Mall Culture and the American Dream: the Idealistic Past and High-End Future of Suburban Shopping Malls

How the mall helped define the landscape of California, and the country.

PUBLISHED MAR 1, 2023 4:00 P.M.
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The future of malls looks like one where the rich get richer while lower-end malls simply die out.

The future of malls looks like one where the rich get richer while lower-end malls simply die out.   Mohamed Khaled / Wikimedia Commons   C.C. Share-Alike International License

Viktor Grünbaum was a well-known figure, an architect and a passionately left-wing socialist, in the avant-garde art scene that flourished between the World Wars in Vienna. But when the Nazis came to power in Germany and proceeded to invade and annex the country of Austria in March of 1938, Grünbaum, who was Jewish, knew he had to flee. 

In that same year, Grünbaum arrived in New York City with eight bucks to his name. He spoke no English. And yet, less than two decades later, Victor Gruen (as he called himself in the United States) created what would become one of the most enduring elements, and symbols, of American postwar consumer capitalism. The shopping mall.

It was never what Gruen intended.

Gruen, in perhaps his best-known speech (given in the late 1950s), inveighed against the “avenues of horror” he saw slicing through American suburbs, “flanked by the greatest collection of vulgarity—billboards, motels, gas stations, shanties, car lots, miscellaneous industrial equipment, hot dog stands, wayside stores—ever collected by mankind.” 

His answer was—planning. Gruen decided to start from scratch, designing a new type of town center the way it should have been, at least in his view. One that wouldn’t spawn such “horrors.” In 1956, the Gruen-designed Southdale Shopping Center opened in Edina, Minnesota, a suburb of Minneapolis. A two-story structure with shops on each floor, connected by escalators, surrounding an open courtyard and all covered by a roof, the center drew almost as much awestruck national press attention as Dinseyland, which had opened in Southern California a year earlier.

Gruen saw Southdale as the center of a community, to be surrounded by a dense urban center with multi-family housing, parks, schools and even medical facilities. The mall would be what sociologists call the “third place,” neither home nor workplace, where people would meet, socialize, and offer, as Gruen himself described it, “the needed place and opportunity for participation in modern community life that the ancient Greek Agora, the Medieval Market Place and our own Town Squares provided in the past.”

Sometimes a Shopping Mall Is Just a Shopping Mall

The shopping mall would serve as the centerpiece, fulfilling the progressive democratic vision Gruen and his Viennese compatriots held between the wars. But in the end, none of that happened.

Rather than modern-day Greek Agora, the only development that surrounded the Southdale mall was a parking lot, one that included a stunning total of 5,200 spaces, making Gruen’s creation a hub for the very aspect of mid-20th-century American life that he most despised: the car culture. The shopping mall was only that—a shopping mall, albeit one that set the template for thousands more over the next several decades. Just 60 malls, none indoor, were built in the United States between 1950 and 1955. After Southdale opened, at least 240 went up by 1970. Gruen was not pleased with what he had wrought.

“I am often called the father of the shopping mall. I would like to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all,” Gruen said in 1978, two years before he died at age 76. “I refuse to pay alimony to those bastard developments. They destroyed our cities.”

What happened? How did Gruen’s grand design for a kind of democratic socialist utopia get derailed to become instead the physical manifestation of consumer capitalism’s worst impulses? 

Before Southdale, California Started Mall Culture

Four years before the Southdale mall opened its doors in Minnesota, California inaugurated its own mall culture when the Lakewood Center opened in the planned suburban community of Lakewood, just northeast of Long Beach. Lakewood was similar to the better-known East Coast planned suburb, Levittown, New York. Developers Louis Boyar, Mark Taper and Ben Weingart bought 3,375 acres of open farmland in 1949 and over the next five years built 17,500 nearly identical houses in their new Southern California suburb, selling them for about $7,500 each. That would be roughly $84,000 in 2023 cash—a pretty reasonable price in any market.

As people bought the houses nearly as fast as they went up, the same developers also built a centralized place for their new residents to spend their postwar-prosperity cash. That was Lakewood Center, at the time the largest shopping mall in the U.S., including parking for 10,000 cars. Exactly the sort of place that gave Victor Gruen nightmares.

The open-air mall’s anchor, a May department store, saw 200,000 shoppers walk through its doors in the first days it was open.

Lakewood was the fourth mall built anywhere in the U.S., and the first in California. But shopping centers—developments with multiple smaller stores cropping up around a single, large store—dated back to the 1920s and, perhaps unsurprisingly, first appeared in California. In those days the anchor store was usually a supermarket, allowing people to buy their food and groceries in a single location, and get any additional shopping done in the smaller shops nearby.

By 1960, according to figures from the Association for Consumer Research, there were 4,500 malls in the country, and by 1975 the total had grown to 16,400. One of every three dollars expended on retail shopping was spent at those shopping centers. And 12 years after that, it was one of every two dollars at 30,000 malls.

But 1975 was also the year that the Lakewood Center mall appeared to be on its last legs. It was rescued by the Macerich Company, who renovated and rebuilt the old structure, turning it into an indoor mall that remains in business today. Macerich went on to become the third largest mall operator in the country on the strength of its success in turning around the Lakewood Center.

Mall Culture in the Movies

Clearly, malls never fulfilled Victor Gruen’s dream of becoming the “town square” of American suburbia. Instead they were just another commercial extension of the great suburbanization of the mid-to-late 20th century. But for decades, they created their own culture, or at least, subculture. 

“Mall culture” was such a dominant theme of American life that it turned up in dozens of Hollywood movies, mainly from the 1980s and ‘90s— though it was 1978 when the now-classic zombie flick Dawn of the Dead used a shopping mall as its setting for depicting ravenous zombies as a metaphor for mindless consumerism. Four years later, Fast Times at Ridgemont High presented a more realistic—and optimistic—depiction of a suburban mall as a nexus of the teenage social universe, at least in Southern California. The real-life Sherman Oaks Galleria stood in for the fictional “Ridgemont Mall” in the movie.

The 1995 indie film Mallrats, by writer/director Kevin Smith, continued to glorify a mall-centered teenage life, this time on the East Coast. The New Jersey mall in the film, inspired by malls of Smith’s own youth, was actually the Eden Prairie Mall in Minnesota, which gave the production a sweet financial deal to film there. The title came from the term used to describe teenagers for whom the mall had become the center of their social existence—a phenomenon that was relatively new when Fast Times came out more than a decade earlier.

Smith later revisited the theme of mall-centrism, at least for one key scene in his 2008 movie Zack and Miri Make a Porno. Smith shot that scene in Monroeville Mall in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania—the same mall where 30 years earlier director George Romero filmed Dawn of the Dead.

Those are only a few films in which mall culture played a central role. Others include the 1989 comedy Bill and Ted’s Excellent Adventure, which offered an affectionate satire of teenage mall existence;  the 1995 teen comedy Clueless, which utilized several different Los Angeles-area malls as stand-ins for the fictional mall in the film; and even Terminator 2: Judgment Day, from 1991, in which a futuristic robot played by Arnold Schwarznegger (more than a decade before he became California’s governor) wreaks destruction on a mall identified in the movie only as “The Galleria,” but which was actually Santa Monica Place—17 years before the Frank Gehry-designed indoor mall’s major renovation as an indoor/outdoor space by Macerich, the same firm that redid the Lakewood mall. 

The Death and Rebirth of Mall Culture

In its 1986 book-length report snappily titled I'll Buy That!: 50 Small Wonders and Big Deals that Revolutionized the Lives of Consumers: a 50-year Retrospective, the Consumers Union (publishers of Consumer Reports magazine) named the shopping mall—alongside antibiotics, the birth control pill, personal computers, smoke detectors and power lawnmowers—as one of those revolutionary “wonders.”

About two decades later, in 2017, the international financial firm Credit Suisse issued a report predicting that one of every four malls then in existence would close by 2022. The firm’s prediction of a mallpocalypse was not far off the mark. According to a report by the Federal Reserve Bank of Richmond there were 1,500 malls in 2005, 1,150 in 2022. That’s a drop of about 23 percent, albeit over a 17-year, rather than a five-year, period.

What becomes of those decommissioned ghost malls? Other than becoming fodder for weirdly popular YouTube videos, that is? 

In California, legislation signed into law by Gov. Gavin Newsom in October of 2022 created a legal framework for converting closed “big box” chain stores, which are often the anchor stores in closed-down malls, into new housing. The stores, and the malls they once anchored, are located in areas zoned for business. The new legislation allows affordable housing units to be constructed in the structures that once housed Sears, Fry’s Electronics, Bed Bath and Beyond and other large chain stores.

Even before Newsom signed the new laws, several California communities were already targeting unused mall space for new housing. Marin County’s Northgate Mall is the site of a proposed 1,356-unit housing complex. San Leandro’s Bayfair Center mall was purchased by a developer looking to build 1,000 housing units there. And San Francisco’s Stonestown Galeria is set to become a whole new neighborhood, with 3,000 new homes surrounding six acres of “green” public space.

The “American Dream”

California has seen 11 closed malls, according to a report by the shopping site MallsinAmerica.com, from the Crossings at El Dorado in Placerville up north, to Murrieta Marketplace in Riverside County. But as in America in general, the future of malls appears to be a case of the rich getting richer while the middle class and poor fade away. 

According to a Washington Post report, malls that continue to thrive have spent, or are in the process of spending, millions of dollars to reinvent themselves. 

“There is an accelerating polarization between the ‘best’ and the ‘rest,’” researcher Neil Saunders of the firm GlobalData Retail told the Post. “Newer, nicer malls have become magnets for consumers, pulling them away from struggling properties."

The malls that will not only survive but succeed will do so by emphasizing the “experience” of the mall, rather than simply the available shopping—and the shopping that remains will appeal to higher-income consumers. Brands such as Nordstrom, Apple and Lululemon are set to anchor malls that feature gyms, high-end restaurants and spas, according to the Post report.

One new mall in New Jersey that opened in 2020 cost $5 billion to construct and includes—in addition to about 350 stores including ultra-high-end retailers Tiffany, Hermes and Dolce & Gabbana—a water park with an indoor wave pool, an indoor ski slope complete with snow, an NHL-regulation size ice rink, a miniature golf course, Ferris wheel and other flashy amusements. 

The name of the mall? What else? American Dream.

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