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.
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.