Meet V by the Fountain
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What are some nostalgic things you remember doing at the mall? For V, it was working their first job at Bath and Body Works, buying CDs from Radio Shack, and watching people take glamour shots at JCPenney. The mall was once poppin’, and it used to be the hottest place to build. What happened? Architecture critic and author Alexandra Lange joins V to talk about the inside history of the mall, from the design features that make malls an iconic American institution to when their popularity began to drop off. Plus, where the “dead mall” narrative came from and why repurposing them could help communities like the unhoused.
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V Spehar, Alexandra Lange
V Spehar 00:05
Hey friends, who else remembers growing up in pleading with your parents to let you go with your besties to the mall either to buy that new Britney CD at Sam Goody or casually thumbed through the racks at Abercrombie or pick up that weird novelty gift you are never going to actually use from Spencer’s, or just chill by the food court knocking on some Auntie Anne’s Pretzels. The mall was an even is to this day an iconic American institution that truly defined how various generations approached being cool. I mean, yes, it’s also a practical place to make necessary purchases, which thinking about that now has me missing RadioShack justice for RadioShack my friends. Nowadays the mall looks a lot different from years past. So what happened? Today I am joined by Alexandra Lange, an architecture critic and author of meet me by the fountain and inside history of the mall. Alexandria, thanks so much for being here.
Alexandra Lange 01:00
Thanks so much for having me.
V Spehar 01:03
So you wrote a book about the mall, which is about the coolest thing I can possibly think of doing as an adult. What inspired you to write about them all?
Alexandra Lange 01:12
Well, I’m an architecture critic, as you said, but a lot of people think that architecture criticism is very Ivory Tower, only interested in you know, churches in Europe sort of professions. But I really feel like architecture is all around us. Everybody is using architecture all the time. So I tried to write architecture, criticism about the buildings that are most popular that are in all of our lives. So I wrote this book about the mall. And actually, my previous book was called the design of childhood. And I have a whole chapter on playgrounds, which I feel like are very similar conceptually to them all. Like we’ve all used them. We’ve all been to them. We’ve all seen them. But where did they come from?
V Spehar 01:53
That is the question. I think it’s so interesting. You bring up that like playgrounds and malls have some similarities. And now that I’m thinking of it, I’m like, Yeah, I guess the escalators on either side are kind of like the slides and the way we meet our friends in the middle makes sense. What was the mall in your area, like growing up?
Alexandra Lange 02:08
So I grew up in Durham, North Carolina in the 80s, pretty much. And the malls in my area were like the malls and a lot of places there were basically three malls and each one was aimed at kind of a different income tier. There was Northgate Mall where I like to shop at Sears, there was South Square Mall where I shopped at the Gap. And then there was Crabtree Valley ball where I went to a special kids boutique to buy a spree. So I would say spend the most time at South Square Mall which had a movie theater, and it had the gap and the limited and a Waldenbooks. And it just had really the whole array of things that you want to check out as a teenager.
V Spehar 02:46
Yeah, I’m my first memories of the mall are like going to JC Penney with my grandma. And like, literally that was it, though, like we would go at the rest of the mall would be there. She wasn’t taking me in it, we would just go to the JCPenney and come right back out. When did it kind of start to change for people the idea of like your grandparents taking you to a single store. And now it became a destination for the whole day sometimes?
Alexandra Lange 03:10
Well, your grandparents were probably raised in the era where department stores were more often found as single stores like JC Penney originally started as a store that would be downtown. So you go downtown and shop at JC Penney, and that was it. But the mall was a way of getting those department stores out to the suburbs. And the mall owners thought that people would be more likely to go to those suburban stores if they could also offer a little version of Main Street around the store, you know, additional shops. So while your grandmother had this idea that you could just go to JC Penney, and that was all that was necessary. People that grew up, you know, in the 50s 60s. Once malls were launched, realize that there was so much more if you and enter the JC Penney through the mall and there was a lot more on offer.
V Spehar 04:01
What was your like, first memory of going to the mall.
Alexandra Lange 04:06
I think it’s probably a story that I do tell in the book, where I went back to school shopping at Sears, I was probably 9 or 10. And I was trying to find a winter coat and I hated all the coats in the girls department. I was definitely a tomboy as a kid. And you know, they’re all like pink and shiny. And it was just not me. And so I wandered over to the boys department where they had, you know, chore coats that had flannel lining, and were gray and in fact would be totally cool today. And I picked out one of those coats and I was like Mom, can I buy this coat? And it’s kind of the question like, can I buy clothes from over here? And she was like, sure, sure, of course. And I feel like one of the reasons like we all have such strong feelings about the mall is because as teenagers it’s a place where we start to form our own identity. And a really important part of that is through in fashion and buying clothes and trying on clothes and I felt like that was a very important identity formation woman for me just like finding the coat that was like the coat that spoke to my personality and my aesthetic.
V Spehar 05:14
Was there anything that surprised you when researching this topic? Because I mean, I feel like an expert on the mall and I’m certainly not but you are an expert on architecture and have the same like nostalgic childhood and I did. But what surprised you?
Alexandra Lange 05:28
I think it was the fact that there were actually a lot of intellectual writers that had already written about the mall because when I told people I was writing a book about the mall, you know, some people kind of laughed or smirked at me. Like why would you do that? Like this is not a serious topic. But when I went back and started to, you know, look for references. Joan Didion wrote an essay about the mall. And in that essay, she talks about Alamo on a mall in Honolulu, which is a gorgeous mall that I’ve been to. And she talks about reading some instruction manuals on how to develop malls as if Joan Didion might have had this alternate career as a mall developer, which I just thought was wild. You know, this is in the late 70s. And I also discovered that Ray Bradbury, the science fiction author, who wrote the Martian Chronicles, had collaborated with John Gertie, who was this really important mall architect of the 1980s, to write an essay kind of setting the tone for one of his walls, kind of giving it like this extra dose of like sci fi flavor. So that dirty could be more inspired and the design that he made. So the fact that like the mall already had this really rich intellectual life was not, I think, apparent to a lot of people. And it was really fun to find it.
V Spehar 06:46
And you found the significance behind the iconic mall fountain. What was that about?
Alexandra Lange 06:53
Well, malls are really based on this older form of architecture, or many older forms of architecture. But the centerpiece of malls is usually an atrium, and an atrium is actually part of the Roman house. And those Roman houses were built around atria and those atria always had a fountain because a fountain would cool off the whole house and allow you to grow plants in the center of your home. So when we are gathering around the fountain in the mall, it’s really like saying, Oh, we are in this ancient civilization we feel at home when we can gather around the fountain.
V Spehar 07:29
That makes a ton of sense. Honestly, that was one of my favorite parts of the mall. Because it was this space that was always transforming, right? Like sometimes it was the mall fountain. Sometimes it was a stage for like fashion shows. Did you have those in your mall to?
Alexandra Lange 07:44
My mom was actually too small town for that. But I can totally visualize it. And yeah, that’s an important part. Like malls used to have so much more programming than they have. I think in the past 20 years, like they really used to do it up at the mall.
V Spehar 07:58
They did it was I remember the decorations for Christmas. The fountain is like what got turned into where Santa would be or the Easter Bunny. It was the center of my childhood, quite literally. How did writing this book impact your view of malls overall?
Alexandra Lange 08:13
Well, I knew when I started this book, that I wouldn’t have written it if I thought the mall was dead. You know, that was another thing that a lot of people said to me when I said I was writing a book about the malls. They were like, Oh, you’re writing about malls dying. And I was like, yes, some malls are dying. But not all malls are dying. And I felt like it was important to tell a story that wasn’t just one thing or the other. And then by the end of it, I also wanted to prove to people that there were other things that malls can be like some of them are living, but some of them you know, are no longer good businesses. And I wanted to try to get people excited about the future possibilities of a mall. I mean, this is a very like architect thing to do. Like architects want to fix problems. They think designs can fix problems, and I definitely have that mindset. So it’s like, okay, let’s not just look at this sad but beautiful photo of a dead mall all alone in its parking lot. And when people love those on the internet, right? But say, okay, like, let’s look at the photo. But now let’s do something about it. Can we build housing on the parking lot? Can we move a community college into the mall? Can we move a mega church into the mall, like all of these things have actually happened, but I felt like there wasn’t a good forum for people to talk about that to see all these examples and kind of get excited about the possibilities for the mall.
V Spehar 09:36
The original promise of the mall, right was that every day will be a perfect shopping day. And we’re going to take a quick break right now when we get back we’re gonna go all the way back to the beginning. We’re gonna go back to the 50s and talk about how the mall even came to be. So stick around. It’s very fascinating stuff. Welcome back, friends, we are still at the mall hanging with our bestie. I wanted to ask you, you know, in my mind, the mall culture and everything started in the 80s and 90s. But like you said, malls have been around for a substantial amount of time before that, starting with this main street kind of like vibe and catering to women and like bringing fashion in and exchanging ideas. Let’s start in the 1950s, when it really became a full blown phenomenon. Why was the 50s so instrumental to malls.
Alexandra Lange 10:35
So in the 1950s, it was the post war era, and the government heavily subsidized the building of suburbs, both by giving low interest mortgages to returning servicemen so that they could buy single family homes in a cul de sac and start their families. And also by subsidizing the creation of, you know, hundreds of 1000s of miles of new highways, so which opened up new land for that development. So the suburbs happened, but the suburbs happened. And you have houses and you have roads, but you don’t have anywhere for some people to go. And a lot of the people living in those suburbs, were you know, husband, wife, two kids, but the husband would drive off to his job in the morning, and then the wife would be in her little house with her two kids. Where was she going to go? Was she just going to you know, go to the supermarket get come home, like that sounds incredibly lonely. So enter a man named Victor grew in who was a Viennese emigre, came to the US in 1938, fleeing the Nazis. And he thought, well, I understand how European cities are built. And I see classic American downtown’s, you know, Main Street in a department store. So these women and children in the suburbs need something like that. And he came up with the idea of the mall as this new place for people to go in the suburbs. And then he built the first one called Southdale, in Edina, Minnesota in 1956.
V Spehar 12:00
Does the word mall, is it short for something? Or is it just that’s what it’s called?
Alexandra Lange 12:05
The word mall. I mean, it’s actually kind of a funny etymology. It comes from the English translation of an Italian game that’s sort of like croquet or Bochy called Polya Maliau. So Paul Mall, and that was played on a long, narrow landscaped cork. And so in London, in the 18th century, people played this game on these courts, you know, this Pall Mall game on these courts. And so the courts came to be called a mall. And the streets on which they played this game came to be called malls. So you end up with this place in London called Pall Mall, that’s basically a long strip of green with buildings around it. And then that becomes the generic term for other spaces built in that way. So long strip of green with buildings around it. So the Mall in Washington is a mall from the same roots as a shopping mall. Is from
V Spehar 13:04
that is definitely new information to me. I feel like a both duh. Of course that makes sense. And like, wow, right. That’s very cool.
Alexandra Lange 13:11
Yeah. I mean, it’s really wild. I mean, that’s how language works, right? It’s like one, like a game becomes a space becomes other spaces, etc. But the Yeah, the connection between the Mall in Washington and the shopping mall is very amusing. Because, you know, we see one as the seat of government, and the other is the seat of commerce, but then also that it’s just something as simple as trying to insert like this little bit of landscape into the city, and then how that gets spread to other places.
V Spehar 13:44
So Victor Gruen is here and he’s like, I’m going to create many main streets in the suburbs. Was he successful? Right off? People were like, Yeah, that’s what we want.
Alexandra Lange 13:55
Yes, he was successful right off. And you have to understand, I feel like grew and would have been a major media figure today, like he was very charming. He was willing to talk about big, big ideas, you know, do every interview. So he really, initially, you know, was a designer, but he came to be more of a salesman for this idea of the mall. And he also worked closely with an economist named Larry Smith, who helped him sell the mall to, you know, business leaders, local politicians, etc. As a financial proposition. Like he wasn’t just talking to design people. He was also talking to business people and politicians about, you know, basically the need that all these new suburbs had for the mall.
V Spehar 14:38
And he was like hanging with a pretty elite crew, too, right? Like the people who were designing the models back then they were some of the country’s best architects and landscape architects like it wasn’t just like some random old construction crew. Can you talk a little bit about like how we got these artisans in?
Alexandra Lange 14:56
Sure. I mean, Victor Bruin himself was like quiet A good designer. You know, he was trained in Europe. So he was actually a modernist before a lot of American modern has happened. But yeah, in those erly years 1950s-1960s A lot of architects were really interested in getting into this new business so they designed models. You know, I am Pei, who designed the addition to the pyramid addition to the Louvre. He designed a really famous early mall called Roosevelt field. Cesar Pelli, who designed a lot of skyscrapers, including the Petronas Towers in Kuala Lumpur, designed the Winter Garden at the World Financial Center, which is a very beautiful mall, Frank Gehry designed a mall, this is the one that actually people really get the most hung up on. He designed this mall called Santa Monica place in California, right about the same time that he was designing his famous house and the mall has the same kind of wacky deconstructivist angles, and even some chain link fence like his house does. So like, yes, the mall was considered a very, you know, hot, creative place to design at one point in time.
V Spehar 16:08
Yeah, I mean, when I think about going to the mall as a kid, it just looked so big to me. And I mean, I just remember like the grandeur of it. And it was just like, you know, the Milford mall, it wasn’t probably that special in a lot of ways. But I’m assuming that a lot of the stuff we saw in the 80s was kind of holdover from the 50s. The idea of this, like, so much glass and like the Grand escalators and stuff, it was their inspiration for that, that you know, where that came from?
Alexandra Lange 16:38
Yeah, actually, the early malls of the 1950s and 1960s tended to be much plainer than a lot of the ones of the 80s. But in the 1970s, like, a lot of them were pretty modest. You know, one story may be really just like, a department store at either end, and then a strip of shops in between. But starting in the 1970s, they started to get grandeur. I mean, you know, partially because developers wanted to pack more stores. And so they wanted them to be two stories. So once you have two stories, you have to get people to go upstairs. What’s the easiest way to make them go upstairs escalators. And then it’s like, okay, there are two stories you want to get more light in? Oh, okay. Let’s look at say the gallerias of Europe, which are these, you know, 19th century shopping arcades? Well, they had look beautiful, long, skylights, lighting, the multiple stories of shopping. Let’s do that. And so during the 1970s, you start to develop this grander architecture, and you start to get a lot of malls that are actually called the Galleria, it’s often the fanciest mall in any given area. And they absolutely, you know, refer to that older style of architecture, with you know, long vaulted skylights, the fountain in the middle, the escalators going every which way. And those are the ones that I think you see a lot in teen movies, because they actually, you know, are a great setting for people like they have that symmetrical architecture, and the beautiful day lighting that makes people look great and allows you to have those kind of walk and talk scenes that have some dynamism to them.
V Spehar 18:15
You are so right when you say the lighting in the mall was like peak and now I mean, you take everything for granted when you’re just living it before you go back like we are now in reflecting on it. But yeah, those skylights in these malls were so beautiful. It was like these cool banisters. And I don’t know why they did this, but we had like stores on the outside. And then there would be like a huge drop where you could see down into the second floor, but I was thought it was like very dangerous. The boys were like forever threatening to jump in between those things.
Alexandra Lange 18:46
Well, I hope there was a railing but I feel like you know, there’s a scene like that and clueless I don’t know, if you watch clueless recently. There’s a scene like that include this that I think is kind of, you know, well, it’s using the architecture to make a dramatic moment. But it’s partially, you know, that we’ve all already lived with that architecture. So you kind of know that it’s there for that dramatic moment. And I think this is another symptom of the suburbs, there actually aren’t that many naturally occurring grand spaces in the suburbs, because it’s single family houses, its schools, like, like, a lot of the architecture is pretty utilitarian. And then the mall comes up and it’s like, the place for glamour.
V Spehar 19:27
Yeah, it was like, I don’t know, The Wizard of Oz, or Vegas or something. When it came to town. It was crazy. And it created so much community, which is something that I think that you know, the suburbs lacks. And we as a society have gotten so far away from this idea of like, just running into your neighbors in the mall and just like running into your friends groups in the mall. How was the mall instrumental to really creating community in these isolated suburbs back then?
Alexandra Lange 19:53
Well, in the first decade of the mall, it really catered to these women and their children who were isolated in some burbs so you could go to the mall, and you could get all of your house wifely errands done in one place, and you would run into a friend and your kids wouldn’t complain because there would be a carousel and French fries. And you know, it kind of packaged the daily round into something that was a lot more fun and potentially social than it would have been otherwise. But over time, other groups adopted them all because they too needed a place to go. That was protected from the elements that had food, that had bathrooms. One of the groups that I talked about in the book, and this is more of an 80s and after phenomenon is mall walkers, you know, older people that go to malls before even a lot of the stores are open, and they walk which is great for their health and exercise. And then at 10. They’re done with their work, the stores are open, and they all sit around and have coffee, they all maybe do a little shopping. And it really activates a mall at a time when not a lot of other people are using it and provides community for people who again might just be isolated in their individual homes.
V Spehar 21:07
I loved my mall walkers, they always had the best outfits to I mean, these folks would be like dressed up to power walk about and they would be making laps, man for sure. But for all the good memories we have of malls, they weren’t always super welcoming to everyone, right? You write about how malls are environments about freedom and of exclusion of consumerism, but also of community. Can you talk a little bit more about what you meant there?
Alexandra Lange 21:33
Sure. Just one example, even within like the space of teenagers at the mall, like I have a chapter where I talk about teenagers at the mall, and I use teen media as kind of a lens to look at that. So I talked about clueless and included is the White teenagers go to the mall and spend money. But there’s also a lot of teen media by Black creators in which the kind of ursine at the mall is being wrongfully accused of shoplifting. And that is based on true experiences like very often in malls. There is greater policing, surveillance by mall cops of black and brown teenagers, they’re more likely to be stopped and accused of shoplifting. A lot of malls have codes of conduct, which say that only X number of unaccompanied minors can be together at one time without an adult or they have curfews and those kinds of policies are much more likely to be enforced on again, Black teenagers of Latino teenagers. So the mall is a place of freedom. It’s like the one place that teenagers can get together. But it’s not equally comfortable for all teenagers.
V Spehar 22:46
Centralizing the way that people were spending money, you know, out of the downtown main streets and putting it out into the suburbs had to have an effect on downtown’s. How much do you think the mall affected the deterioration of the traditional downtown back in the 70s.
Alexandra Lange 23:02
It definitely accelerated the deterioration of traditional downtown’s. But I think in a lot of cases, the department store owners in particular, it felt kind of powerless to stop it like the force of suburbanization was so strong. If they were going to survive as businesses they had to go where the customers were, but that then left their downtown stores, way oversize, often they kind of abandon their downtown customers who didn’t have the same amount of mobility, they couldn’t also go to the suburbs. And then it also eviscerated downtown’s, in general, because if there’s no street traffic, it leads to crime where people don’t want to go with the stores or, you know, like all of these things kind of rebound on themselves. So you get a phenomenon, which I found incredibly ironic in the 1970s, where cities start to try to build mall like things back downtown, you know, they feel that people have gotten so used to the signage, the lighting, the kind of higher order of cleanliness that you get in a private space than a public space, that maybe they could be tempted to come back downtown if downtown provided those things too.
V Spehar 24:15
You’re absolutely right. And I am now shaking my head and kind of laughing at the malls that I’ve seen in like downtown DC or even New York City’s got like Target downtown and stuff like that, like where they’ve just recreated what was destroyed except now it’s kind of like, again, these like industrial shell utilitarian buildings that are like kind of fakely lit to bring that sunshine feeling in artificially. We are going to take a quick break here and then we are going to talk about being a part of the mall generation, the height of the mall, the 80s and 90s the time that I grew up in you grew up in and that we all remember so well and I’m going to tell you a fun story about the time that I worked at the mall. So you’re gonna want to stick around for that. We will have it right when we get back.
V Spehar 24:58
Welcome back friends. I told you before the break that I used to work at the mall, and I’m telling you, I have always been on the cutting edge of attempting to be cool. And I have also been on the cutting edge of feeling like, well, if I can just make money, then why wouldn’t I make money and hang out with my friends. So to me, the greatest sense of freedom I ever got as a child was when I stopped working at our family, friends, dry cleaners with my grandma, and I started working at Bath and Body works in the mall in 1996. It was my very first small job. And I took it so seriously. When I got hired, they had set us with like little quotas, and I was like 17 years old. And my boss at the time was this woman, Michelle, and she was like the best district manager for Bath and Body works. And she was like, really wanted us to do well, it was holiday season. And she was like, we have to hit this amount of dollars. And we have to hit this amount of gallop they called it, which is like, there was a sensor on the door so they could count how many people came in how many transactions happened and how many people left. And so they wanted that transaction to people walking around the store number to be extremely close. And I took this deeply personally as a 17 year old and so I would sell Bath and Body works like my life depended on it. So much so that in 1997, which was the best year that Bath and Bodyworks ever had Boston was calling down to Michelle store in Trumbull, Connecticut to be like, are you guys cheating? What’s going on? Because your numbers are like off the charts. So then they started to be like, oh, is V on the floor with Tommy because that was my best friend. We were nuts. I would like hand out flyers at school about Bath and Bodyworks sales that were going on. I was just crazed. It was such a personal like sense of identity for me. And I am wondering if other people had that same reaction of like, your mall job being like so deeply personal to your identity. They had to, had you heard any stories while you were doing this book of people as lunatic as I was about their first mall job.
Alexandra Lange 27:19
Okay, I have to say I have not heard any story quite as intense as that. But it’s actually so fascinating to me. I have a really close friend who worked in a department store at her Mall. And she worked at the wrapping desk at Christmas time. And she is like, oh, I can wrap anything. Like even now, you know, she is like me like in her late 40s. Like she can wrap anything. So there’s this kind of intensity. And then also because you have this job as a teenager, it’s like your first job. So it never leaves you it’s your first time when you feel like you might almost be an adult except I think adults never get intense in the same way as you do as a teenager about a job. So yes, mall jobs incredibly important. And the other thing that a lot of people talk to me about is what it’s like at the mall after hours, kind of the camaraderie not just of the people in your own store, but of all the people in the stores that are working till 10 or whatever it was. So after the mall closes like what happened you all hang out a little is there like leftover food that you can all eat like that is also I mean it’s kind of a cliche to say something is a liminal space, but I think it actually is a liminal space like the mall when it’s closed.
V Spehar 28:36
But you’re still there. There really was and I’m gonna tell you it like as cool as afterhours was the mall at Christmas time is its whole own universe. Like I can remember I always worked Christmas Eve because I it was my favorite. My favorite day to work at the mall is Christmas Eve, because they closed at three. I don’t know if they do this anymore, but they used to close at three and we’d have dinner at my grandma’s house at four. So I could work, I could get paid extra time. There was a lot of like incentives and fun stuff that happened that day. But my favorite thing was because you couldn’t online shop and gift cards weren’t really a thing just yet. Men would be diving; I’d be putting down like the gate getting ready to close up shop. And these men would be diving belly rolling underneath the gate and they’re like, I need to get for my mom and my girlfriend and my sister and my grandma and I’d be like screaming at him. I’d be like You’re too late. All we have left is SunRype and raspberry and she’s gonna know that you waited we don’t have any cucumber melon left and like he’d be like, you gotta help me out. And I’d be like, oh, I have pre wrapped are these $120 baskets. These guys were just be going crazy in the last two hours of them all on Christmas Eve. It is chaos in the best possible way. Because it’s all the last minute shoppers. They’re all excited. There weren’t really fights because people were just kind of like happy to get what they could get in that moment and you felt just like this insane energy. It just, oh my god. I got so many stories from my Bath and Bodyworks days and every year. Michelle would be like, are you going to come back and be like yes Then when I graduated college, she was like, Do you want a job here? Like our high school? She was like, well, do you want to like work here full time. And I like seriously thought about it. But I was like, I have to go to college. But it would have been such a good job, at least at that time. I thought it was because that’s the other thing. These jobs paid pretty well. Like retail right now. It’s, it’s difficult. That’s a hard job to say you have one job I, my boss had one job. She was the district manager for Bath and Body works. And she drove a BMW. And I was like, this woman is making bank. She’s doing great. That has changed though now. And we’re not seeing that kind of reinvestment in the employees the way that we did before.
Alexandra Lange 30:33
Yeah, no, that’s a great point. And because, you know, the history of the mall is you know, it’s connected to the history of women in the suburbs. But some of those women in the suburbs were working women, and a lot of them got jobs at the mall. And during the, you know, 50s and 60s, getting a job at a department store and working your way up to executive level, which is kind of what we our boss was doing better than butter works was a very viable career path. And yeah, you could make a good living, you had seniority, you had employees, you were learning things, because some of these big companies, you know, they would have retreats, and they would teach people about the new product. So it was actually a very cosmopolitan world for people who might not have had a college degree and but needed like this kind of steady employment. So the mall and retail in general was a great space for women to actually be in charge. But what happened over the years is there were a lot of consolidation in these stores and a lot of centralization of authority. So the people working in a store in Connecticut, might all basically be employees at the same level with some slight seniority. And all of the kind of rules would be coming from a central location in Ohio or whatever, like everyone put out these things in the front of the store, because our market research says they will sell and no longer relying on the people on the floor to say, Well, what did you say cucumber melon is the hot thing in this zone of the country and nobody is buying raspberry.
V Spehar 32:10
Speaking of Ohio, when I was working for Bath and Body works, I believe it was before or certainly I didn’t feel the impact of Les Wexner’s authority. Les Wexner was the businessman who owned basically every popular store was driving a generation of eating disorders to accommodate those god awful low rise jeans and Victoria’s Secret accompaniments that we all had to deal with in the 80s and 90s. Really in the 90s, early 2000s. Rather, do you think that that consolidation of this getting corporatized into Ohio did kind of lead to some bad choices when it came to how the malls were going to evolve, say from the 80s and 90s? Turning into the 2000s? Yeah,
Alexandra Lange 32:52
I mean, what was happening in those individual retail stores like being consolidated all having, you know, kind of central management with it is parallel to what was happening in mall ownership during those days, during the early years, a lot of malls, you know, a local family would build one mall it would do well, they would build another and they would end up with maybe like 10 malls all across, you know, three states in the Midwest. So they would have an understanding of the communities and what they needed in those places, and be able to change with the times pretty rapidly. But during the 1990s and early 2000s malls became an investment product, they created this investment product called a real estate investment trust, and there were retail real estate investment trusts. So malls started to be consolidated under single owners. And now I think the largest owner of malls in the US is Simon properties and they own 100 miles. So if you own 100 miles, you don’t have local control, you’re trying to keep everything as much the same in all the malls as you can. And so you don’t necessarily spot problems early on and you can’t necessarily, you know, kind of change things for a specific community or like in response to specific events. So yeah, malls became much less personal, much less community focused, and much more of an investment product.
V Spehar 34:22
I started to feel uninvited or unincluded at the mall, when they started to add extremely high end stores. Like most of the stores of my mall were like your standard ones right like Abercrombie Express limited that kind of stuff. Spencer’s hot topic, but they started to add Michael Kors, Tiffany’s and these like very high end brands to the mall and I felt like it just kind of like ruins my experience though. It was like the corridor that I shall not go down. Is that something that was being decided out in Ohio as well? Or why did they start adding these very expensive stores to the mall.
Alexandra Lange 35:02
Well, it’s interesting in malls today, the malls with the highest end stores are doing the best. The malls that have continued to do well year over year are the malls where the anchor stores are like a Saks and a Nordstrom and they have a designer alley, which is basically what you’re describing. And so they have stores that are a little uncommon that you can’t get everywhere that maybe people have to travel, you know, from a few cities over to go to so they have maintained their position as destinations. But I think a good mall, has always had a mix of things that would appeal to many price points. And you know, like that’s where things like Auntie Anne’s, and the pretzels come in, you know, especially for teenagers, because food is the thing that pretty much everyone can afford.
V Spehar 35:58
We’ve talked a lot about stores and like the retail side of it, but you just mentioned maybe the best part of the mall, which was the food court and how that was designed and like classic food court shops. And even now I’m seeing so many that are like more commercial name brands, but back then it was like little boutique brands. I mean, Auntie Anne’s was woman runs still is was an incredible story. Can you talk a little bit about the development of the food court?
Alexandra Lange 36:25
What was interesting to me is I feel like, yeah, the mall equals a food cart in a way. But in fact, the early malls were more likely to have a department store that still had a restaurant in it, which is also a very grammar thing to go to the restaurant in the department store. And then they would have a Woolworths or a five and dime that would have a lunch counter. So that’s where people were eating food. But of course in the 50s and 60s, you also had to sit down to eat food, you were not wandering around and snacking, like that was just not part of our culture at that time. But during the 1970s, Jane moved to rouse who was really, you know, important early mall developer realized that, in fact, food culture was loosening up. And so he put a food court into one of his malls in New Jersey, up on the second floor, so you could see it from the atrium, but it wasn’t, you know, right in front of you when you came in. So people really had to wander around for a while, get hungry, and then go to the food court. And it was really successful. And after that new malls that were built generally had a food court. And I think, yeah, like the food court is a really important point of entry for people who don’t have a lot of money, people who just want to hang out at the mall rather than having a shopping errand. But it’s interesting that you mentioned the early Food Court as not being changed and not being so borrow and whatever else. Because that’s really the new trend in mall food is to have it be higher quality and more interesting and sometimes locally owned businesses, because people’s standards for foods have gone up and also they want, I think, you know more of a mix of ethnic foods. You know, it’s can’t just be like pizza and hamburgers in the way that it could have been in the 1970s.
V Spehar 38:16
We’re going to take one more quick break when we come back, we are going to talk about the stuff that we miss and that we wish mall still had today. We’re also going to talk about this dead mall narrative and what they’re doing to repurpose these spaces that can really be useful. I mean, a lot of malls are on bus lines, think about what we can do for society if there was some central place with services and stuff that the bus went to. So we’ll talk about that right when we get back. Okay, Alexandra, I am telling you I’m gonna go to the mall after this because we still have malls where I live. I live in Rochester; New York and it is basically the 90s here still in many ways. And we have a great mall here. We have two really great malls, these views like my go to, but during the pandemic, a lot of malls did have to close and department stores went bankrupt. They cut back on their staff. And when people are visiting malls now they’re seeing a lot of abandonment and there’s this narrative that like malls are dead. What do you think about that?
Alexandra Lange 39:48
The pandemic accelerated trends that were already happening in malls, but it didn’t on its own cause malls to die. Department stores have been dying for a number of years due to a number of factors, partially because they just no longer had the kind of fashion presence that they used to partially because of income inequality, kind of splitting the middle class from the upper middle class. So the high end department stores are doing really well. And everyone else is shopping at Target and Walmart. So there’s kind of no room for Macy’s anymore out there, or its equivalent. So, the department stores have been going downhill for a long time. The pandemic didn’t help because people simply weren’t going out. But yeah, it has led to a lot of malls being in distress or dying. And I think the dead mall narrative is really spurred by the popularity of dead mall photography. I think the visuals for that are so strong that they came to dominate, know, whatever words people were talking about, like, yes, this mall has died. But it’s partially because a great new mall opened down the road. So it’s this mixed narrative, but the visuals are so strong for the dead part that that tends to dominate.
V Spehar 41:07
That makes so much sense to me. Yeah, this, I think during the pandemic, we were all so bummed out, right. And misery loves company and […] loves company. And so it was like, it did get very interesting to look at these places that had been forgotten or had been rundown or had been abandoned. We see it a lot, even with people looking at abandoned houses, or like mansions that were evacuated, that are preserved in time. We love this idea of like a time capsule. But the malls are still going strong in a lot of ways. I mean, checking in on two of the most iconic and popular malls, the Mall of America and the American dream. Like how are they doing right now?
Alexandra Lange 41:41
as far as I know, the Mall of America is doing fine. Like it did have some store closures during the pandemic. But I think as things start to pick up and people, you know, return to shopping, those will be replaced. And the kind of central presence of the Mall of America is in people’s minds and its central presence, you know, in the Minneapolis area has been undiminished. In my book, I write a bit about American Dream, which is this giant mall in New Jersey that is actually developed by the same family that developed Mall of America, it unfortunately opened right before the pandemic, so it never really had a chance to get off the ground. Its main attractions are actually all entertainment attractions, like it has an indoor ski slope. It has a waterpark, you know, it has a giant candy store. And I actually think there is a market for all of those things in the New York area. Like we don’t have that kind of giant theme park the attractions so close to hand, what I think is more problematic is the regular mall part of American Dream, which was supposed to have actually designer boutiques and was supposed to have high end department stores. And those are something we have in New York City, or we have at a place like the mall that have Short Hills, which is an old established luxury Mall. So why would you go to this newer, uglier, weirder, you know, ski slope ball to shop at those stores. So I’m not I’m not sure if American dream can survive, and they are actually, you know, having some, like, trouble defaulting on some of their loans now. So that’s a question mark. But I think the Mall of America which just has a deeper, longer history is gonna come back.
V Spehar 43:29
You bring up such a great point. We talked about like how they added some luxury stores or they changed over like, who was running the food court and whatnot. But there have been some like nutso things that have been added to malls that were intended to attract people like laser tag, bowling aquariums, roller coasters, massage parlors, and stuff like, what are some of the things that you’ve seen attached to a mall that you were like, Okay, that was a choice.
Alexandra Lange 43:56
I usually think all of those things sound good, or my research shows me that okay, if department stores are on their way out, like who of our age and younger wants to shop at a department store? I certainly do not. Those anchors have to be replaced by something else. And what are things that will make people leave their house? What are things that people have to leave their house to do? One of them is eating and so you’re seeing a lot of food halls kind of souped up versions of the food court. And the other thing I’m seeing in a lot of places is entertainment. I’ve seen you know pickleball trampoline parks, climbing walls I just saw a couple of weeks ago, there is a Sears store in North Vancouver where they’re building an indoor might mountain biking track. So yeah, I think one of the interesting things to me is realizing just how big the volumes are for those department stores like a two story department store like it’s a box and you don’t really have a sense of how big it is. But if you hollow out that box, if you no longer have, you know, the jewelry cases and the escalators, and all of that, it is a big space and you can put a mighty mountain biking track in there. And that’s kind of wild.
V Spehar 45:12
As an architectural critic, do you have any feedback that you’d like to give maybe the folks who own some of these different models now for how they can be repurposed into something more useful?
Alexandra Lange 45:23
Well, I think the number one thing is it has to be a partnership between the mall owners and the municipality, because a lot of these malls are on land that zoned for commercial use only. And I think one of the most powerful things that could happen at these malls is that they become new mixed use communities. So people build housing, and they build new retail, that makes more sense. And maybe they add in some government offices, or a community college or something like that. So the parking lot gets filled in. So it’s not just this endless asphalt. And there are also more different types of people and more different types of uses happening on those lots. But the mall owners can’t do that on their own because of zoning. And we’re already seeing some moves in that direction in places like New Jersey that have a lot of defunct malls, where they want to kind of create a blanket change to the zoning for the next, you know, two to five years saying like, if you have a mall property, you can develop it in a bunch of different ways rather than having to stick to your commercial zoning. So yeah, I think everyone needs to think about these more creatively, but it has to come from different positions of power.
V Spehar 46:39
it would be great if they would do stuff like that, because like I alluded to earlier, these malls are on major public transportation lines. So you can get a bus or there was a bus route targeted to their train or subway or like, the road goes to these spots. I have a lot of friends who are activists and wonderful people, and they’re like, do you know what we could do if we could make this mall into a place for the unhoused? Because everything is so central. And there already are so many bathrooms in each store is like a good size for like an apartment for a single person. And then you could have facilities and services and wraparound services all in this one central location. Is that too big a dream?
Alexandra Lange 47:18
I don’t think that’s too big a dream. And I think referring to the infrastructure is really important, like we you know, as taxpayers have already invested in these locations. So how can we get a return on their that investment that makes sense now, like when they were built as models, many times like the suburbs were much smaller, they were much more homogenous, like the family structures that we are living in, were different. And so all of these malls have to be reformed for, you know, 2022 and beyond. I don’t actually think that mall architecture is the best and easiest repurposing as housing. But I do think mall parking lots are really right for new housing. And that could be built relatively cheaply on those sites, because they already do have utilities, because you wouldn’t have to tear anything down because it’s, you know, a flat plane, it’s a gray field, as it’s usually called, and then turn the mall itself into offices providing social services, or, you know, places for workforce retraining, or, you know, other things that could help the house. So yeah, especially I think in you know, inner ring suburbs, so suburbs that are now fairly old, and often provide cheaper housing than like the newer fancier suburbs further out, like that would be a great use of a former Mall. Like all the things all of these things should really be on the table. And it would be better for the environment and better for the services that already go there if we can think about them in multiple different ways.
V Spehar 48:56
Have other countries tried to do the American mall, have they been successful?
Alexandra Lange 49:01
Well, what’s interesting is that a lot of other countries have balls. But this story is a little different in every place. I was especially fascinated by the malls in South America and Asia, that are actually much more vertical and transit oriented than they are here like to an American of all is a suburban thing in the middle of a parking lot that you have to drive to. But to someone in Chile, a mall is something you know build over a new train station with new housing and towers all around it that has like a mini amusement park inside that you go to on the weekend with your family. So they just have a really different place and culture. And then a lot of ways I think those mall ideas are smarter and better suited for the 21st century than the way that American malls grew up.
V Spehar 49:55
Alexandra has been so great catching up with you. Thank you for sharing all of this information with us about The mall tell folks where they can find you and where they can find your book.
Alexandra Lange 50:04
I’m at Twitter and Instagram at @LangeAlexandra just my name in reverse and my book is available on Amazon through book shop. And it lots of local bookstores including McNally Jackson and Brooklyn is local to me so perfectly check it out.
V Spehar 50:22
And it is called Meet me by the fountain and inside history of the mall. Thanks for being here. What a fun conversation I’m feeling extra inspired to go bully some teenagers at the mall. Just kidding. I would never do that. I would never do that. Guys, be sure to tune into next Tuesday’s episode where we dig into the headlines that you care most about. You can always leave me a voicemail because you know I love to hear from you at 612-293-8550, be sure to check out be interesting extras on Lemonada Premium only on Apple podcasts and follow me at under the desk news. Take care of yourself head out to the mall. Get yourself a fun beverage. It is time to relax for the weekend.
V INTERESTING is a Lemonada Media Original. Our producers are Rachel Neel, Xorje Olivares, Martín Macías, Jr. And Dani Matias. Executive Producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Mixing and Scoring is by Brian Castillo, Johnny Evans and Ivan Kuraev. music is by Seth Applebaum. Please help others find the show by rating and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us across all social platforms at @VitusSpehar and @UnderTheDeskNews, also, @LemonadaMedia. If you want more be interesting, subscribe to Lemonada premium only on Apple podcasts.