POINTS OF DE­PAR­TURE

How the lo­cal mall has evolved as a re­tail des­ti­na­tion, com­mu­nity hub, and the un­likely sym­bol of our eco­nomic fu­ture

Sharp - - CONTENTS - By Kamal Al-so­laylee

How the hum­ble mall has evolved over time — both as a place of com­merce and as a cul­tural sym­bol.

THE FIRST WHIFF OF AIR FRESH­ENER AT THE AL­WAYS-HEAV­ING IFC Mall in Hong Kong sends me to a serene place. I don’t know what brand the mall uses; it’s cer­tainly not the $6.99 va­ri­ety I buy from my lo­cal drug­store. But the scent tells me that, as long as I’m on the premises, the world is a more en­chant­ing, calm space, even if I’m sur­rounded by hun­dreds of shop­pers. This mall rep­re­sents more than just com­merce; it’s a gate­way into the city it­self. IFC houses enough restau­rants, cof­fee shops, and quiet places for peo­ple like me who en­joy the glam­our of malls but don’t feel like ac­cu­mu­lat­ing bal­ances on their credit cards with each visit to get it. It con­nects to the busi­ness heart­land through bridges and un­der­ground tun­nels; it sits on top of the train sta­tion that trans­ports trav­ellers to the city’s in­ter­na­tional air­port in 24 min­utes; and, with its lo­ca­tion on the edge of the Vic­to­ria Har­bour, feeds di­rectly into the net­work of fer­ries that link Hong Kong to other out­ly­ing is­lands.

Com­pare this ex­pe­ri­ence with your av­er­age — usu­ally sub­ur­ban — North Amer­i­can shop­ping com­plex. Much like air­ports, malls have de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing, at best, a chore and, at worst, an en­durance test. Dur­ing the hol­i­days, the lo­cal news is lit­tered with sto­ries of har­ried last-minute shop­pers and park­ing lots where fights over spa­ces erupt on a dime. How did some­thing so em­blem­atic of Amer­i­can post-wwii pros­per­ity and chutz­pah be­come such a po­tent sym­bol of the coun­try’s de­cline and a shift in eco­nomic power to Asia?

The an­swer may be as sim­ple as malls los­ing track of their orig­i­nal mis­sion. In­door malls were first con­ceived not as show­cases of wealth but as com­mu­nity hubs where, one study sug­gests, “peo­ple would con­verge for shop­ping, cul­tural ac­tiv­ity, and so­cial in­ter­ac­tion.”

While the United States has ev­ery right to claim the mall as one of its own in­ven­tions, it was the West Ed­mon­ton Mall in Al­berta (which opened in 1981) that cap­tured both the su­per-siz­ing of the shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ence with its 800

stores and the ex­pe­ri­en­tial el­e­ment of a des­ti­na­tion. It fea­tured a ho­tel, a park, a minia­ture golf course, and a church; the lat­ter a clear sign that in the he­do­nis­tic ’80s, places of wor­ship couldn’t beat malls, so they joined them.

The av­er­age big-city mall, how­ever, fol­lowed the clas­sic dumbbell de­sign, with two ma­jor de­part­ment stores an­chor­ing the ends and a row of stores fac­ing each other along an atrium. Food courts were rel­e­gated to the sub­ter­ranean lev­els and leased to chains, as if to ban­ish the un­sightly act of eat­ing from the more no­ble pur­suit of hand­bags. This left lit­tle to no space for com­mu­nal ac­tiv­i­ties or aes­thetic ex­plo­ration of the space. The model re­mained suc­cess­ful un­til the sec­ond half of the 1990s ush­ered in the era of on­line shop­ping.

As these changes rav­aged North Amer­i­can malls, their coun­ter­parts in Asia and in such oil-rich Gulf states as Qatar and the United Arab Emi­rates re­tained their orig­i­nal so­cial man­dates and evolved into grand ex­pe­ri­ences. In Bangkok, Kuala Lumpur, Manila, or Dubai, friends and gen­er­a­tions of fam­i­lies meet af­ter work at the mall for cof­fee, a meal, or some as­pi­ra­tional win­dow-shop­ping — and some­times just for a shel­ter from the op­pres­sive heat. Eat­ing op­tions in most malls range from food-court fare to restau­rants where reser­va­tions are highly rec­om­mended.

Don’t get me wrong: con­sumerism is still part of the mall ex­pe­ri­ence there. But the act of buy­ing and sell­ing goods is bet­ter un­der­stood in a global con­text in which boom­ing Asian economies are cre­at­ing a health­ier, bet­ter ed­u­cated and more pros­per­ous pop­u­la­tion with, for the first time in mod­ern his­tory, a large enough dis­pos­able in­come to en­joy the stores within.

Mean­while, as the mid­dle class gets more squeezed in Canada and the United States, two types of shop­ping ex­pe­ri­ences have flour­ished: the big box and deeply dis­counted stores (Costco and Wal­mart) on one end and lux­ury brands on the other. Iron­i­cally, it’s the high end that is sav­ing the mall, even as this up­mar­ket/ down-mar­ket shop­ping ecol­ogy re­veals the bi­fur­cated na­ture of our com­mu­ni­ties.

Here, Toronto is at the fore­front of an in­ter­est­ing trend. Some of the city’s most up­scale malls are more suc­cess­ful than oth­ers in rein­vent­ing them­selves as des­ti­na­tions for shop­ping and as so­cial spa­ces. At the Ea­ton Cen­tre, for ex­am­ple, lux­ury stores (Nord­strom) and fast-fash­ion out­lets (Uniqlo) share walls and shop­pers, and bet­ter din­ing op­tions are pop­ping up. Com­mon spa­ces are be­ing re­mod­elled. High­brow art is be­com­ing a fix­ture; as part of a re­cent ren­o­va­tion to Sher­way Gar­dens, Cadil­lac Fairview com­mis­sioned artist John Mcewen to de­sign shim­mer­ing steel stal­lion sculp­tures that wouldn’t look out of place in a gallery.

Of course, this plays into the mixed mes­sages we in North Amer­ica have been send­ing about con­sumerism. As a Guardian ar­ti­cle re­cently re­minded me, when peo­ple say that they spend their money on “ex­pe­ri­ences” and not on ac­cu­mu­lat­ing “stuff,” they’re play­ing a game. Un­less the air­line, hospi­tal­ity, and ho­tel in­dus­tries are in the busi­ness of giv­ing away their ser­vices these days, we still buy re­turn tick­ets, in­dulge in eat­ing out, and rent places to sleep ev­ery time we go for that ex­pe­ri­ence fac­tor. Even when we bring home a mask from a vil­lage in Malawi or some loose-leaf Dar­jeel­ing tea from a street mar­ket in In­dia, we’re con­sum­ing prod­ucts that we later sen­ti­men­tal­ize into life-en­hanc­ing mem­o­ries. There’s also some­thing elit­ist in that trend as trav­ellers, for ex­am­ple, talk about ex­pe­ri­ences that can’t be repli­cated or shared with oth­ers — though of course they can.

At their best, malls of­fer a safe and egal­i­tar­ian space for as­pi­ra­tional com­merce. Whether you’re the CEO of a For­tune 500 com­pany or its night se­cu­rity guard, chances are your paths have crossed in the tra­di­tional mall. What each bought was and al­ways will be a dif­fer­ent story — be­cause it’s not the mall it­self but what we do within its walls that gives every­one a true pur­chase on their cities.

“Malls have de­vel­oped a rep­u­ta­tion for be­ing an en­durance test. Fights over park­ing spa­ces erupt on a dime. How did some­thing em­blem­atic of Amer­i­can pros­per­ity be­come rep­re­sen­ta­tive of the coun­try’s de­cline?”

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