The Critical 'I'

Read. React. Repeat.

Sunday, November 16, 2003

What are the roles of shopping malls in modern America? The short answer is that they're simply retail zones chock full of stores. The more complete answer is that they're social interaction centers, where people congregate out of lack of satisfactory alternatives. You can call them "third places", "lifestyle centers", "commercial spaces"--the upshot is, malls, by their very existence, generate a social and economic dynamic that's hard to ignore.

This view, of course, seems to fly in the face of the fairly recent news that suggests malls are dying out, much to my surprise. I guess you could apply the characteristics of a traditional mall--a fairly tight, enclosed cluster of retail establishments--to the newer supercenters from Wal-Mart and Target. These supercenters, while having their own dedicated parking areas and commercial space, are often grouped in the same general districts by design, so you could argue that there's still a mall-like environment there--only more spread-out.

A number of examples come to mind regarding the mall as a social space: Pop princess Tiffany starting her career in the late '80s by doing a mall concert tour (to much derision, although it appears she may have been ahead of her time); a recent flashmob gathering in a Tampa mall (which I berated the organizer over in an email--I cannot think of anything lamer than gathering in a freakin' mall, for no better reason than to antagonize the security guards); various political protests that target malls, where the action is (as referenced in Glenn Harlan Reynolds' article above).