The malling of America

Old Navy and Starbucks and Jamba Juice! Oh my! Plus: Feed looks at the latest trend in computer interfaces.

Published August 13, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

During a recent visit to Phoenix, I found myself perusing the stores at Arizona Mills, an outlet mall the size of a small town plopped down in the middle of the desert. It had been a long time since I'd been to a covered mall, and I marveled at how things had changed while staying the same. Suburban sluts still sucked face with their boy toys in front of the "imports store," but the stores themselves had different names. Whither Chess King? I wondered as I weaved my way through the supersize food court and past the gazillion-screen cineplex. The arcade charged for admission and was filled with virtual-reality experiences, laser tag and all sorts of peace-dividend technology put to use entertaining youngsters. But it wasn't until I passed the Rainforest Cafe, in the ominously named Neighborhood Two (or was it Three?), that I realized the po-mo brilliance of it all: a rainforest-themed restaurant/store plopped in the middle of an air-conditioned megamall built on the desert.

Yet, for all its modern trappings, Arizona Mills reflects an outdated school of urban planning. There's no need to create insulated, faux universes -- unless, of course, it's 104 degrees outside. Minimalls are sprouting up everywhere. One day you're driving by Auntie May's antiques and oddities store and the next -- kerplunk -- an Old Navy-Starbucks-Jamba Juice-Target has landed in its place. Auntie May is in her brand-new Porsche doing donuts on the front lawn of her glam Palm Springs retirement home.

What does this mean for the rest of us? Several recent articles seek to answer this very question.

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The Stranger, Aug. 12-18

"Welcome to the Great Mall of Seattle" by Eric Frederickson

Eric Frederickson looks at recent commercial development in low-income Seattle neighborhoods and develops a larger thesis on current trends in urban planning. He decries "the replacement of town squares by malls as the primary gathering places for citizens," but struggles with the fact that economically deprived regions are being revitalized by the creation of these outdoor shopping destinations. He calls the proliferation of cookie-cutter storefronts "postmodern Potemkin villages" that hide not poverty, but malls. Frederickson's discussion of private security guards taking over public streets is chilling, and his analysis of the "disposable architecture" of commerce is the best I've read in a general interest forum.

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The Memphis Flyer, Aug. 5-11

"Strip Commercial" by Jim Hanas

Jim Hanas grounds the debate over new mall construction in Memphis in historical context. What do the malls built in the 1950s and '60s mean to the neighborhoods they are part of now? "The all-but-abandoned commercial strips ... reveal their age in ways other than vacancy and disrepair. Their storefronts sit right on the sidewalk, dating them to a time when bus lines, rather than highways, fueled the eastward suburbanizing drive," he writes. (In his Stranger article, Frederickson points to a return of sidewalk malls, but he's addressing trends in a far more cosmopolitan region.) Hanas points out many of the same issues Frederickson does, such as community activities being increasingly focused on commercial centers. His descriptions of urban ghost towns makes you imagine what Arizona Mills will look like 40 years from now. Not a pleasant thought.

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Village Voice, Aug. 11-17

"B is for Bistro" by Norah Vincent

Perhaps the finest, most balanced take on gentrification I've seen yet. Norah Vincent understands that "finding the balance between the squalor that used to be Avenue B and the circus that is now Avenue A won't be easy." Even so, she rightly denounces the wiping out of blue-collar housing and multicultural community centers, although her characterizations of so-called yuppies are as tiresome as any class-based slur. She longs for the return of bohemian culture -- like that of the beatniks -- to the area, in addition to a good racial mix, yet who does she think brought cappuccino to the 'hood in the first place?

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Metro Times Detroit, Aug. 11-17

"Outsides In" by Jerry Heron

The Natural Wonders store, which sells souvenirs that remind you of nature -- like little globe key chains, stuffed toy hummingbirds or fossils -- is coming to a mall near you. Jerry Heron discusses the disturbing irony in the popularity of this Nature Company knock-off as well as cammo-and-ammo stores like Bass Pro, which thrive where forest once stood. Heron evokes Walt Whitman and Allen Ginsberg in his humorous lament. I found myself uncontrollably humming a certain Talking Heads song.

Feed, Aug. 4

"The Year's Skin" by Steven Johnson

Interface expert Steven Johnson explores the implications of computer interfaces designed to look like their real-world equivalents. Hence virtual CD players, alarm clocks, telephones. What fascinates Johnson, in particular, is that computer interfaces have advanced so rapidly while real-world systems -- your VCR, for example -- are still damn near unworkable. Do we really want to imitate these flawed devices on our computer screens? Johnson has the rare gift of explaining the technical in layman's terms and appreciation for the aesthetic functionality in commonplace objects.

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Tucson Weekly, Aug. 12-18

"Food Chain-Gang" by Kay Sather

A whole cover story about seeds. Is it actually possible that there's nothing happening in Tucson that's more exciting than this?

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Washington City Paper, Aug. 6 - 12


There are no large statements here, just snapshots of kids in action -- at the arcade, the pool, the hospital, camp, eating pizza, working, fishing, playing. It's a unique concept, and a fine alternative to Newsweek-type doom and gloom pieces: Are your kids stupid? On drugs? Violent? Evil? I'm not sure who's having more fun here, the kids or the reporters, almost all of whom are clearly jealous of their subjects.

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New York Observer, Week of Aug. 16

"Who's Your Office Nemesis?" by Andrew Goldman

This humorous little essay points out a great truth: Nothing is more inspiring to a career than an office enemy. And yet, when you consider that hate-filled employees are barging into office buildings armed with loaded weapons and taking out everyone in sight, it's not really that funny at all.

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Boston Phoenix, Aug. 11-17

"Why People Kill People" by Jason Gay

This interesting interview with Pulitzer Prize-winning author Richard Rhodes explores one possible explanation for recent outbursts of criminal violence. Rhodes' latest book, "Why They Kill: The Discoveries of a Maverick Criminologist," profiles the life and work of criminologist Lonnie Athens. Athens and Rhodes trace criminal violence back to childhood abuse, though Rhodes concedes that the widespread availability of guns facilitates mass killings, like those that just occurred in L.A. and Atlanta.

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Orlando Weekly
"Pot Crock" by Andrea Brunais

Andrea Brunais reports on the latest weapon against marijuana, currently being proposed in Florida: a fast-growing, pot-killing fungus. Onward Christian soldiers! Fight killer weed with killer fungus now!

Uh, the fungus also kills other plants, like tomatoes, and destroys natural habitats for furry bunnies and other cute stuff. But who needs tomatoes when there are people getting stoned and watching "South Park" marathons? A little more reporting could have improved this piece significantly. But the stupidity of the proposal comes across crystal clear.

By Jenn Shreve

Jenn Shreve writes about media, technology and culture for Salon, Wired, the Industry Standard, the San Francisco Examiner and elsewhere. She lives in Oakland, Calif.

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