TCS Daily

More Scenes From a Mall

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - September 24, 2003 12:00 AM

Last week's column on Build-a-Bear and the mall experience got me to thinking about malls and their role in modern American society. My sense is that it's a subject that's not getting enough attention.


A couple of years back, I wrote here on what I called the comfy-chair revolution, in which retailers worked to make their places more inviting, hoping that customers would turn them into hangouts, as a way of competing with sales via the Internet:


Retailers have always tried to sell not just sweaters, but a lifestyle. But if you become somebody's hangout, you don't just sell a lifestyle, you're selling a life. If price and selection are the main basis for competition, people can always buy on the Internet, but people -- teenagers especially, but everyone -- will still want a place to go.


(Here's a related piece that I wrote for The Wall Street Journal at about the same time, noting that commercial spaces are answering the long-proclaimed need for "third places" in American life, places that are public, but that are neither home nor work.) It seems that I was onto something. Reportedly, the new trend is toward a different kind of mall, the "lifestyle center," which fits that description pretty well:


The driving factor behind the new centers is changing shopping patterns and increased retail competition. "Shopping centers are competing with the Internet, among others, for sales today. So in order to draw customers into the stores, they need to be more creative," Scott said. . . .


Lifestyle centers combine some of the best elements from past retail developments and city planning. Developers have been borrowing "new urbanism" concepts to create a pedestrian-friendly environment that is reminiscent of Main Street shopping. They are even incorporating community-oriented amenities to further position the lifestyle center as a gathering place. For example, Arbor Lakes also will be home to public buildings such as the Maple Grove City Hall and a Hennepin County Library.


And people are specifically invoking the "third place" point in pitching these facilities, as this account makes clear:


His idea for Camano Commons, a 3.3-acre gathering place, is to try to capture that European spirit of places where private commerce and public leisure mix readily, said the project's marketing director, Theresa Metzger.


"In Paris, you have the sidewalk cafe. In England, you have the neighborhood pub," Metzger said.


Ericson is aiming to create a space other than home and the office, sometimes referred to as third places.


"Americans are so unfamiliar with third places, so I always like to describe it this way: Remember the TV show, 'Cheers'? They didn't always get along, but when somebody was missing, they got concerned," Ericson said.


I think we'll see more of that. As I walk around my area mall, watching blue-haired and multiply pierced Goths clustering in one area, and Dungeons & Dragons-playing teens in another, as senior citizens and families stroll by, it seems to me that the traditional downtown is being replaced by commercial spaces. And that has its ups, its downs, and its lessons.


The "up" is that Americans are getting the kind of safe, diverse and communal public space that critics of suburbanization have long called for. Rather than being locked in their tract homes, watching television and not knowing their neighbors, Americans are increasingly spending their time in public spaces surrounded by all sorts of other people.


Another upside is that -- instead of this taking place in huge, white-elephant "downtown revitalization" projects funded by massive quantities of taxpayers' money, as urban planners envisioned -- it's taking place in a market-driven way, and in a way that actually generates tax dollars rather than consumes them. And, because it's market-driven, the comfy-chair revolution can turn on a dime to meet consumer needs and interests.


The downside is that the traditional "downtown" has been replaced by corporate-controlled space. What's wrong with that? Well, in the traditional downtown, things like the First Amendment's guarantee of free speech apply. In malls, they generally don't. (One of my former students has written an interesting law review article on this subject). But that's where the people are, meaning that First Amendment guarantees of the right to protest downtown are increasingly meaningless when nobody goes downtown. (Indeed, here in Knoxville the antiwar protests, such as they were, were held on the sidewalk in front of West Town Mall, when the protest organizers realized that a weekend protest downtown would be the proverbial tree falling unheard in the forest.) Malls often have such offensive characteristics as omnipresent security cameras coupled with draconian bans on picture-taking. It's not like Singapore, exactly, but it's not the traditional downtown, either.


But there's a lesson, too. One reason why people go to malls instead of downtown is that they feel safe. Part of this is physical safety. (Though that's largely an illusion. Mall crime doesn't get reported much -- all those advertisers make it easy to persuade local media to keep it quiet -- but there's lots more of it than you'd think. Makes sense: Criminals go where the money is, and a mugger would starve to death in downtown Knoxville.)


But more important than physical safety, I think, is the desire not to be hassled by unpleasant people. Vagrants (relatively safe from prosecution in light of Supreme Court decisions), panhandlers, and accosters-of-pedestrians ranging from bible-thumping street preachers to various political activists are all relatively free in downtowns, thanks to the expansive First Amendment jurisprudence of the past half-century. But they're barred from malls. And, in a curious coincidence, that's where people tend to go. (How do people really feel? I note that in the movie Airplane, the audience always cheers when the  airport solicitors get beaten up.)


So what's the lesson? Free speech absolutists (and I'm pretty much one myself) may tell people that being hassled by loudmouths is part of democracy. And people may even agree -- but they'll still choose the mall over downtown if the hassle-factor gets very high. What that means, among other things, is that public-sector rules are always subject to private-sector competition. It also suggests that you can enact rules that promote free speech at the cost of people being hassled -- but that if you go too far, people will vote with their feet by choosing a controlled environment with fewer hassles.


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