Return of the Mall Eternal

Are we looking for a Renaissance in all the wrong places?

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It’s been a long time since I engaged in retail therapy. Before today, I don’t remember the last time I went to an enclosed mall to wander around and experience vague social interaction with clerks and other lonely capitalists, or make unnecessary purchases aimed at linking myself to a status-based tribe, or fill the Prada-shaped hole in my heart or whatever. There was the brief night terror of Christmas shopping, but still, I’ve managed to avoid the mall.

Somewhere between online shopping and park-purchase-leave shopping and just plain not shopping, I nearly forgot about malls. I think I understood Mall Cop to be an elegy. I think I interpreted the departure of Dillard’s from the Boulevard Mall to be a historic goodbye to giant, indoor, climate-controlled communities that smelled like Hot Dog on a Stick. I limply attached myself to anti-consumerism and half-joined the class that aspired to be disgusted with mark-ups and Third-World labor abuses and the whole rayon-polyester, materialistic, narcissistic bath of mall shopping. What’s more, with the help of a shitty economy, I was able to imagine that almost everyone felt this way. We can’t afford it. Shopping is passé. Malls are done.

At least, that was my thinking before I saw the recent news of plans to build a new indoor mall in our city. It will be anchored, as is the custom for such places, by department stores, and will be called, allusively, Renaissance.

“West Las Vegas to get 700,000-square-foot enclosed shopping mall for holiday season 2015,” the news release said, misunderstanding the local use of “west”—the mall will not be in West Las Vegas, an economically depleted central Las Vegas area which actually lacks shopping venues, but in Summerlin, right next to the vacancy-plagued outdoor shopping square Tivoli Village on Rampart and Alta and a block from the retail-stuffed Boca Park. It’s being built by the developer of Tivoli Village, EHB Companies, and like Tivoli, it will feature faux Old World architecture, this time “inspired by the world’s first enclosed mall” in Milan, Italy.

At first, I felt the old familiar emptiness of suburban escapist consumerism in my gut. Are we really entering the renaissance of mall shopping? Is this to be the Consumer Spring? Is the gray snow of recession melting only to reveal a regrowth of spendy afternoons in price-tag gantlets?

But then, a stray thought: Isn’t that the American Way?

Perhaps. It’s as American as the structure itself, a gargantuan purchasing terrarium, a theater of middle-class economic power, and a staple of suburban life since the 1950s.

But it’s a little disappointing to have gone through all of this economic malaise only to return to the worship of buying stuff. News of the new mall arrived against this backdrop: Presidential candidate Mitt Romney released his taxes, showing $21.6 million annual income and 14 percent tax rate while the median American household income was $49,500 with a tax rate of 25 percent and a debt load of $117,951. The average cost of a four-year state-college education is $84,000; the average American saves less than 6 percent of his income, and 40 percent of Americans are not currently saving for retirement.

In tune with my inner class-warfare hothead, I decide that the antidote to the income divide is not to summon middle-class shoppers to buy stuff. And while it’s true that consumer spending is a central component of a functioning economy, I am nonetheless leery of buying stuff for the sake of owning stuff, only to end up throwing it out later and buying new stuff, all the while knowing I can’t really afford any of this stuff—as un-American as that sounds.

Nevertheless, ever open to new ideas (even if they’re old ideas), I decide to step out of my consumer deep-freeze and go to a mall. After all, if the new mall they’re building is going to be a renaissance, I ought to remind myself what, exactly, is being reborn. So it is that I drive to the Meadows Mall—an old-school, if not an Old World, mall—park atop some crushed wax cups and burger wrappers from the food court and begin my adventure.

It turns out a mall still looks like a mall: high ceilings, unnatural lighting and a giant directory reminding you that You Are Here. Being at the mall is like being in a pleasant time warp. Nothing has changed here—here being in the enclosed mall in the general sense—since I was a teenager in Arizona. It’s comfortable. It’s literally like strolling down memory lane, inasmuch as the American memory lane is lined with Foot Lockers and Zales jewelers. There’s a predictable set of behaviors here—you stroll, you buy stuff. You stroll more. You don’t worry about the weather, or anything else. You eat crap.

There’s even the feel of spontaneous community, despite the institutional lighting—I saw older ladies walking and talking, parents with children stopping at the play area in the mall center, determined kiosk workers pitching to everyone within earshot. Is this really so different than the goal of urban revitalization, the downtown mercantile dream? This is a diverse group: I saw many races here, many ages, and they all have an inexplicable common love of overpriced brand-name items.

And that’s where the love fest ends. In Macy’s, I’m confronted with the $229 pink velour purse. Here, in this one lovely Juicy Couture absurdity, is the American gene. Our news is littered with stories of our neighbors trying to feed families of four on food stamps, of people who’ve worked a lifetime pushed out of their homes. There is scarcely an act more American than responding to this news by purchasing a ridiculously priced money bag for oneself.

The enclosed mall, more than the open-air retail districts, envelops us entirely in the consumer fog. It allows us to completely submerge in a world where all that exists is the ability to spend. Not even the weather can touch us here. The $229 pink velour purse is called—and I’m not making this up—the Daydreamer bag, a name so rich it speaks not only to mall life, but to the way we got into this economic tailspin in the first place. Our renaissance looks a lot like the old world.