Nothing We Need But Everything We Want: Object Lessons' 'Shopping Mall'

Commerce and community blend together in this bittersweet reflection of suburban malls.

Shopping Mall

Publisher: Bloomsbury Academic
Price: $14.95
Author: Matthew Newton
Length: 176 pages
Format: Paperback
Publication date: 2017-09

The 35th anniversary of Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) has been cause for reflection across a wide band of commentators and critics. While there were only a handful of thinkpieces on the movie, the way the film captured a cultural moment and a place -- the mall in the early '80s -- is worthy of reflection. In a Variety article marking the anniversary, screenwriter Cameron Crowe recalls Amy Heckerling, who directed the movie, telling him how much she liked that Crowe’s book was centered around the mall. She aspired to make the mall an even more central character in the movie because it was at the center of social life for teenagers.

Matthew Newton’s Shopping Mall reflects Heckerling’s understanding through his memories of how the mall was central to his life, from childhood forward. Where Fast Times at Ridgemont High was filmed at the Sherman Oaks Galleria, also renowned for the song “Valley Girl” and the film of the same name, the inspiration for Newton’s shopping mall is the Monroeville Mall in suburban Pittsburgh, his hometown. That mall is famous in its own right, as the setting for Dawn of the Living Dead (1978), George Romero’s scathing critique of American culture and capitalism. Newton’s take on the mall, while not denying Romero’s view of shoppers as mindless zombies, focuses more on the place of shopping malls in the development of post-war suburban communities across the United States.

Newton intersperses personal narrative into a history of shopping malls and their shifting role in American life. Malls have become a favorite child of ruin porn photographers, often focusing on the bleak, empty atriums that were once home to bright, colorful displays of merchandise, advertisements, and people. Decaying, inoperative escalators are also a popular theme. The photos use a post-apocalyptic framing that imparts a feeling that some aspect of life as we know it are now dead. Newton cannot avoid engaging in the discourse of change and decay, but it's not the focus of his story.

Newton’s mother worked at Gimbels department store in the Monroeville Mall, and his cinematic descriptions of his childhood experiences there offer compelling evidence of the mall’s impact on his life: a four-year-old child, up well past his bedtime, sits in the family Plymouth Duster in the mall parking lot while his dad listens to the Pittsburgh Pirates game on the car radio and his sister roller skates in circles between the car and the employee entrance, waiting for Mom. Time at the mall was not only about waiting for Mom to finish her shift. The family spent leisure time at the mall as well. Newton writes, “Our family was happy at the mall. Part wonderland and part bazaar, it was a place that had nothing we truly needed yet everything we wanted” (28). Later, the mall became a destination for spending time with friends or daydreaming about what his adult life might look like, based on the styles, fashions, and possibilities surrounding him.

Intertwined with Newton’s personal reflections are historical snippets that create a long view of the shopping mall. Early in the book, he travels to Edina, Minnesota to visit Southdale Mall, the first fully-enclosed shopping mall in the United States. Architect Victor Gruen, who designed Southdale and pioneered the popularity of malls, had the ambition for “marrying community and commerce” (11). Newton’s trip to Southdale is the beginning of his quest to discover if Gruen’s malls were ever able to achieve this marriage, or were, as Gruen eventually saw them, more like a “‘gigantic shopping machine’ with few redeeming qualities” (15).

Newton recognizes that in the long view, commerce took precedence over community. Yet his own stories ward off the cynicism that might mark a retrospective view. His assertion is spot-on when he argues that wanting to spend time at the mall was not “necessarily enthusiasm for shopping, but for inhabiting an environment both familiar and enticing -- a place that transcended commerce and offered asylum to suburbia’s driftless youth” (82). He is among millions who found the mall to be a comfortable third place, where driftlessness could be transformed to distraction. Many readers will relate to the first glimpses of independence that Newton sampled in the mall, whether at the video game arcade, the food court, or the multiplex movie theater.

Shopping Mall is part of the Object Lessons series, a collection of compact books designed to explore the hidden lives of ordinary things. Newton succeeds in parsing out the different histories of the mall, from both personal and societal perspectives. Considering the dramatic cultural changes since the Monroeville Mall opened nearly 50 years ago, Newton notes that shopping malls have become “faded monuments to the aspirations of post-Second World War Americans” (130). The mall, like so many other taken-for-granted parts of the built environment, holds memory and nostalgia for millions of suburbanites and shoppers.

By leaving a trail of bittersweet crumbs of nostalgia, Newton spares the reader from the doom that others have cast over this cultural change. Rather than focusing on a dystopia of self-absorbed individuals doing their shopping and finding entertainment online, we are able to warmly recall the shopping mall and the lifeways in which it played a central roll, not only for consumption but also for construction of self and community.

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