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Austin Chronicle All Under One Roof!

By Greg Beets

JULY 27, 1998:  Despite its unalluring, saltine cracker box exterior, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota reeks of the storied utopian promise that made this nation what it is today. With 4.2 million square feet of shopping, entertainment, and good-time leisure at your disposal, who cares whether that promise is actually kept or not? There's no room for nit-pickers in consumer paradise. In its six years of existence, the Mall of America has become one of the country's top tourist destinations, easily surpassing both the Grand Canyon and Disneyland. Though the majority of its visitors come from the Farm Belt, the mall garners tourist trade from all over the U.S. and beyond. Planes from Tokyo to Orlando regularly make stopovers at Minneapolis/St. Paul so the Japanese pilgrims can whet their appetite for the perfectly processed experiences awaiting them at Disney World. Even the most cynical misanthrope can't leave without buying a shot glass or refrigerator magnet. All this for an attraction which is technically nothing more than what those versed in the parlance refer to as a "big ass mall."

The Mall of America is built on the site of the former Metropolitan Stadium, where football's Minnesota Vikings and baseball's Minnesota Twins played before moving to the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis in the mid-Eighties. Though losing the two teams was a shot through the heart of Bloomington's economy, the 78-acre stadium site still sat five minutes from a major international airport at the confluence of two interstate highways. Combined with Minnesota's long winters and a retail market analysts regarded as under-built, the decision to build the mall made perfect sense.

However, the Mall of America always had its share of naysayers. Construction began in the throes of a recession, and developer Melvin Simon had to underwrite construction financing for the major tenants and offer sweetheart leases to fill the space. Many people predicted that if Mall of America failed, it would be mall culture's last hurrah.

"What consumers want today is a simple place to shop," said shopping center consultant Steve Claytor back in 1992. "The working woman does not need three million square feet, including Disneyland, to buy a blouse at the Limited."

I'm no consultant, but methinks ol' Steve missed the boat.

Mall shopping goes a lot deeper than the mere exchange of goods and services. In Michael Sorkin's book, Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the Loss of Public Space, architectural historian Margaret Crawford discusses how malls carefully orchestrate the relationship between shopper and commodity. "By extending the period of 'just looking,' the imaginative prelude to buying," writes Crawford, "the mall encourages 'cognitive acquisition' as shoppers mentally acquire commodities by familiarizing themselves with a commodity's actual and imagined qualities."

Try doing that at Wal-Mart.

Right down the road from Mall of America in Edina, Minnesota is Southdale Mall, the nation's first enclosed shopping center. Built in 1956, Southdale removed the weather and urban street life as impediments to mass consumerism. At about the same time, Walt Disney was artfully manipulating spatial and temporal boundaries to create an exciting new brand of mass amusement in Anaheim.

By combining Disney's tightly-controlled amusement netherworld with the dynamic, commerce-driven design pioneered by architect Victor Gruen at Southdale, the Mall of America creates an autonomous synthetic community where all interaction is driven by the selling of "Big Johnson" T-shirts and frilly underthings. Nature's splendor, cultural touchstones, and spiritual truths are just a few of life's pleasures that are boxed up and reconstituted as commodity under the mall's great glass skylight. They also have soft pretzels.

Being a lifelong sucker for reveling in the shortcomings of roadside attractions that can't possibly live up to their promises, I had to see the Mall of America for myself. To me, going all the way to Minnesota to walk around a mall had the same stunted appeal as eating something no one else will eat. I told people of all walks about my Mall of America journey and relished every funny look I got.

In order to make the trip worthwhile, I had no choice but to temporarily suspend (okay, ameliorate) my contempt for mall culture. Such bad feelings likely stem from the night I was kicked out of the Galleria in Houston for trying to defend my sideways-coiffed pals' right to loiter peacefully alongside the predictably non-harangued Izod contingent. As the rent-a-cop escorted me to the door, I spat on the floor and vowed never to return.

But now that the Bartles & Jaymes is cleared from my system, it is easy to see shopping malls in a whole new light. When it comes to articulating the desires of the dominant paradigm, the mall is a much more effective teacher than college. And given the exportation of our manufacturing base to the Third World, articulating desire is what we're going to have to make lemonade out of for the forseeable future.

Illustration by Terri Lord

My favorite thing about the Mall of America is its Up With People-style marketing philosophy. According to the ad wizards, the mall is "The Place for Fun in Your Life." Taken to its logical conclusion, this statement is an affirmation of an orderly lifestyle where everything is conscribed by boundaries to their well-defined "places." And then there's the souvenir T-shirt showing people of all colors and creeds holding hands under the slogan, "Mall of America for All of America." Harmony Through Better Shopping may sound a bit facile, but it seems a lot more likely than understanding and reconciliation.

With over 520 stores, an indoor amusement park, an 18-hole miniature golf course, and a 14-screen multiplex, you won't be at a loss for things to do so long as you're not bringing up pocket lint. Though the vast majority of merchandise can be found with only minor variation at Austin's relatively tiny (1,065,000 square feet) Highland Mall, the Mall of America does offer a few one-of-a-kind retail thrills.

Postmark America is a U.S. Postal Service "concept store" that "salutes America's spirit and proud heritage" with a variety of mail-related detritus and a nonstop apple pie video montage in the background that makes Reagan's 1984 "Morning in America" campaign film look like an understatement. At the Security Store, you can buy a machine that barks like a mean dog for $110 to ward off intruders. The Dollar Tree promises to give you $5 if you get an inaccurate receipt, but when everything's a dollar, what are the odds?

Along with the inevitable Kay-Bee Toys, the Mall of America has stores like Learningsmith, an "intelligent" toy store with Brio trains and Wallace & Gromit videos. They even carry bleeding-heart parenting books with titles like The Magic of a Boy and The Whole Girl. Bare Bones sells nothing but anatomy-related items, including Shinta Cho's immortal children's book about flatulence, The Gas We Pass. Seeing the Nickelodeon Store made me wonder if every basic cable network won't soon have its own storefront. At $24.95, the Ralph Malph T-shirt (just like the one Donny Most wears in the opening credits of Happy Days!) was very tempting, but I was strong.

The original cast of Saturday Night Live once did a sketch on a floundering mall store that sold nothing but Scotch tape. Comedy becomes reality at the Mall of America. A store called Magnetic Attractions sells nothing but refrigerator magnets, while Irish Indeed! peddles nothing but everything having to do with being Irish. Unless you count South Park T-shirts - which were being sold by every third store in the mall - Charlie's Novelties and Beer Collectibles thrives on nothing but Anheuser-Busch promotional items. Most amazing of all is the cart in front of Macy's that only sells Pez dispensers. You'll marvel at the vast array of goods you didn't know you needed.

If your stomach starts growling, there are two huge food courts serving up any and all manner of convenience fare. Sit-down dining at the mall is dominated by ubiquitous chains like Tony Roma's, Rainforest Cafe, Planet Hollywood, and a Hooter's staffed by young nubiles whose bodies were way tanner than mine despite Minnesota's harsh winter weather.

After a meal, you could walk to Knott's Camp Snoopy, a fully-enclosed and mostly lame amusement park at the center of the mall. Or you could stroll through Underwater World, which features a 300-foot underwater tunnel where hammerhead sharks and stingrays swim right over your head. There's even a comedy club called Knucklehead's, which would've been a most appropriate venue for someone like Bill Hicks.

Aside from souvenirs and a few telltale accents, there is very little in Mall of America to indicate that you are in Minnesota. The mostly homogenous mix of stores could easily be plopped down in Maine or Texas. You can go to Mall of America and tell your friends you've been to Minnesota, but your sense of place won't be much better than if you'd just changed planes at the airport.

This isn't to say the mall doesn't try to pay homage to the surrounding region in its own twisted way. Knott's Camp Snoopy features a log ride simulacrum of a wild journey through the Northern Minnesota woodlands. Underwater World goes so far as to create an actual Upper Mississippi River habitat in the mall's basement. Such gee-whiz attractions allow mallgoers to safely and conveniently experience nature without getting their new Air Jordans dirty.

Back home in Austin, similar - though less spectacular - reconstitution of place can be found at our own Lakeline Mall. The brightly painted fake cityscape overlooking the food court gives mallgoers the superficial trappings of Austin without forcing them to confront the realities of urban existence. Similarly and ironically, Barton Creek Square used to have a huge mural of the panoramic Austin skyline view that was ruined by the mall's construction. The mural was recently replaced with the panorama of a new food court.

The idea behind Mall of America could be taken as pure, good-time whimsy if it wasn't slowly creeping into other public spaces in the guise of urban renewal. Disney is slowly turning Times Square into a chain-dominated suburb of Orlando, and a similar, "festival marketplace" redevelopment has been proposed for Harvard Square in Cambridge. And then there's the wonderfully harrowing, infotainment-style synergy between the West End Marketplace and the JFK assassination site in downtown Dallas. That sixth floor window is a buzzkill, but a happy ending is just around the corner at Planet Hollywood. Though well-intentioned, these projects pursue economic ends at the risk of displacing the non-economic intangibles that constitute the soul of a community.

Malls only allow for community expression on consumption's terms. The Supreme Court has held that malls can suppress "activities that disrupt the act of consumption," which pretty much leaves all but the most palatable forms of political, religious, and artistic expression at the property line. While the Mall of America does actually sanction some religious services ("Jesus threw us out of His temple, so we're bringing Him to ours!"), these activities are carried out in the name of corporate goodwill, not a firm commitment to free expression.

It's difficult to imagine a mall being a legitimate public space, but it could happen. Why not have a Hyde Park-style speaker's corner at the Mall of America? The real Hyde Park speaker's corner in London draws plenty of well-heeled tourists, and somebody's gotta sell them a crumpet. I for one would love to listen to impassioned Marxist dogma spewed forth by a representative of the unwashed masses while enjoying a corn dog and cherry-flavored Icee.

In addition to free expression, you won't find unaccompanied youths under 16 at the Mall of America after 6pm on Friday and Saturday night. This "parental escort policy" was enacted after a few episodes of youth violence rocked the mall's tranquil corridors. With an official welcome mat like that for youths, you have to wonder whether the mall would impose similar policies on economically and socially suspect adults if they could get away with it.

But the thing about Mall of America that really leaves my cheese out in the wind is the fact that it's not even the biggest mall in the world. That honor goes to the 5.2 million square-foot West Edmonton Mall in Canada. What does it say about our great nation when we can't even build a bigger mall than the Canadians? If we're going for a full-scale commodification of society, let's at least try to do it better than anyone else. We didn't put a man on the moon by being happy with second place.

Ultimately, Mall of America doesn't live up to the enthusiasm of its developers or the alarmism of its detractors. Nothing is particularly bad, but nothing is particularly revelatory, either. You get exactly what you pay for, which gets boring after a while.

For pure sensory experience, you'd be better off strolling through the streets of New York or San Francisco. The average flea market has a wider variety of goods and more surprises than two Mall of Americas. And engineers are going to have a pretty hard time putting a rollercoaster as good as the Texas Cyclone inside a diminutive mall amusement park.

The Mall of America represents pure-cane hucksterism at its scientific best. It's efficient, it's bland and it's most definitely American. You can laugh or you can cry, but be sure to pick up a bumper sticker on your way out.

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