This article, which originally appeared on Bullett Media, is by writer Matthew Newton. Newton has written for The Atlantic, Esquire, Forbes, and Guernica, and is currently at work on No Place for Disgrace, a collection of nonfiction stories based on the faded promise of the American suburbs. You can follow him on Twitter @newtonmatthew.
In November of 1977, filmmaker George A. Romero arrived with cast and crew at Monroeville Mall, a sprawling indoor shopping center located in the suburbs east of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. The young director, who by that time had established himself as a pioneer in the horror genre, was set to start production on his latest film, Dawn of the Dead, a sequel to his 1968 cult classic Night of the Living Dead. Once again Romero’s slow-shuffling ghouls — starved as always for brains and entrails, meaty thigh bones and plump jugulars — would be unleashed on bumbling humans ill-prepared for a world gone rotten.
This time around, however, Romero, who in Night of the Living Dead touched on issues of race in the civil-rights era, had plans to skewer a new social dilemma: the rise of the American consumer. And to properly lampoon the nation’s burgeoning shop-till-you-drop culture, Romero needed the ideal backdrop.
Read more of Matthew Newton’s take on the immortality of the shopping mall, after the break…
“Right then it was just really the beginning of that mall culture where you went there and you hung out all day,” Romero said in a 1997 interview with the BBC. “My impression of walking through there, going through this sort of ritualistic, unnatural, consuming experience, was that we really do become zombies in here. And the way the music was lulling … everything about it was just so hypnotic. It seemed like nothing was real in there.”
The hypnotic experience that Romero observed when he first visited Monroeville Mall is one that’s now ingrained in the American psyche. But as the cultural and economic prominence of the shopping mall has declined over the last two decades — only one new mall has been built since 2006, City Creek Center in Salt Lake City — our collective infatuation still lingers.
A key example of this infatuation is evidenced in the public’s recent excitement over the work of photographer and filmmaker Michael Galinsky. In 1989, a 20-year-old Galinsky traveled across the country photographing malls and the people inside. Starting with the Smith Haven Mall in Garden City Long Island, he photographed malls from North Carolina to South Dakota, Washington State and beyond. The resulting photographs offer a time capsule of not only American culture, but an unflinching document of the American shopping mall in its prime. After the images were relegated to storage for nearly 20 years, Galinsky scanned and published a selection of the photographs online in 2011. The response, he says, was “wildly viral.”
“It was a time and place that people had forgotten about because it had gone so undocumented,” says Galinsky, whose forthcoming book, Malls Across America (Steidl), collects the photographs in a single volume. “I was interested in how malls were kind of becoming the new town square. As such, the images are as much about the people as the way that people interact in the spaces.”
For the people who frequent shopping malls, the oddly euphoric rush they experience upon visiting is often triggered by a mixture of familiar sights, sounds, and smells. Among architects and urban planners, this sensation is sometimes referred to as the Gruen Effect, named after Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen, the man credited with pioneering the modern American shopping mall. First developed in 1956 with the construction of Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota, Gruen’s concept was simple yet innovative. By taking the idea of a traditional outdoor shopping center and enclosing it to protect against the elements, he created a climate-controlled pleasuredome — or an environment of “eternal spring” as it was described in a press release at the time.
Since then, generations have come to know the shopping mall through personal, often highly emotionalized transactions — from small children who play in the wide-open atriums to teenage boys fawning over girls in the food court; adults who seek refuge from the summer heat to retirees in search of early morning exercise. And though the American shopping mall never became the vibrant town center that Gruen envisioned — a suburban hub of retail, medical, residential, and recreational facilities — the institution itself has come to transcend the mere act of shopping.
“[Our] experiences take the built environment of a mall and add meaning to it,” says Ross Schendel, a retail historian and co-founder of Labelscar.com. “They create memories because people are socializing and having these experiences together. When malls replaced downtowns in the mid-20th century, they became the de facto gathering place for those living in suburbs, and created these collective experiences and fond memories we have.”
In Gruen’s estimation, however, his concept failed. Even though malls eventually became a makeshift social hub in the American suburbs, this less-than-perfect realization of the concept strayed too far from the Viennese architect’s original vision.
In “The Terrazzo Jungle,” Malcolm Gladwell’s 2004 New Yorker article observing the 50-year anniversary of the mall, Gruen’s disappointment is laid bare. “[Late in life,] he revisited one of his old shopping centers, and saw all the sprawling development around it, and pronounced himself in ‘severe emotional shock,’” writes Gladwell. “Malls, he said, had been disfigured by ‘the ugliness and discomfort of the land-wasting seas of parking’ around them. Developers were interested only in profit. ‘I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments,’ he said in a speech in London, in 1978.”
Gruen’s vocal opposition to what malls had become offers a fairly damning commentary on their place in American society today. And it’s worth noting, at least for the sake of synchronicity, that the Viennese architect publicly disowned his creation the same year that Romero’s Dawn of the Dead was released. Perhaps that’s because Gruen not only realized that his shopping mall concept had failed to spur the thriving suburban core he envisioned, but that its sustainability for the long term may not have been feasible.
In the 35 years since the release of Romero’s seminal film, the shopping mall has, in many ways, become a faded monument to the aspirations of post-World War II Americans. Today the suburban dream, which once featured the mall as a utopian-like centerpiece, has become a nightmare for so many. In the wake of the Great Recession, mortgage foreclosures and unemployment still plague the lower and middle classes. And the problems that led so many to flee to the safety of the suburbs in the 1950s and 1960s — crime, drugs, and plummeting property values — have long existed in the planned communities just outside the city limits. In fact, the American shopping mall as we see it in Dawn of the Dead, and as so many Americans remember it, no longer exists. Perhaps that’s why nostalgia for the halcyon days of the shopping mall has become so strong in recent years.
Built in 1969 and situated on 170 acres of land that spanned 1.4 million square feet, Monroeville Mall embodied the quintessential shopping experience of the day. As the first indoor shopping mall in Pennsylvania, it featured hundreds of stores in a climate-controlled environment designed, like so many shopping malls across the country, to act as both civic gathering place and consumer paradise. Living gardens, water fountains, and idyllic pedestrian bridges overlooking ponds filled with koi and goldfish were situated between shops like G.C. Murphy Co., Kenny Kardon, and The Candy Tree; a theatrical stage encircled by sunken seating framed the entrance to the Joseph Horne Co. department store at one end, while a clock tower with animatronic puppets that emerged each hour (representing the different ethnicities of Pittsburgh) stood in a large common area outside of Gimbels department store at the other end; restaurants and lounges like the Brown Derby and Di Pomodoro dotted the upper and lower levels; and an indoor ice skating rink, dubbed the Ice Palace, urged visitors to further immerse themselves in the experience.
Walk into Monroeville Mall today, however, and there are few if any signs of the consumer oasis that Romero captured on film. Primarily that’s because shifting economic climates have forced mall management corporations to maximize their selling space. In response, features like the mall’s living gardens have been removed, replaced with kiosks where minimum wagers hawk Proactiv Solution and fluorescent iPhone covers. The former site of the clock tower, dismantled sometime in the 1990s, sits empty, a shuttered store front in the background. And the Ice Palace, which once held the distinction of being the first ice skating rink in an enclosed mall on the East Coast, was removed in 1983 and replaced with a food court. Like so many of the nation’s established malls, remodeling efforts and a willingness to embrace change has enabled destinations such as Monroeville Mall to remain financially solvent. Those same changes, however, have also slowly removed all traces of the mall’s once-distinct identity.
“Most malls now are homogenous,” says Jason Damas, co-founder of Labelscar.com and Schendel’s partner in the site. “They’re just not as interesting as they used to be. The kind of emotional attachment that I and [so] many others have for malls is tied to the way they were decades ago.“
Despite the decline of the American shopping mall over the last two decades — chronicled in every publication from The Economist and The Atlantic, to Time and Forbes — a certain type of immortality still surrounds these institutions. It’s primarily emotional, of course, evidenced by the hundreds of blogs, websites, Flickr pools, and Facebook groups that memorialize the shuttered malls and shopping centers that were once significant in our lives. In truth, it’s a sentiment best expressed in Romero’s world, where the rigors of reality are purposely blurred.
When the four main characters in Dawn of the Dead stumble upon Monroeville Mall as a potential safe haven, it’s the first time we see Romero use his blue-faced zombies to depict the muscle memory of the American consumer. As the undead roam the hallways and common areas of the mall, mimicking their own past behaviors, they lumber to the Muzak that once scored their weekend shopping trips. And that’s when Peter, the SWAT officer played by Ken Foree, utters a line that may best encapsulate the reasoning behind our undying loyalty to the American shopping mall: “They don’t know why; they just remember. Remember that they want to be in here.”