, quiet promenade, with trees and flowers, the plash of a fountain, the homey smell of cinnamon buns baking, and maybe a little concert in the band shell. There are a lot of other fantasies that can be layered on this one to vary the mood, either with permanent design features (although permanence is a relative term in the mall) or temporary decor.

Once the basic structure of the theater is in place, the show can be composed of almost anything, but it's always the retail drama, and it plays all the time. The seats are all on stage, because the audience members are also actors.
And there's always a new show in town-a new look, new shops, a new promotion, a new event. Here at the Mall of America, it might be the charity telethon broadcast from a mall court while I was there, or one of the other March attractions: Twin Cities Youth Symphonies Play-a-thon, Minnesota Vikings cheerleading tryouts, American Liver Foundation walk, a trick pony performance and autograph signing.

Meanwhile the mall is kept very clean and shiny, with fresh plants replacing the dead ones, and new flowers for seasonal "color spots." It inspires confidence, it exudes the bright feeling of possibility, the serene aura of perpetual hope. It is always morning in the malls of America.

The success of the mall as a theatrical environment has been followed by a major marketing trend, known variously as experiential marketing or the entertainment or experience economy, in which "the customer is the product" (according to consultants Joseph Pine and James Gilmore, in The Experience Economy.) "The economy is being transformed from a giant factory to a grand theater," writes Jeremy Rifkin in his book, The Age of Access.

These are among the standard operating principles, carried out adequately or abominably in various malls. All the variations, the contours of fantasies, depend on them. At the Mall of America, they are enacted with textbook precision and flair.

Most malls are amalgams of fantasies, from Main Street to starship, simulations of celebrity landscapes to pointed variations on the landscape just outside the strong mall walls. Being bigger, Mall of America can layer more fantasies one on the other. At many malls, this juxtaposition appears giddily haphazard and improvised, and at others-like West Edmonton Mall-it is part of the design. West Edmonton by and large does it badly, with clunky design and gauche combinations, like the ornate Venice street replicant hovering above the miniature golf course. Within the mall world, Mall of America is a vast improvement.

Borrowing from European urban models but also from new mall design that has replaced the uniform long boxes that malls had become, Jerde has provided variations in sight lines and paths, with short, curving lanes and jutting nooks, occasionally breaking out into large spaces and dramatic views. There are cozy skylights, and crossing walkways straight out of the science fiction film Metropolis; solitary benches on isolated side courts, and a particularly striking, long, straight expanse under metal grill arches that quotes the old grand rail stations and arcades of Europe.

It is an arena of color, from cartoonish and bright, to the muted tones suggesting age and substance. It is a circus of light, shapes and textures, a series of head-on collisions of images suggesting different times and places, remembered and imagined, copied and quoted, like an LSD trip in a time machine. But it can become overwhelming, and as the senses shut down and fatigue clouds your vision, walking this mall becomes like one of those urgent searches in a dream, when you hurry down weird streets, confronting and trying to account for the inexplicable, but what you're so intently searching for is never clear. After awhile, it's just a lot of florescent lit shops and zombie people in a big noisy gym. That's when the headaches start.

But malls have always been electrically eclectic, if not this stylishly. For several decades before postmodernism became a fashionable concept in America, it was being routinely enacted in the American shopping mall. Within its faux-modernist fortress walls, a riot of clashing images was absorbed into an ordered, sedate environment. The shops reconfigured old categories, in some cases to better conform with the realities of middle class life (everything that could conceivably furnish a suburban bathroom got grouped in Bath Trends and similar shops, for instance.) The mall combined the shops into a unit, with the aforementioned shopping mall art and science.

In the recently translated and published Harvard University Press edition of The Arcades Project , Walter Benjamin builds an intellectual edifice based on the meaning and history of the Paris arcades, which featured the first modern shops and were the forerunners of the department store. According to Benjamin, the arcades of early nineteenth century Paris helped that relatively new creature, the private individual, furnish a life and particularly a home that was newly constituted as a place for self-expression and self-creation separate from the workplace.

The private dwelling was the passion of 1950s suburbia, and was the first link leading to the shopping mall. Young former soldiers and their new wives nestled in the secure routines and known frustrations of army-like corporations, and settled for homes in army camp-like early suburbs, in order to take command of the interiors- to enact their common dream of home and children. As prosperity took hold, the homes became bigger and more autonomous, each with its own appliances, and bigger lawns to mow between neighbors. Soon suburbs were little more than separate mini-estates, connected to highways. But while mostly men drove to jobs in the city, young mothers were stuck with nowhere near enough to shop, and no place to go to get away from the house and kids. They needed their own arcades.

The arcades were made possible in the 1830s, Benjamin writes, because of a boom in the textile trade and the debut of iron, the first "artificial building material," in large scale constructions. Later the invention of photography flooded the marketplace with images for sale, attracting a middle class patron who could not afford to patronize painters or even buy paintings, and linking mass produced imagery with the mass of products the arcades displayed and sold in the heart of the city. The availability of images of distant places and times past helped the private individual furnish an interior that became both an expression of identity and a perspective on what was outside. "His living room is a box in the theater of the world," Benjamin writes.

Today there is a box that brings the theatre and the world into the living room. No new materials were needed to build malls in the 1950s, except for the machinery of comfort control, but the technology of images was once again crucial. Federal highway and housing programs enabled suburbia, and the highways became both magnets for development (as railroads and subway lines had been before them) and a means of moving goods to more places faster.

Even through the early snow and the flipping vertical hold, and even with low definition pictures, television was able to instantly bring home whole systems of images spun out over many glossy magazine pages and motion pictures, while adding its own potent visual myths in the happy family sitcoms of the 1950s or the glitter melodramas of the 80s and ironic mambos of the 90s, along with the compressed adventures of commercials. Television linked the nation in a grand concert of images, most of them linked to products, soon available in a mall near you. What television proposes, the mall disposes. In the mall now, TV ad images are reproduced on giant posters in the shops or shown on video monitors. The mall became the direct delivery system that turned agitated electrons into clothes and tires, Buffy the Vampire Slayer lunchboxes, Michael Jordan cologne, Farah and Madonna and Diana hairstyles, and the jewels of Alexis.

Today it's more than a partnership-it's integrated circuitry. MTV became an empire by playing music video commercials for the cassettes and CDs in the mall stores. Now movies playing at the mall cinemas or available in its video stores advertise on TV and occasionally create mall promotions. Movie and TV tie-in merchandise now forming entire stores as well as crowding out any non-movie or TV inspired toys from the kids' shelves in all-purpose stores. The Warner Brothers Studio Store was already dominated by Harry Potter merchandise when I visited Mall of America, months before that company's first movie based on the incredibly popular book series even came out.

Mall of America has several shops directly related to television shows, but the basic message is most clearly conveyed in the store called simply As Seen on TV, where you can get your Egg Wave microwave egg cooker, Gourmet Chopper, contour leg pillow and-yes-the original Ginsu knives, without paying that postage and handling. And the inevitable next step was already on the way: a store full of merchandise based entirely on products, and the characters that appear nowhere but in their commercials. There were posters announcing Cereal Adventure, "where your favorite cereals come to life," and where you can get your own face on a Wheaties box, coming in June to Mall of America.

The postmodern orchestration of images to create a separate fantasy reality may be artificial, but then, so is suburbia. Even the early suburbs were responses to the imagination-the picket fence, fresh air and green spaces. But the suburban fantasy got complicated by engine fumes and land too valuable to remain green, so it moved indoors to the mall, soon to be joined by fantasy versions of cities left behind, and other fabled places it was easier to re-create than visit, while making them over as suburbia would want them to be.

Yet for all the ideas that the mall enacts, all the concepts that it carries out and embodies, it is not abstract-it is not only "the mall." It is also this mall. Just as the suburbs it is so easy to abstract are places to the people who live there, so each mall is a place to the people who go there.

The regional malls are the places where people who live in particular suburbs shop and socialize. Mom knows the best times to shop without getting crowded at Williams Sonoma or to find bargains at Stride Rite. She'll shop at Bloomies but only when that snotty clerk in cosmetics isn't there. Dad has a favorite parking lot, with the fastest access and the least problem finding a space. Bud meets his buds at Gamestop, Princess checks out that cute assistant manager at Big Dog Sportswear, and Kitten searches desperately for books at Atlantic Book Warehouse that will explain why she is so unhappy. Once a week they all go to Albert's Family Restaurant-though sometimes the Great Steak and Fry Co. wins out-and the kids all like the Orange Julius at Mall X but not at Mall Y, where they fill the cup with too much ice. If this particular Anderson family is Vietnamese and living in Orange County, California, they might do much of their shopping and socializing at the Asian Garden Mall in Westminster.

I'm sure that people coming to even this Minnesota behemoth have favorite places, even between shops with identical merchandise. Sam Goodys is among the businesses at Mall of America that have two outlets on different floors, in different parts of the mall. I'll bet there are teenagers who prefer to shop in one and not the other, and they have reasons.

For myself, I can jump ahead in my story and say that after two full days, I had my favorite places at Mall of America. Some of them for the view, some for people-watching, some for browsing, some for staying put. If you go, they have these interesting muffins with a hint of anise at Caribou Coffee, and you've got to try some gelato at Tucci Benucch, the American crème for sure, maybe with a nice espresso.

Mall of America Kowinski photo Posted by Picasa
Main Street in a Spaceship
Carol Kennicott's Revenge

This was my fifth visit to Minnesota. Two others were also to look at malls; once I was traveling on a story with the Billy Joel tour, but the first, a long time ago, was to visit a girl. She was in the spring of her senior year at Hamline University, and living in St. Paul with several other young women. We shared a romance with literature, and she chose an itinerary accordingly.

She took me on a picnic overlooking the Mississippi River near where it begins its storied flow. We drove into the country to a place named in a Robert Bly poem, and she got me to mimic his voice and gesture, reading aloud in a snowless field. We went for drinks to the faded hotel that Scott Fitzgerald frequented, and were served by a waiter who had served him. When I asked him what Fitzgerald was like, he gave what must have been his standard and decidedly pointed answer: "He was a good tipper," he said.

We probably even sang some Dylan songs on the way north towards Lake Superior (I recall I'd just happened on an aside in a countercultural cookbook, in which the author recounted picking up a hitchhiker from Dylan's hometown of Hibbing, a young woman who'd known him in high school. "We thought there was something wrong with him," she said.)

No doubt we chatted about Garrison Keillor and his Prairie Home Companion. Keillor is the only one of these distinguished Minnesotans to have an entire shop dedicated to his work at Mall of America. You can get your powdermilk biscuits at Lake Woebegon USA.

But as far as I remember, we didn't do anything to honor Sinclair Lewis, who grew up in small town Minnesota and lived in several more of its towns and cities even after his first successes. My college teachers didn't assign his novels and they didn't seem to respect his work very much.

I wonder if students read him now in the Modern/Contemporary Literature class in the Mall of America. I hadn't read anything of his since high school, until just before I made this most recent trip to Minnesota, when I read Main Street.

People in the mall business who glory in hearing malls called the new Main Street, as well as mall critics who decry the destruction of so many small town Main Streets by nearby malls, tend to idealize both small towns and their Main Streets. Walt Disney didn't. He knew he was improving on reality with his Disneyland Main Street. His own Main Street in Marceline, Missouri was a muddy affair, with telephone and electrical wires hanging down over it. There was no magic castle at the end of it; probably a saloon.

Main Street is the basic mall fantasy, made of images created by the mall technology of enclosure, protection and control. It is Main Street in a space ship. In the mall and in the few other ways they can exist, these fantasy Main Streets depend on isolation.

Isolation was also a problem with the real Main Streets, as Sinclair Lewis saw it. Although this is now a standard view, it was shocking enough when Lewis first wrote about it. In Lewis' Main Street, Carol Milford is an early 20th century dreamer, a not quite emancipated young woman, born in a New England-like town near Minneapolis. After attending a stodgy local college and working in the St. Paul library, she meets and marries Dr. Will Kennicott, and goes with him to his prairie town with visions of helping to create a new Arcadia. Instead she finds a suffocating, self-satisfied, rigidly mediocre and class stratified, ugly little town.

The novel chronicles her roller-coaster ride of illusions, disillusions, adaptations, rebellions, sudden brutal insights and reactive denials, until several years on her own in Washington nourish her with the strength and sense of purpose to survive the insistent and (the ending suggests) still overpowering banality of Main Street.

I remembered Lewis' ability to satirize by just letting his characters talk---and though the vocabulary was different, the gist was depressingly accurate to my own experience when I was reading Babbitt in high school and living in a small town with its own Main Street.

But this time I was surprised at the power of his description, his painstaking and convincing narration of Carol's psychological journey, and especially his sudden, almost surreal bursts of eloquence. Early in Main Street, Carol muses on the possible futures for this pioneer civilization, reconstituting the land that two generations before had been the forest and river world of the Ojibwa and the Sioux:

"They are pioneers, these sweaty way-farers, for all their telephones and bank accounts and automatic pianos and co-operative leagues. And for all its fat richness, theirs is a pioneer land. What is its future? she wondered. A future of cities and factory smut where now are loping empty fields? Homes universal and secure? Or placid chateaux ringed with sullen huts? Youth free to find knowledge and laughter? Willingness to sift the sanctified lies? Or creamy-skinned fat women, smeared with grease and chalk, gorgeous in the skins of beasts and the bloody feathers of slain birds, playing bridge with puffy pink-nailed jeweled fingers, women who after much expenditure of labor and bad temper still grotesquely resemble their own flatulent lap-dogs? The ancient stale equalities, or something different in history, unlike the tedious maturity of other empires? What future and what hope? Carol's head ached with the riddle."

I thought about Carol Kennicott as I watched a young couple from Maple Grove, Minnesota getting married in the Mall of America. A few hours earlier I'd run into the BBC crew and met the director, Rob Bayly. He told me about the wedding they were going to cover at 5:30 in the mall's Chapel of Love, and invited me to come.

The chapel is actually inside a bridal boutique sells wedding dresses and other accoutrements. It's on the third level, near Bloomingdales, and across from Hair Removal and Body Esthetics. The marriage with the marriage gear nearby is not precisely a convenience except for those who buy their veils just before the ceremony. But it testifies to the ritual link between the ceremony and the buying, and shopping has definitely become an integral part of American weddings (I once accompanied a cousin to three different Atlanta area malls in one afternoon, as she made last minute acquisitions for her own wedding.)

Before I got there I was tempted to assume that a couple getting married at Mall of America would be flamboyant, thrill (and publicity)-seeking, and otherwise hyperthyroid cases-the type that gets married while sky-diving, or on top of the Space Needle in Seattle. Or else they'd be dogged fanatics-the kind that has their ceremony as part of a Civil War battle re-enactment, or dressed in Minnesota Vikings colors.

But what I saw was a very young couple of apparently modest means, from a small suburban town on the Mississippi River, just north of Minneapolis. The chapel was reasonably church-like, more modest than tacky, and the preacher conducted an ordinary wedding ceremony-he was apparently uncomfortable about being there ( he'd told Bayly he had misgivings about marrying people in the mall) but he concentrated on performing a respectable service.

The young bride and groom, in formal if modest wedding array, were surrounded by parents, family and friends, all quiet, respectfully dressed and comported as if they were watching two people they loved pledge themselves to each other for life. In fact, marriages at the Mall of America are not that uncommon. More than 2500 couples have been married there so far.

I never spoke to the couple---I was embarrassed even to be there, as their wedding was being actively recorded by an international television crew of strangers. But Bayly told me they had been fairly vague about their reasons for marrying there. My guess is that cost had something to do with it. They told him they liked the mall, and were spending their honeymoon at a hotel nearby. After the ceremony, they were going down to the amusement park to ride the roller coaster.

I haven't read much scholarship on the subject, but it's not hard to discern the basic pattern of our paradigmatic marriage ceremony. It is arrayed much like the ceremony of the prom queen and king, where the metaphor is more obvious. The couple to be married are the royalty of the moment, and the court attends them. The attention the community pays to this event is expressed in the symbolic language of the royal courts of Europe during the 600 years or so they were the central source of power and meaning.

For Americans like the couple here---who well may have been high school prom royalty not so long ago, and the young man especially could be wearing the same tux--- it's probable that this will be the last ceremony in which they are treated like royalty, until their elaborate and probably more expensive funerals.

In many ways, this is one of the couples the mall was made for. The postwar middle class got so huge because more people moved up into it economically. However, economic mobility is faster than cultural change, and while the things the American middle class wanted became more elaborate and expensive, the tastes and needs of the lower middle class were still strong, and arguably dominant. It is their tastes, expanding at their pace, that determine the cultural mix at the shopping mall.

In fact a great deal of pop culture's impact arose from just such a lower middle class artist from Pittsburgh who re-packaged his tastes to astound the cosmopolitan art world, starting with a painting of a Heinz soup can. Some of Andy Warhol's apparently daring statements in the catalogue of his first retrospective at the Modern Museet in Stockholm in 1968 can now be read as a manifesto for mall culture: "I like boring things." "I'd like to be a machine, wouldn't you?" "I love plastic. I want to be plastic." "If you want to know all about Andy Warhol, just look at the surface of my paintings and films and me, and there I am. There's nothing behind it."

In fact, ordinary human beings have softened and humanized that program, and the longings of the Carol Kennicotts have expanded tastes and purview, but the sense of the world as surface and understandable as manufactured objects is reflected here. Though the new middle class is just one source of mall culture, it is an important one.

As they moved up into the middle class, many traditional certainties and stabilities quickly melted away. Their lives became unhinged when they bought houses and learned they weren't necessarily buying a home, they were investing in property, the value of which could be altered overnight by means totally out of their control. They mortgaged their lives to the property that likely would demand unremitting effort, yet could be taken away regardless of their dedication. The very act of buying a house could eventually leave them homeless.

Later, when high wage union jobs melted away, they had to learn how to sell themselves as commodities to prospective employers, by learning the skills of fudging the resume and projecting the proper job interview image. When inflation struck at about the same time that industrial jobs were disappearing, they were forced into the world of "financial instruments," from Certificates of Deposit to the stock market, in order to keep what they had earned. But this only meant they were even more vulnerable to the whims of Wall Street and the hair-trigger responses of its distant players, as well as the frenzied vagaries of global consumer markets. In very real ways, they became the slaves of fashion.

Now we know they were also dupes in a con game played by at least some corporations and their greed addicted executives, even if they joined the middle class march into the stock market.

All this combined with the costs and opportunities of economic upward mobility, based so uncertainly on images. If you wanted to rise economically and socially, you didn't buy a 'good enough' car as your prudent grandfather might. You bought the best car you could almost afford, with the 'best' determined not by quality but by its status at the moment.

You moved up the corporate ladder or in union contract income, then you moved up to a bigger house in a higher status suburb, with the appropriate cars and other accoutrements. Places (homes, communities) and things began to have less intrinsic value and less reality. Place was replaced by image of place.

The idealized small town of the mall was one of the first phenomena that measures the depth of longing for place expressed in the medium of nostalgia. Consumer products became a substitute for certainties. They became the comfort, the reward and the demonstration of how far you had come. They were what this world had to offer. Money could buy you more than two tastes of royalty, one of which you wouldn't be around to enjoy anyway.

In Main Street, Sinclair Lewis demonstrates that small towns have never been what they used to be. But the mall is more than the ideal small town now. It's a step up, certainly from most real Main Streets now. For a couple who may shop quite reasonably and happily at Wal-Mart, Mall of America is a wonderland.

But even more broadly, this is the small town version of exotic locales, shared by more than those from small towns or suburbs. It is in effect the urbanized small town that Carol Kennicott yearned for, at least in part.

To a small town Main Street eye, the variety is astonishing. The great Bloomingdales and the fabled Macy's of New York meet the west's best in Seattle-based Nordstroms, along with the Midwestern tried and true of Sears. Clothes, from Petite Sophisticates to Tall Girl and August Max Woman, Victoria's Secret to Motherhood Maternity, and a woman's apparel shop called Everything But Water.

Clothes, from Brooks Brothers to Chile Heads, RCC Western Wear to Hot Topic and Authentic Northern Reflections; Sox Appeal, The Buckle, City Shirts, Bostonian Shoes and The Walking Company. A shop of traditional eastern European imported crafts called Babushka, next to Hologram Land, where a framed hologram portrait of Jesus Christ was on sale for $660, reduced from $990.

There is the Original Corn Dog and Steak Escape, Hibachi-San and Minnesota Picnic, Le Petit Bistro and Mandarin Gardens, Stampede Steakhouse and Wolfgang Puck's Pizzeria. There's Grasslands Gallery, Wild Wings Gallery and Deck the Walls. There's Black Hills Gold Jewelers, Helzberg Diamonds, Whitehall Jewelers and Elegant Illusions. There's Yankee Candle, Irish Indeed, European Gift Shop, Colorado Pen Company and Minnesot-ah.

There's the Body Shop, Basin and Perfumia. There's Funcoland, Arrtvark Toys, LEGO Imagination Center and Wizards of the Coast. There's Pottery Barn, The Cutlery, The Tiffany Collection, Linens-N-Things and Gadgets and More. There's Pro Wrestling Shop, Crazy About Cars, Mac Birdie Golf Gifts and Field of Dreams. There's Planet Hollywood, Hooters, Gators, America Live! and Fat Tuesday Daiquiri Bar.

There are 14 movie screens and 11 ATM locations. And when the newlyweds from Maple Grove tire of the Pepsi Ripsaw Rollercoaster, they can choose Ghost Blasters, Xcel Energy Log Chute, Mystery Mine Ride, Treetop Tumbler, Screaming Yellow Eagle, the Mighty Axe, Americana Carousel, the Skyscraper Ferris wheel or the Kite Eating Trees.

Carol Kennicott yearned for "beauty and strangeness," for "cities, music, quick laughter." There is much of all that to meet the eye at the Mall of America. At first the crowds looked uniform, despite skin color or even gender-a sea of sweatshirts and jeans. But then I saw variations in the parade.. An elderly black man and a boy, both in impressively tailored, softly shiny black suits and matching fedoras. Three tall middle aged white men in cowboy hats, bobbing above the crowd. Two Hispanic men in leather jackets at a food court table with a pale young man wearing a curved bill ball cap and an ambercrombie logo t shirt.

A sleek woman in a black CK t-shirt and tight black jeans marching smartly past a woman with Asian features bottle feeding her baby on a bench in front of Macy's court. Checking out the nearest mall directory, two young black men and a black woman in a Minnesota version of hip-hop attire: puffy big down jackets to go with fat pants and thick enormous shoes. A slim man and slim woman both attired head to foot in shiny tight black leather with silver studs.

Four teenage girls, all carrying Barnes and Noble bags, suddenly break into single file, the last three grasping the hood of the sweatshirt in front of them. After awhile in the peculiar mall light, they appear for a moment in the moving crowd and then they disappear: a guy who looks like he stepped out of a Jim Jarmusch movie, a woman going into Victoria's Secret who looks like she belongs there, and almost lost in a tall crowd sweeping onward, Harry Potter.

So the neo-Platonist poet may still be sequestered somewhere in London refusing to drink Coca-Cola, and the philosophers of our times may be jetting between a university campus in Maryland and international philosophy of our times conferences in Oslo, and you'll never see them here, unless they're doing a book signing. But you're not necessarily going to experience more variety than this in whatever enclave of Manhattan or other large city where you happen to feel safe and welcome.

Then I saw her, standing in line at Panda Express, but slightly apart from the others: a blond haired teenage girl, moderately pretty in the conventional sense, but in a long dramatic red serape coat, with cool presence and challenging eyes. She registered immediately but so quickly that I was aware of her distinctiveness only as an after-image. By the time I looked back, she was gone.

She was Carol Kennicott's great-great-great granddaughter, searching for beauty and strangeness, music and quick laughter, alone in the Mall of America on a Saturday night.

What future and what hope? Besides the lights and laughter, Carol Kennicott yearned for what she called "conversation," a term now very distant from what it likely meant to her: the entertainment of ideas, the play of serious questions, the dream of something different in history than a postmodern version of placid chateaux ringed with sullen huts. That kind of conversation is probably less rare than we think in the lives of small town Minnesotans, and maybe it happens among the students and teachers in the mall. But there doesn't appear to be any more encouragement for it in Shopopolis than there was in downtown Gopher Prairie.