As shopping malls replace independent stores across the globe at a dizzying pace, we should pause to consider a number of vexing critical thinking questions: What types of things can a person buy at the shopping mall these days? What are the hidden webs of economic interdependencies that we find ourselves caught up in when we consume goods, objects, and experiences purchased at the mall, ? What kind of place is the mall — public and democratic, or private, heavily surveilled, and anything but public?
As an emblem of late capitalism and an aspect of what Ortega Y Gasset referred to as “our collective habits,” malls represent the simulacra traces of what once were vibrant shopping districts in central cities. Many urban centers in cities across New Jersey have lost their shoppers to the numerous hyper-malls proliferating across the landscape. Independent entrepreneurs simply cannot compete with corporate chains who reproduce clones of the greatest-hits elements of their stores in malls across the country (and internationally). “You won’t believe this,” a friend shrieked into his cell phone not too long ago, “I’m in Trieste in Italy and I’m standing in front of The Body Shop.”
In many cases, we no longer have a choice between the older, traditional shopping districts or the malls; malls are imposed on us as a central aspect of contemporary living. While the world has grown larger as a consequence of the internet, our down-on-the-ground shopping choices have become fewer. In a city like Jersey City, the vibrant life of the central square was greatly affected by the construction of the Newport Center mall a mile away. The life on the street, so important to the health of the neighborhood, dissolved as shoppers just stopped coming to Journal Square. The thousands of micro-interactions as friends and neighbors stopped to greet each other just simply vanished. Opening a mall reconfigures the social life of the city.
The decades after the second World War saw the rise of the modern shopping mall and the ubiquitous strip malls that line secondary highways such as Route 22 in New Jersey. They occupy a central space in the middle of middle-class life. Malls seem to be everywhere these days and they come in variety of shapes and sizes. “Some malls now look like European villages or Mexican Haciendas,” writes Jennifer Price in Cronon’s Uncommon Ground collection, “they are places out of place.” Her concern turns on the notion that malls are places to find all those “things people really don’t need.”
James Howard Kunstler includes malls and strip malls on his short list of those aspects of the built environment known for their “stupefying ugliness.” The more of these we build, he argues, the more we end up with a “soul-less, centerless, demoralizing mess…[w]e need a new model for the environment of everyday America.” Read “Home from Nowhere” and you will begin to notice that there are no windows on that new Macy’s department store and that the Walgreens at the end of the strip is ugly as sin.
“Private interests,” laments Setha Low “take over public space in countless ways.” Surveillance and selection processes at the mall ensure that only certain kinds of people use the space of the 21st-century public square. Low has a point: the shift towards privatization of shopping areas impoverishes the public realm.