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In the 1995 cult classic MallratsBrodie and his buddy TS are engaged in a debate over the definition of a food court:

Brody: The cookie stand is not part of the food court.

TS: Of course it is.

Brody: The food court is downstairs. The cookie stand is upstairs. It’s not like we’re talking about quantum physics here.

TS: The cookie stand counts as a restaurant, restaurants are part of the food court.

Brody: Bullshit! Restaurants that operate in the designated plaza downstairs are considered a food court. Anything outside of said designated spot is considered a stand-alone unit for intermediate snacks.

Brodie is correct – the food court is a specifically designated area. The first appeared in 1971 at the Plymouth Meeting Mall in Pennsylvania – it failed because it was too small and offered little variety. But then came the Paramus Park Mall food court in New Jersey three years later. It was bigger, had better selections, and more importantly, was located on the second floor, forcing visitors to walk that extra distance, increasing their chances of buying something along the way.

In fact, everything about the mall, from its layout to the sounds and smells (of places like Mrs. Fields and Cinnabon), is designed to make you spend more time and money there. Which turns out to be an easy sell. As Alexandra Lange writes in Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside Mall Storywe are drawn to malls because of our inherent need to be together – think of the agora of ancient Greece.

“People like to be in public with other people,” Lange writes. “Seeing happy families is the core of the mall’s strength and the essence of its continued usefulness. In postwar American suburbia, the mall was the only structure designed to meet this need.”

The person most responsible for designing this structure is Victor Gruen. An Austrian immigrant, Gruen was part of the design team for the 1939 World’s Fair envisioning America in 1960. The model contained multi-lane highways with thousands of cars, not to mention huge skyscrapers and airports. (It was called Futurama.)

Gruen’s original concept for the mall – a word derived from London’s Pall Mall – was a venue that included not only retail, but also the post office, library and medical facilities in a frame filled fountains, squares and greenery. The goal was to make shopping a hobby, not a chore. This became known as the Gruen transfer: “the moment when your presence at the mall changes from being goal-oriented (must buy new underwear, must buy a birthday present) to a pleasure in itself .”

The first enclosed mall was a Gruen project, the Southdale Mall in Edina, Minnesota, built in 1956. As an advertisement at the time said, “Every day will be a perfect shopping day”. This, of course, was only made possible with the invention of air conditioning (the first department store to offer air conditioning was Abraham & Straus in New York in 1919). The other crucial innovation was the escalator.

While elevators take customers directly to their destination, escalators allow them to see everything along the way, once again enticing them to divert from their path, explore and buy.

Diversion became the goal. “To be lost. How frightening. To be *safely* lost. How wonderful,” wrote science fiction writer Ray Bradbury in “The Aesthetics of Lostness,” which Lange describes as ” a manifesto for the mall”.

Bradbury’s idea for a mall, writes Lange, included a “circle of food purveyors including a malt shop, a pizzeria, a deli, a candy store. Shops selling the ‘most delicious things in our lives”: books (“why not three ‘bookstores?), a record store, an art gallery, hardware, stationery, toys, magic. At the four corners of the block, its flagship stores would not be vast emporia but entertainment: a cinema for new releases and another for classics, a theater, a café for music.

The author was prescient as usual. In fact, Bradbury’s vision was the basis for the Glendale Galleria in California. The designer was Jon Jerde, who didn’t just want a visitor to be safely lost. He wanted her to be thrown into chaos, “confusing her senses in space, then luring her in to shop with sales, displays and signs.” Take, for example, the Fremont Street Experience in Las Vegas, Universal Studios’ CityWalk in Los Angeles, and the mother of all malls, the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota, all designed by Jerde.

And yet, despite all the spectacle, malls are in decline. Of the 2,500 malls that dotted America in the 1980s, only about 700 remain today. Nick Egelanian of SiteWorks recently told the the wall street journal he expects that number to decline to 150 by 2032. And although the decline began well before 2020 (with retail migrating to the internet), the pandemic has made conditions much worse.

Lange devotes many pages to the future of our shopping centres. In the right setting, they can be transformed into outdoor “lifestyle hubs” (ironic given that a major advantage of the mall is a weather-free environment). “Lifestyle centers are doing everything urban planners have been advocating for years to counter sprawl,” writes Andrew Blum in Slate. “Pack more into less space, combine a mix of activities and use a fine-grained street grid to create a public realm.

Lange laments, however, that this reinvention “remains a private place, owned, operated, and controlled by people more interested in the convenience of paying customers than democratic ideals.” The author would prefer future malls to cater to a locally diverse, community-oriented, even transit-oriented crowd. And if the mall is the square of our modern city, why can’t we organize protests and demonstrations? (My ideal mall would not include protesters.)

Indeed, although full of interesting facts, Meet me by the fountain compels the reader to skim through some seriously woke prose: “Built in 1968 as the Buford-Clairmont Mall, Plaza Fiesta…reborn as the Oriental Mall [sic]then, in 2000, redeveloped as a place for the area’s growing Latinx community.” (Hope none of the stores sell Orientals [sic] the rugs.)

Lange, however, answers one of my biggest questions: where have all the mall arcades gone? In the early 1980s, there were about 5,000. Lange dates back to 1977 when Nolan Bushnell first installed arcade games in his new chain of child-friendly birthday restaurants. It’s true: the Atari founder also created Chuck E. Cheese.

But as arcades grew in popularity among teenagers (think Fast times at Ridgemont High), as are concerns about juvenile delinquency, vice and safety. “The total number of security guards increased by 300% between 1969 and 1988,” Lange points out. At the same time, sales of home video game consoles were on the rise. Why spend all those quarters at an arcade when you can play for free at home? By the end of the 90s, most of these shopping arcades had disappeared (although the fashionable “barcades” had made a small comeback thanks to the nostalgic Gen Xers).

Despite the convenience of home shopping, Lange hopes our need to be around others will keep the mall alive, albeit in one form or another. “Why we went out – a movie, a sweater, a concert, boba – doesn’t matter as much as having the space in which to hang out in the comfort of strangers,” she wrote. “Shopping isn’t going anywhere, and it’s so much more fun to do it together.”

As for my ideal mall, all I want is an air-conditioned, child-safe environment with interesting stores, a multiplex, an old-fashioned arcade, and a hugely diverse food court, as well than these self-contained units for snacking in the middle of the mall.

Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside Mall Story
by Alexandra Lange
Bloomsbury, 320 pages, $28

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