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Kaid Benfield’s Blog

As we lose shopping malls, are we losing something sacred?

Kaid Benfield

Posted December 2, 2009

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The headline sounds preposterous, I know.  But it's shopping season, a ritual if ever there was one.  And Mark Dery, in a very provocative essay on dying malls published on the website Change Observer, invokes the notion in his second paragraph:

"The multi-tiered, fully enclosed mall (as opposed to the strip mall) has been the Vatican of shiny, happy consumerism since it staked its claim on the crabgrass frontier - and the public mind - in postwar America."

The idea crops up again, even more explicitly, in the 2009 documentary Malls R Us (trailer below), in which an unidentified narrator compares malls not just to Rome but also to Mecca and Jerusalem.  The reason, say the film's voices, is that malls are ceremonial centers, places one goes to find fulfillment, "to fill the void," for a "communal experience," the same reasons many go to places of worship.  That rings true, actually.

  Freehold Raceway (NJ) Mall (by: LancerE, creative commons license)  parking lot, Potomac Yards Mall (by: Mrs. Gemstone, creative commons license)

Roger Ebert reviewed the film for the Chicago Sun-Times:

"Is a shopping mall a sacred place? Not a question often asked. The provocative documentary "Malls R Us" seriously argues that malls serve similar functions today that cathedrals, temples, parliaments, arenas and town squares did in earlier times. Then the film slowly works its way around to the possibility that they may be a plague upon the Earth."

Ebert reports that Malls R Us takes us to a Montreal project determined to be "the world's first environmentally friendly mall, complete with fully stocked trout streams; [developer Robin Stahl] hopes Al Gore will visit to open it."  And, judging by Ebert's commentary, the most disturbing aspects of the film may be the effect of malls on the third world, where thousands of small shops in Delhi are being condemned while a mall goes up in a wilderness preserve, and where the mall has become "essentially the template for a city-state like Dubai."

  empty Westmount Mall, London ON (by: loozrboy, creative commons license)  empty El Con Mall (by: Frank Denardo, creative commons license)

Now, of course, the era of the large, enclosed regional shopping mall appears to be over, with far more of them dying than being built.  This perhaps gives new meaning to the already-rich symbolism in George Romero's horror classic Dawn of the Dead, in which scared citizens seek a different sort of sanctuary in the Monroeville (Pennsylvania) Mall as zombies enter and roam as much in search of something to do as someone to eat. 

There is also now a web site,, on which you can learn all about these changes taking place in "retail history!" and even purchase "dead malls merchandise."

Dery's essay, which is really very good, is more thoughtful.  Here's a particularly good paragraph:

"The extreme turbulence that hit the American economy in 2008 offers a rare window of opportunity to hit the re-set button on consumer culture as we know it - to re-tool market capitalism along greener, more socially conscious and, crucially, more profoundly satisfying lines. Because an age of repurposing, recycling and retrofitting needn't be a Beige New World of Soviet-style austerity measures. On the contrary, while we'll likely have far fewer status totems in the near future, the quality of our experiential lives could be far richer in diversity, if we muster the political will to make them so. "The most important fact about our shopping malls," the social scientist Henry Fairlie told The Week magazine, "is that we do not need most of what they sell." Animated by the requisite "sense of public purpose," the post-mall, post-sprawl suburbs could be exuberantly heterogeneous Places That Do Not Suck, Rue de la Confederation, Geneva (by: Edwin Lee, creative commons license)where food is grown closer to home, cottage industries are the norm and the nowheresville of chain restaurants and big-box retailers and megamalls has given way to local cuisines, one-of-a-kind shops and walkable communities with a sense of place and social cohesion."

That's something to aim for, although it's also a lot to expect.  I like some shopping just fine, thanks very much, and don't mind the insides of some malls, though even the best ones can be disorienting, way too similar from one to another, and the ugliness and havoc they and their seas of parking lots impose on the landscape is godawful.  Real city shopping streets (see photo above of one of my favorites, in Geneva) provide better experiences for both people and the environment.  And, I would argue, just as much communal ritual, if that's what we're sometimes after.

Here's the trailer for Malls R Us:


Kaid Benfield writes (almost) daily about community, development, and the environment.  For more posts, see his blog's home page.


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Samir SuccarDec 2 2009 10:21 AM

"shopping to fill the void"? are you sure this trailer wasn't put together by the onion? as comedy, its genius (not unlike the gazprom song on youtube). i had no idea malls were in such peril - i'm elated!

Aaron M. RennDec 2 2009 03:13 PM

I've made this argument before. We are "retrofitting" suburbs and engaging in destructive redevelopment just as enthusiastically as we did back in the urban renewal days. Back then, it was the traditional urban form that was deemed obsolete. More old buildings were being torn down than built. It proved to be a horrific mistake.

I don't think we should be so arrogant as to believe that we are so much wiser than generations past. In our zeal for urbanization, we need to be careful that we don't end up destroying a bit of our heritage in the process.

It is difficult to imagine malls as worth saving today. But it isn't hard to imagine a day when most old school enclosed malls get scraped or completely redeveloped. This could end up being a loss of a landmark architectural form, and also a locus of community identity as you note.

I addressed the topic in more depth here: Review: Retrofitting Suburbia

The Dery article was very interesting. Thanks for posting.

June WilliamsonDec 6 2009 12:46 AM


Another great web source for mall history is the Labelscar blog:
The guys who write it are dedicated to documenting this disappearing feature of the over-retailed suburban landscape. (Though many regional malls are thriving and are expected to survive, undergoing the usual cycle of facelifts and expansions.)

As a co-author of the book "Retrofitting Suburbia" I am intensely curious to track the fates of the current crop of dead and dying malls, which I expect to vary based on potential for connectivity in the immediate context, location in the region, access to transit, local political leadership, ownership structure, and other factors. Malls may function in part as communal gathering spaces, but they remain large, privately-owned, single-use, commercial properties. As such, they are a challenge to re-use, let alone preserve or restore, when their economic viability fades.

Kaid @ NRDCDec 6 2009 01:02 PM

I couldn't agree more, June.

Jessica DinesDec 10 2009 03:15 PM

I can't wait to see this documentary. Phoenix Art Museum is hosting a free screening of Malls R Us in February as part of it's museum events.

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