THE COLLEGE HILL INDEPENDENT


Lost in the Mall

On the writer’s residency at the Mall of America

by Signe Swanson & Will Weatherly

Illustration by Isabelle Rea

published April 14, 2017


content warning: anti-Black policing

 

 

“You'll need the tools for survival / And the medicine for the blues / Sweet treats and surprises / For the little buckaroos / It's last call / To do your shopping / At the Last Mall...

—Steely Dan, “The Last Mall,” 2003

 

After returning from the Mall of America (MOA) in Bloomington, MN, with a soft pretzel and a field report, these two writers are sorry to disclose our main conclusion, which is that the MOA is actually very boring. If we were to say this about any other mall, it wouldn’t come as much of a surprise. Part of the point of malls is that they’re identical—shoppers nationwide can ride up to a concrete structure named a Place or a Towne Centre and, without fail, find some approximation of a JC Penney or some ghost of a Chick-fil-a. Joan Didion, in her 1975 essay “On the Mall,” wrote that malls are “profound equalizers, the perfect fusion of the profit motive and the egalitarian ideal.” Driving through communities paved over by parking lots and commercial development to buy a $6 Orange Julius may sound like a weird path to take towards equality—especially for those suburbanites who can’t afford egregious fruit smoothies or luxury goods. There is, at least, an entire body of ‘shopping center theory’ ensuring that while every shopper does not buy exactly the same goods, they’re being manipulated in exactly the same way. It’s why stores in malls often have very few windows—shoppers can’t tell when the sun goes down. 

When we pulled into the green spray-painted ‘California’ level of the MOA parking lot, however, we couldn’t suppress the hope that this “perfect fusion” would be, somehow, more perfect. We realized that apart from its nationalist moniker, the only thing that set the MOA apart in our heads from other malls was the sheer amount of spending opportunity it housed in a single building. At 4.87 million square feet, the MOA could fit 32 Boeing 747s. Or 258 Statues of Liberty. The Superman building 11 times over. We heard that it had one of the world’s largest mirror mazes, an entire Nickelodeon-sponsored amusement park with a full-size roller coaster and water flume, a 1.2 million gallon aquarium, and 520 stores. We discovered that the mall map included an attraction called SMAAASH, and after scrutinizing its front window up on the fourth floor, surmised that it might be something like bumper carts. 

And yet, none of these features are that special on their own. The point of the MOA is that shoppers can experience everything at once, even if they can also experience everything anywhere else. As we began to suspect, the problem with putting a theme park next to an H&M in one shiny place is that it leaves nothing untouched by the rest: no cheese samples without the smell from the perfume counter, no Victoria’s Secret without Dora waiting outside. 

Late this past February, the MOA announced that it was adding one more thing to its land of everything: a five-day writer-in-residence program “to capture how much [the Mall has] evolved” in celebration of its 25th birthday this year. Mall officials encouraged applicants to submit 150-word pitches for how they would become “deeply immersed in the Mall atmosphere while writing on-the-fly impressions in their own words.”  The winner will receive a $2,500 as “a generous honorarium for the sweat and tears they’ll put into their prose,” as well as a $400 gift card for food-court food and drink during the four nights they’ll be staying in an attached hotel. During their stay, the writer will also be required to spend at least four hours a day at a workspace in a “common area” of the mall, writing a daily minimum of 150 words which will be displayed on a monitor in “almost real-time.” Almost real-time—because the writing will be read by the Mall’s Marketing representative to ensure it comports with the “Mall of America’s desired presentation of the Mall or the patrons.” When they’re not writing what is essentially ad copy, writers are invited to take breaks at the food court for inspiration.

As we charged our phones and drank the free water at Shake Shack, we were hard-pressed to find inspiration. The more we got lost in an endless series of glassy halls, or escalators conveying us to more escalators, the more lost we felt in our attempt to conceive of a writer who could produce anything at all in the MOA. Not that a writer wouldn’t want to take the opportunity—$2,500 is not shabby for 150 words daily over five days, especially when the average rate for most freelance writers ranges anywhere from $0.10 to $1 per word. But even with the “generous honorarium,” we don’t envy the writer tasked with selling a literary vision to shoppers and an untroubled depiction to the Marketing representative, all posted on a monitor between signs for Nickelodeon Universe and the Peeps store. 

 

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Even if its physical ruins are oppressively banal, the history of American malls follows a literary arc: they began with naïve hope, only to fall victim to corruption and folly, emanating tragedy with their decline. In their origin is also a profound irony. The pioneer of the modern American mall, a Viennese émigré and architect named Victor Gruen, was a socialist who saw his idea of the mall as a kind of agora (the classical Greek square and community center) for the rapidly growing suburbs of the ’40s and ’50s. He saw the growing sprawl as a largely uniform, cultureless place, and envisioned the mall as offering an opportunity for mixed-use development—malls could include auditoriums, post offices, and shops, all while maximizing its efficient use of space and reducing wasteful commutes to urban centers. On breaking ground on his first mall, the Northdale shopping center outside of Detroit, Gruen raved to his partner, “My god but we’ve got a lot of nerve.”

Gruen’s invention quickly surpassed even his ambition, initially due to the fact that he was exactly right: growing suburban masses vastly preferred local shopping centers to traveling downtown. This was, superficially, a matter of convenience, but the migration to the suburbs was in fact driven by urban white populations' fearful run from new desegregation reforms, as well as coordinated efforts to re-segregate and neglect Black urban communities using postwar civic planning and expansion. New highways, cordoning off underserved Black neighborhoods within industrial corridors, ran to shopping centers that only suburbanites had the boomtime spending power to afford. By the time the MOA was built in 1992, I-94 had already selectively ripped through Rondo, Minneapolis’s predominantly Black neighborhood. Underserved portions of the city were repeatedly left out of Minneapolis’ developing light rail system, which now has a line straight to the MOA.

The new shopping centers were incredibly lucrative, and not only because of the racist privileging of the suburban economy. In 1954, Congress broadened a tax loophole allowing for mall investors to set aside massive amounts of untaxed income for ‘depreciation’ funds—money allocated for wear-and-tear, no matter how much wear-and-tear actually occurred. Developers rushed to build malls regardless of demand, creating countless sources for ‘depreciation’ revenue, but because these developers forwent costly upkeep or renovation, these structures actually began to depreciate.

At their peak in the late ’70s, Didion called these malls “cities in which no one lives but everyone consumes.” Gruen’s dream of mixed-use development had crumbled under redundant mall construction, producing more parking lots and surrounding strip-malls than culturally-invested communities. The development of big box stores in the ’80s, the shrinking middle class in the ’90s, and increased online shopping after the turn of the century drove away mall shoppers and, slowly, the developers who chased them. Mall renovation stopped, infrastructure degraded, and shopspace vacancies skyrocketed. Between 2007 and 2009, 400 of America’s 2,000 biggest malls closed; no new enclosed malls have been built since 2006.

 

Towards the end of his life, Gruen mourned and repented the destructive ends to his idealism. “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments,” he said in 1978 before leaving the US for his native Vienna. When he returned, he found a mall just south of the city, putting local merchants out of business like a “gigantic shopping machine.”

 

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The MOA’s profits as a tourist attraction far surpass the revenue of its dying kin; it generates almost $2 billion annually for the state of Minnesota. The narrative of the MOA, which a writer-in-residence would necessarily “celebrate,” is an exceptional story, a gargantuan economic success emerging from the failed model of the suburban mall. But celebrating this story would also neglect the ways the MOA and the surrounding Minneapolis metropolitan area ignores (and engenders) the economic, police-sanctioned violence which coincides with post-mall urbanity.

The city’s online branding, as seen on the travel website minneapolis.org, glosses over how systemic racism factors into the city’s advertised identity. Aside from several flashy portals calling tourists to the mall, the website features a neighborhood guide touting the city’s most upscale, whitest neighborhoods, along with a smattering of invitations to explore the city’s more ‘diverse’ corridors. The Twin Cities invent themselves as an oasis of culture pasted over Middle America—the New York Times guide to spending “36 Hours in Minneapolis” lauds its ‘urban edginess, cultural authenticity… its affordability and a high rate of employment that make the city a magnet for millennials.”  

Such a focus on Minneapolis’s whitewashed “urban edginess” erases its ongoing violence against its communities of color. In November of 2015, Minneapolis police fatally shot Jamar Clark, an unarmed Black man officers attacked while responding to an assault report. In response, Black Lives Matter Minneapolis organized, among other protests, an action at the Mall of America. The action immediately faced violent opposition; as many as 200 police officers, 50 of whom wore riot gear, prevented protesters from entering the mall’s main rotunda. Like business associations in Seattle and Chicago, who pushed authorities to halt BLM protests disrupting access to their stores during that same month, the mall assertively positioned commerce over Black lives—the mall, as ‘private property,’ in the words of the Mall of America’s attorney, Susan Gaertner, “has a right to prohibit demonstrations on its property.” Four people were arrested during the protest.

Staging the protest at such a gargantuan “public” site gave BLM visibility in an seemingly apolitical setting—the action was nowhere near a state house or city hall. The MOA protest recalls the tactic of BLM’s Black Friday boycott, as it took place during the holiday shopping season. Organizers framed the protest as Black Xmas, “a day of action to reject the degradation of Black families and communities by police, politicians, and predatory companies, and declare our inherent worth.” Activists’ actions at the MOA was twofold; showing that the mall is more than just a site large enough to garner national attention—it is also a site where the Black body is targeted, and where Black voices are silenced.

Part of the MOA’s mechanism for its selective policing of shoppers is its own private police force and a counterterrorism unit. In 2007, a Black man named Bobbie Allen headed to the mall for lunch with a friend. As he waited for her, he passed time by writing in his notebook. According to the mall’s ‘suspicious activity reports’ later obtained by the Center for Investigative Reporting, the police noted how “before the male would write in his notebook, it appeared as though he would look at his watch.” Trying to poke holes in his story, they interrogated trivialities like his favorite coffee and where he was going to get lunch. “Periodically, the male would briefly look up from his notebook, look around, and then continue writing,” the police report continued.

If the mall so recently profiled a Black man for writing in a notebook, what does it seek from its writer-in-residence doing the same behind the glass walls of a kiosk? If a Black man can’t spend an hour eating lunch, who does the MOA want to spend five days there, writing prose for a monitor in a “common area” of the mall? 

    

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“I want to write about what it’s like to never leave the Mall of America,” began Daily Show writer Matt Negrin in his application to the MOA residency. “The residency is an opportunity to turn America’s largest commercial property into an actual residence, a residence shared with a half-million people over four days.” His point oddly captures writer-residency programs’ emphasis on the relationship between the living conditions of writers and their craft. But malls have made vast swaths of land practically unlivable, and the MOA has ensured that Minneapolis’s most policed residents continue to be surveilled in its stores and food courts. The worst parts of the city are in the mall, and the mall propagates the worst parts of the city; even if you take the light-rail out, it’s hard to tell when you leave the Mall of America.  

 

A writer who never leaves the mall would perhaps be tempted to fictionalize their conundrum, maybe by penning a short story about a wayward librarian who gets locked overnight in a two-story Barnes & Nobles, or about a spindly goth tween who learns the value of friendship at Auntie Anne’s. In framing its residency as a “celebration,” or, more implicitly, a 25th birthday gift, the mall suggests an interest in featuring writers who ‘get’ the mall’s self-chosen character—in the same way that the city of Minneapolis brands itself as ‘urbane.’ By prompting “on-the-fly impressions,” the residency application treats the mall more as a backdrop than a space for formal experimentation. A Slate article advertising the residency to readers suggests a number of potential pieces, like “a true-crime narrative about a visit to a Piercing Pagoda gone very wrong,” or “a novella concerned with the lives and loves of the staff and regulars at one Rainforest Café over the course of a year.” The mall promises unlimited Pepsi refills to a temp-agent lounge singer of a writer, who will write it a homemade birthday card called prose. 

If the MOA really wanted a writer “to capture how much the mall has evolved,” it would allow the writer to tell the story of the MOA as an actor in a wider narrative. They might tell visitors about its origins in myth, a story Gruen started and disavowed before its gargantuan climax in megamalls like the MOA. Or they might begin to amplify the narratives the MOA has worked to suppress from within its own walls. What they will have to write will be the mall’s “desired presentation”—not a depiction of what the mall sells, but the continuation of the mall selling itself, a trap of mall-logic with no clear path out to the California parking lot.

 

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It remains to be seen whether the MOA, in ignoring the shambles of its fellow shopping centers, is hovering just above a state of denial. It continues to grow with new attractions, including one of its most recent rides, FlyOver America, where visitors sit in seats that tilt as they virtually soar through pristine farmland and canyons with no sprawls in sight. Tickets are $17 for 30 minutes of airtime—a half-hour of forgetting you’re in a mall. One writer, however, will have no such luxury, stuck between the desk and the food court, recording it all in (almost) real-time.

    

SIGNE SWANSON & WILL WEATHERLY B’19 forgot where they left their car.