Watch Mall City, the Original Gonzo Documentary That Captures the Height of Shopping-Mall Culture (1983)

No Amer­i­can who came of age in the nine­teen-eight­ies — or in most of the sev­en­ties or nineties, for that mat­ter — could pre­tend not to under­stand the impor­tance of the mall. Edi­na, Min­neso­ta’s South­dale Cen­ter, which defined the mod­ern shop­ping mal­l’s enclosed, depart­ment store-anchored form, opened in 1956. Over the decades that fol­lowed, liv­ing pat­terns sub­ur­ban­ized and devel­op­ers respond­ed by plung­ing into a long and prof­itable orgy of mall-build­ing, with the result that gen­er­a­tions of ado­les­cents lived in rea­son­ably easy reach of such a com­mer­cial insti­tu­tion. Some came to shop and oth­ers came to work, but if Hugh Kin­niburgh’s doc­u­men­tary Mall City is to be believed, most came just to “hang out.”

Intro­duced as “A SAFARI TO STUDY MALL CULTURE,” Mall City con­sists of inter­views con­duct­ed by Kin­niburgh and his NYU Film School col­lab­o­ra­tors dur­ing one day in 1983 at the Roo­sevelt Field Mall on Long Island. Unsur­pris­ing­ly, their inter­vie­wees tend to be young, stren­u­ous­ly coiffed, and dressed with stud­ied non­cha­lance in striped T‑shirts and Mem­bers Only-style wind­break­ers.

A trip to the mall could offer them a chance to expand their wardrobe, or at the very least to cal­i­brate their fash­ion sense. You go to the mall, says one styl­ish young lady, “to see what’s in, what’s out,” and thus to devel­op your own style. “You look for ideas,” as the inter­view­er sum­ma­rizes it, “and then recom­bine them in your own way, try to be orig­i­nal.”

One part of the val­ue propo­si­tion of the mall was its shops; anoth­er, larg­er part was the pres­ence of so many oth­er mem­bers of your demo­graph­ic. In explain­ing why they come to the mall, some teenagers dis­sim­u­late less than oth­ers: “It’s like, where the cool peo­ple are at,” says one girl, with notable forth­right­ness. “You’re fakin’ this all. I mean, you’re just tryin’ to meet peo­ple.” Kin­niburgh and his crew chat with a group of bare­ly ado­les­cent-look­ing boys — each and every one smok­ing a cig­a­rette — about what encoun­ter­ing girls has to do with the time they spend hang­ing out at the mall. One answers with­out hes­i­ta­tion: “That’s the main rea­son.” (Yet these labors seem often to have borne bit­ter fruit: as one for­mer employ­ee and cur­rent hang­er-out puts it, “Mall rela­tion­ships don’t last.”)

Opened just two months after South­dale Cen­ter, Roo­sevelt Field is actu­al­ly one of Amer­i­ca’s most ven­er­a­ble shop­ping malls. (It also pos­sess­es unusu­al archi­tec­tur­al cred­i­bil­i­ty, hav­ing been designed by none oth­er than I. M. Pei.) By all appear­ances, it also man­aged to recon­sti­tute cer­tain func­tions of a gen­uine urban social space — or at least it did forty years ago, at the height of “mall cul­ture.” Asked for his thoughts on that phe­nom­e­non, one post-hip­pie type describes it as “prob­a­bly the wave of the future. Maybe the end of the future, the way things are going.” Here in that future, we speak of shop­ping malls as decrepit, even van­ish­ing relics of a lost era, one with its own pri­or­i­ties, its own folk­ways, even its own accents. Could such a vari­ety of pro­nun­ci­a­tions of the very word “mall” still be heard on Long Island? Clear­ly, fur­ther field­work is required.

Relat­ed con­tent:

Col­or Footage of America’s First Shop­ping Mall Open­ing in 1956: The Birth of a Beloved and Reviled Insti­tu­tion

Feel Strange­ly Nos­tal­gic as You Hear Clas­sic Songs Reworked to Sound as If They’re Play­ing in an Emp­ty Shop­ping Mall: David Bowie, Toto, Ah-ha & More

Watch Heavy Met­al Park­ing Lot, the Cult Clas­sic Film That Ranks as One of the “Great Rock Doc­u­men­taries” of All Time

Punks, Goths, and Mods on TV (1983)

Atten­tion K‑Mart Shop­pers: Hear 90 Hours of Back­ground Music & Ads from the Retail Giant’s 1980s and 90s Hey­day

The Walk­man Turns 40: See Every Gen­er­a­tion of Sony’s Icon­ic Per­son­al Stereo in One Minute

Based in Seoul, Col­in Marshall writes and broad­casts on cities, lan­guage, and cul­ture. His projects include the Sub­stack newslet­ter Books on Cities, the book The State­less City: a Walk through 21st-Cen­tu­ry Los Ange­les and the video series The City in Cin­e­ma. Fol­low him on Twit­ter at @colinmarshall or on Face­book.

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