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The Maul Of America

A “city within a city” it’s not

September 12, 2004 |
Great Lakes Bulletin News Service


The Mall of America calls itself “a city within a city.” But the Drew Carey Show snuggled just as close to the truth when it said heaven was “the only place other than the Mall of America that actually lives up to the hype.”

If you only have $269 for a 15-minute wedding and don’t mind renting a bridal gown on the spot then The Chapel of Love at the Mall of America is the place to tie the knot. After the first kiss, the matrimonial celebration can include strolling through any of 520 stores, dining at 50 restaurants, taking in a movie on 14 screens, or riding the roller coaster at Camp Snoopy.

The Mall of America calls itself “a city within a city.” But the Drew Carey Show snuggled just as close to the truth when it said heaven was “the only place other than the Mall of America that actually lives up to the hype.”

Indeed, the nation’s largest shopping center, which last month celebrated its 12th birthday, claims it has everything a visitor could possibly want in an urban environment. Nonsense. The mall boasts none of the real and durable civic equipment that an authentic city can offer — green spaces, outdoor cafes, bike lanes, quality jazz clubs, sporting events, or a river running through it. What the mall presents, besides The Chapel of Love, is a climate-controlled 4.2 million square-foot retail riot large enough to house 32 Boeing 747’s, and so busy that the building is now one of the top tourist attractions in the United States.

Assessment: Consumerism and Escapism
But step back and really look at this enormous building, with its skylights and carpeted halls, and crowds. There is no doubt that the Mall of America is a ready display of American culture’s addiction to consumerism and the myth that personal possessions will boost self-esteem. It’s also an outpost of a half-century of urban design predicated on the notion that America has enough room, energy, wealth, and moxie to continue building drive-up giant market places that sooner, rather than later, get thrown away. The idea has real resonance here. The nation’s first fully-enclosed shopping mall was actually built 50 years ago at the nearby Southdale Mall.

The Mall of America also represents the gradual failure of that idea. Although Southdale is still going strong, dozens of older malls across the nation have closed or are in economic trouble. Not far from the Mall of America, the 43-year-old Apache Plaza in St. Anthony Village closed earlier this year. The reason: its design, like other malls, did not provide for the flexibility to readily adjust to changing retail markets and consumer tastes.

The developers of the Mall of America tried to respond to this nagging little flaw by joining three of the top American recreational priorities of the moment — shopping, eating, and access to a well-equipped amusement park. But even amid the din of the thousands of people who visit every day, it’s easy to predict that this distinctive mix has a limited life.

The Anti-Mall: Cities are Alive
The same is not necessarily true for cities, which are experiencing an awakening in the United States. New York’s population is growing. Chicago is a showcase of cleaner and greener design principles built around providing residents more access to fresh water and the Lake Michigan shoreline. Instead of mere sources of constant stimulation, cities offer a durable setting for another human priority that is gaining favor in America: the notion of being around other people in beautiful urban places with parks, and trees, rivers, buildings, music, and art. What Americans take away from a day in the city does not just fit into a shopping bag.

The two major cities that overlook the Mall of America also are among the best places to live in the United States, in part because they possess an interesting past, a vibrant present, and a promising future. Minneapolis, and its twin brother St. Paul, offer an experience no mall can match — whether you’re interested in partying with the posh young folk in Minneapolis’ Uptown district, taking a leisurely bike ride along the Mississippi River or even attending a live broadcast of Garrison Keillor’s A Prairie Home Companion at the historic Fitzgerald Theater in St. Paul. In fact, these cities boast the most theaters per capita of anywhere in the world other than Manhattan. And that makes the Twin Cities something of a well-kept cultural secret in the Midwest.

Cities More Competitive Than Malls
Cities like Minneapolis and St. Paul also are much better positioned for the meta-economic, demographic, fiscal, and lifestyle trends that will reshape the United States in the 21st century. The American population is expected to soar to 420 million people by mid-century, according to the U.S. Census, 140 million more than today. Energy costs, led by crude oil shortages, are expected to continue climbing rapidly, putting the nation’s drive-through economy at risk. Fiscal restraints caused by voters unwillingness to invest in energy-efficient transportation — like light rail and high-speed trains — will make urban centers that already have that equipment less mired in traffic congestion, less expensive, less stressful, and more economically competitive than the grid-locked suburbs.

Perhaps that is one reason why the Mall of America attracts 37.5 million people annually. It’s a fantasy setting thoroughly disengaged from what’s coming. This monumental collection of stores, restaurants and amusements under one roof clearly represents an era’s reaching for values that appear fleeting. Though filled today, the Mall of America seems destined to be emptied sooner than its builders ever imagined. 

Jacob Wheeler, a contributor to Utne Magazine and founding editor of the Glen Arbor Sun in Leelanau County, Michigan, lives in Minneapolis. Reach him at jacobrwheeler@hotmail.com

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