The History of Malls as Sites of Racism and Surveillance

Dayton’s Department Store at Southdale, Edina, Minnesota in 1956 (courtesy Gruen Associates)

There are a handful of shopping malls from my youth that don’t look the same as they once did. In high school, I walked with friends to the Westside Pavilion to buy pins and leggings at Hot Topic then feast on Panda Express. But since then, it has shuttered and is now slated to become a Google campus. I spent weekends at the Crenshaw Mall getting my eyebrows waxed by a woman who did so quickly and efficiently, asking me how school was going. I got my second ear piercing at Claire’s next door and ordered countless burgers from Rally’s. In the early 2000s, mall renovations changed the interior into a glossier version of what I remember, including spaces for yoga classes. It’s since been sold to a developer, after the efforts of located in the Downtown Crenshaw group over the last couple of years to stop the sale to a previous developer. The list goes on.

“Meet Me at the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall” (2022) by Alexandra Lange

The mall has seen many changes and iterations as of late, but it’s helpful to know the history to understand why. Architecture critic Alexandra Lange’s Meet Me by the Fountain Examines the unfolding of the American obsession with creating the ideal shopping space, which largely hinges on the work of architect Victor Gruen starting in the 1950s.

The term “mall,” Lange explains, takes its origins from London’s Pall Mall street, a “long, linear course, really an alley, at the heart of the city” that was used to play an early version of croquet called pall-mall . Lange walks the readers through the ways in which mall layouts, building materials, parking lots, controlled temperatures, lighting, and other factors changed with the ideas of what makes a ideal shopping space — including a walking area for people exercising, or ice skating rinks — and the nostalgia that eventually tinges its evolution. (Plus, there are some fascinating detours, like the creation of Muzak and the panic over arcades). These spaces were created as a sort of alternative to the usual chaos of rapidly growing neighborhoods, particularly downtown areas.

Well-known architects have taken on malls as projects; I had no idea that Frank Gehry worked on Santa Monica Place, another of my haunts in those teenage years. In the 1940s, Architectural Forum asked architects to envision a “new master plan” for Syracuse, New York; Gruen and designer Elsie Krummeck presented their idea for “a neighborhood shopping center” but were initially met with some pushback, not uncommon for the time. Everyone from critics to people residing in these cities had an opinion on the way malls should look; yet, as the model evolved, the association of malls with innovation waned. They were seen as low-brow, simply areas for consumerism; even Gehry admitted he didn’t enjoy working on Santa Monica Place. Some developers tried to keep the word “mall” out of a shopping center’s name.

Image of Northland Mall

Lange pulls on an especially interesting thread: how malls and fine art often merged. Texas’s NorthPark center got the reputation of having a “superlative collection of art.” Developer Ray Nasher went on to build the Nasher Sculpture Center. It wasn’t until my adult years that I realized the importance of an art space in my own neighborhood mall: Samella Lewis’s Museum of African American Art at the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. Lange also reflects on the ways in which images of malls and critiques of consumption show up in the visual arts, namely the work of Barbara Kruger and photographers like Seph Lawless and Jesse Rieser.

However, the book highlights the ways in which the tensions and critiques of the shopping mall go beyond consumerism or “bad” design. Lange details how the development of malls reinforced racism and surveillance, offering an environment that initially focused on white women who were mothers. They could work the evening and weekend hours of the mall and run a variety of errands in the space, especially since malls accommodated amenities like childcare. Over time, these spaces became ways for teens to find their independence, and for groups of adults who regularly meet for exercise. Some areas found new life, like the former Highland Mall in Texas that became the Austin Community College (ACC) Highland campus.

The Paseo at the ACC Highland Campus on Monday, August 16, 2021

The mall helps us reflect on bygone days and question what might happen next. After all, we can shop on Instagram now.

“The malls that will succeed will lean in to food, to family life, to design and nature,” Lange writes in her closing thoughts on shopping’s history. “They will embrace an urbanism that may seem close to Gruen’s romanticized nineteenth-century European culture but that actually derives from the way the concept of the mall has, over the past forty years, traveled around the world and picked up some new ideas.”

Meet Me at the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall by Alexandra Lange (2022) is published by Bloomsbury Publishing and is available online and in bookstores.

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