News & Politics

Grand Mall Seizure

The Mall of America is undiluted fantasy, a beating heart of commerce. We gather near it to feel the pulsating warmth of capitalism.
It is Saturday at the Mall of America, the nation's largest shopping center, and the crowds are thick and expectant. A small brass band of high school students parades by, playing a cheerful version of "Sunshine of Your Love." Above the glass atrium, a bank of heavy clouds bruises the Midwestern sky. Inside, it is incongruously bright and warm. I sit on a bench and take it all in. A group of teenage boys with piercings and baggy black jeans pass me, one wearing a red T-shirt that reads, "I Have No Idea What's Going On." A fat woman trundles by carrying an enormous bouquet of colorful cellophane balloons, literally dozens of them – cartoon characters, hearts, smiley-faces. Her own smile is easy and unforced, and I'm struck for a moment with the image of her floating, the whole of her, above this sprawling panorama, upwards to the steel girders that crisscross the Mall's glass ceiling, and then beyond.

Two older gentlemen sit amidst the din and controlled madness of Camp Snoopy, the Mall's indoor amusement park, focusing on the matter at hand: a game of checkers.

I share my bench with a large human size statue of Snoopy, and it isn't long before a group of women asks me politely if I wouldn't mind moving. "It's for my granddaughter!" one of them says, posing for a photograph with an arm draped affectionately over Snoopy, both human and canine smiling broadly. Cameras flash. I sit again, but every five minutes or so another group poses with the big white smiling dog. Eventually I give up my seat for good. A rollercoaster roars overhead. There are whistles and screams, the ambient noise of fun all around.

The men play checkers.

Robert is retired and lives in Bloomington. He comes most Saturdays to play. His partner Juma is a darker-skinned, more ragged version of Henry Kissinger, and seems unwilling or unable to answer my questions. Though his English isn't good, I understand he comes every Saturday and Sunday to play checkers. "From 10 to 4," he says, without looking up from the game. When he speaks, I can see that he has only a few teeth still holding on.

They do not banter or chat. They tolerate my questions for a moment, but it isn't long before I can sense their patience waning. Robert explains they've been playing together for close to four years. Both claim to do very little actual shopping at the Mall. Do you bring the checkers set, I ask. They do not. They play on a cloth set provided by Camp Snoopy Outfitters, next to a sign that says brightly, "Checkers set on sale inside!"

They are, in other words, living advertisements for a store.


To understand the Mall of America, it is helpful to know how this all began. Southdale, the first enclosed shopping in the United States opened in Edina, Minnesota to great fanfare in 1956. It is still in operation today, not even a half hour from the present site of the Mall of America. Its architect was a man named Victor Gruen, an Austrian Jew who fled the Nazi invasion of 1938 and arrived in the US with $6 in his pocket. A man of European sensibilities, Gruen's Southdale was inspired by the covered pedestrian galleries of Milan and Venice. He saw the enclosed mall, with its walkways and open spaces, as a hedge against the corrosive suburban sprawl that was then just beginning to overwhelm the American landscape. He wrote of shopping centers that not only served a community's physical needs, but its civic, cultural, and social needs as well. In describing Southdale, he grandiosely and unselfconsciously evoked the Greek agora and the medieval city centers of old Europe.

All over the country the Southdale model was replicated, simplified, and the money came in hand over fist. Developers bought farmland at the junctions of highways and the building frenzy began in earnest. By 1964, when Gruen wrote "The Heart of Our Cities: Urban Crisis," he had watched his creation grow like a hydra and spiral away from its original intent. He blamed local governments and unscrupulous developers for the decay of America's cities. More to the point, he refused to accept any credit or blame for the invention of the enclosed shopping center. "I have been referred to in some publications as The Father of the Mall. I want to take this opportunity to disclaim paternity once and for all."

Gruen left his adopted country in 1968, and returned to Vienna, where he died twelve years later.

Unlike Gruen, the immigrant developers of the Mall of America, four Iranian-born Canadian brothers surnamed Ghermezian, never seemed at all torn about the purposes of their project. They are not urban designers, city planners, or architects. They are showmen. The Ghermezians are mercenary capitalists, no less visionary than Gruen, but certainly less thoughtful. And the Mall of America was created to fulfill their baroque visions of festive shopping, where commerce and entertainment would come together in a profitable union. In 1986, when the Mall was still in its planning stages and meeting resistance, Nader Ghermezian spoke as if he couldn't understand his opponents, as if he were baffled by their short-sightedness: "You will have all the shoppers from New York, Rome, Los Angeles, and Paris coming here," he proclaimed at a press conference. "I bring you the moon and you don't want it?"

He was only partially exaggerating. The sheer numbers are staggering. It cost $650 million to build. With 4.2 million square feet, the Ghermezian brothers' behemoth includes 520 stores on four levels. It has four food courts, two health clinics, a university, a post office, a police station and a store that sells Christmas ornaments year round. It hosts a weekly church service, and is the home of Camp Snoopy, a seven-acre indoor amusement park. The Mall is staffed by more than 11,000 year round employees, visited by some 600,000 to 900,000 shoppers each week, depending on the season. On an average weekend, the Mall is the third largest city in the state of Minnesota. If you were to spend only ten minutes in each of the stores, it would take you more than 86 hours to complete your circuit.


Would you like to purchase a decorative ceramic of a smiling cow? Or a sexy dress for your overweight teenager? Perhaps you have come to buy a CD recording of wind chimes that recall, "the long, lazy days of summer"? Is it leprechaun shoes you want or a microwave bacon tray? A portrait of the Virgin of Guadalupe in a gold-colored wood frame?

Shoppers laden with bags stroll down each of the themed corridors, past boutiques, in and out of department stores. There are stores called Stamps Away, Bead It!, Hat Zone, Calido Chili Traders, stores whose names announce their particular niche in the market economy. Each of the four corridors of the Mall has a different feel, by design. West Market, with its gray tiled floors, painted steel benches, and a metallic silver roof above, is the least attractive, not unlike an airplane hangar with balconies. There are gaudy golden lamps along the columns, and small ornamental plants. North Garden has a more traditional feel, with wooden benches, wrought iron lampposts, small trees in planters, and lots of natural light streaming in through the glass ceiling. This is the kind of design element that would have made Victor Gruen proud: without leaving the climate-controlled environs of the Mall, one has the impression of changing neighborhoods, of crossing boundaries, when, in fact, you are simply walking in circles.

Indeed, I only notice these design elements because I look for them. Most shoppers I talk to seem completely unaware of their surroundings, none expressed any particular attachment to North Garden over West Market, or East Broadway as opposed to South Avenue. It's all the same, and it's all shopping, mostly, though not exclusively, for the kinds of items we could all do without. And so, after an hour or two of wandering, it is with some amazement that I stand to gather my breath in front of the display of hammers at Sears. Shoes, hats, clothes, perfumes, gadgets, jewelry are available in hedonistic excess at the Mall – but hammers? They seem out of place, a wrinkle in the climate-controlled fantasy, a blip in the Mall's matrix of eternal leisure: hammers imply work, imply effort and sweat and all those things that do no exist at the Mall, at least not for the shopper. And yet, there they are: fifty-seven different types of hammers. I count. Fifty-seven varieties of this Stone Age tool, with ergonomic handles and rubber grips, in every size and weight and color scheme. So much commercial esoterica, and perhaps what is most out of place here is a tool.


In his 1986 book "The Malling of America," sociologist William Kowinski observes that spending any time in contemporary shopping centers is like walking through 3-D television. If this was true then, it is even more true today – the mall today is quite deliberately the physical representation of television's immanent consumer visions.

Television is everywhere, the glow of it calling you. I stroll down the North Garden to Nordstrom's, where Donny Osmond, host of a game show called "Pyramid," is scheduled to put in an appearance later in the day. In the meantime, a kind of star search is underway: a soundstage, a diverse crowd, looking at once expectant and bored, a slick Osmond look-alike emcee chatting onstage with potential contestants for exactly thirty seconds each before the game began (Two questions: 1. Where do you live? 2. What do you do?). The eager would-be contestants come and go in pairs, leaving us with one sentence summaries of their lives: "I'm Kurt from Bloomington and I'm a janitor," says a man whose tiny legs dangle five inches above the floor. The host smiles enthusiastically and turns to Kurt's partner. The game is played, they lose. We groan and then applaud. Three minutes later, Kurt is replaced by Dee from Apple Valley, mother of two beautiful daughters, who has recently welcomed a Swedish exchange student into her home. The crowd cheers. When Dee's team loses, we all welcome Jody, a claims administrator, who announces proudly that she has been here since 5:30 in the morning.

Black and white, Asian and Latino, fat and thin, tall and short, they step up for their chance to be on television. The host's enthusiastic smile shows no signs of flagging. Every now and then, a pair wins and is selected for the next round. Applause, banter, game show: the myth machine hitting on all cylinders.


To criticize the Mall for being unreal is to miss the point entirely. Of course it is unreal: a banner at the entrance blithely reads LOSE YOURSELF. Literal disorientation begins the moment you step into the cavernous mall. The Mall extends outward from your person in every direction, a seeming infinity of shopping possibilities. And what a place to be lost! It is clean, eternally prosperous, a safe, climate-controlled vision of Eden. And then the more narcotic meanings of the phrase LOSE YOURSELF come into play: it is undiluted fantasy, a beating heart of commerce. This is the language of addiction: we gather near it to feel the pulsating warmth of capitalism. We melt into its embrace.

And yet, somewhere outside the Mall of America, the real world does exist. Hundreds of workers spent years building the complex. And all is not well. The day I visit the Mall the local headlines were of a shooting at an area high school and a government report on rising poverty. Minnesota has been spared the worst of the current economic doldrums, and the Mall itself operates as if they didn't exist at all.

Michael Silsby is twenty years old, from Topeka, Kansas. He has a thin, pale face, and dark brown hair pulled back in a ponytail. He finished a two year program in graphic design in Omaha, Nebraska and moved to Minneapolis, looking for work. Michael looked for work at computer firms, design companies, but even in Minneapolis, a job isn't easy to come by. "I never thought I'd wind up working at a mall," he says. "I hate malls."

Michael draws portraits on the eastern second floor balcony. When I approach him, he's working on a portrait of his brother, drawing carefully from a glossy headshot. His boss, Kehai, is a Chinese immigrant who has run the stand for only a few months. "Business is slow," Kehai says. People walk by constantly, a few are curious enough to examine the charcoal images of Michael Jordan, Jack Nicholson, and Marilyn Monroe, but most continue on. Michael works a 40-hour week without a fixed salary, earning commission on each portrait. It works out to around minimum wage, without benefits.

It is hardly back-breaking labor, at least not in the Third World sense, and there are far worse jobs in the Mall. A veritable army of custodial and security staff keeps the place gleaming evenings, weekends, and holidays. In any case, Michael doesn't foresee that he will be here very long. He doesn't mind drawing with people looking over his shoulder, it's the noise that gets him. And it's true: the perpetual buzz from Camp Snoopy below is maddening, bells going off at regular intervals, shrieks of delight from the log flume, the nauseating music of the carousel. They coalesce into a wall of sound, so that as we talk, we are both nearly shouting. I sit with him for nearly an hour while he draws my portrait. I listen to him talk about Star Trek, about his brother, who is looking for work in commercials. People stream by, looking first at the portrait in progress, then at me, and snicker. It is a humiliating experience.


From the western third floor Food Court, the gleaming neon heart of Camp Snoopy is on display. There are giant cartoon characters suspended from the ceiling, pterodactyls built of Legos hover just above. Below, children scurry about through thickets of trees, along ponds and over streams heavy with coins and forgotten wishes. But we, on this level, are above it all: it is evening, the lights are low, and romance is in the air. Couples share a bite of Japanese food before heading to the movie theatre. Everywhere there is hushed conversation over a burrito or a burger, or two straws poking from the same oversize cup of soda. I watch a young man approach the railing, arm around his girlfriend, whose eyes are shut tightly. "Now look," he says.

She opens her eyes and it's there: the lights snaking upwards, the elegant Ferris wheel, the pastoral green of the indoor garden. "It's soooo huge!" she says. "Soooo huge!"

This, I believe, is the essential calculus of American capitalism: bigger is better. It explains why the Mall's developers are Canadian-Iranians, who seized the opportunity to sell Americans their own oversized dreams. It explains why it attracts, according to the New York Times, more annual visitors than Disney World, Graceland, and the Grand Canyon combined. In the American imagination, there is nothing quite like the allure and romance of being the biggest. Size is glory and relevance. Chartered buses ply the route from the airport directly to the Mall. Its size makes it a destination.

In one very important respect, size apparently does not matter: the spectacular size of the Mall of America has not been matched by spectacular profits. By some accounts, the Mall is now worth about $550 million, or $100 million less than its original development cost. Many observers say that the era of the mega-mall has passed. Construction of large, enclosed malls is down 70% since 1996. But this is only part of the story: while no new enclosed shopping centers have been built in the Minneapolis area since the opening in 1992 (and more than a few have closed), those that remained have survived through growth, the retail equivalent of an arms race. Southdale, Victor Gruen's creation, has expanded by 30%, to nearly 2 million square feet. By the end of this year, there will be seven enclosed malls with over 1 million square feet of retail space in the Greater Minneapolis area. In 1990, there were only two.

The shopping center is America's great safe haven, and it embodies the promise of the American dream. The Mall attracts foreign tourists of course, but also immigrants from all continents who have made new homes in the Minneapolis area: I see women in Arab dress, families of Africans in bright head-wraps, Latin Americans from every corner of our continent. Buying little, they wander around the Mall and inhale its scent. What better place to understand your new country than here? Consumption is a dearly held American right, a pastime and tradition.

Nowhere is this more acutely observed than in "Dawn of the Dead," George A. Romero's 1978 zombie movie. In the film, a quartet of survivalists flee Philadelphia in a stolen helicopter, escaping the living dead who have overrun all the cities. After a few false starts, they find safety in the relative luxury of an abandoned suburban shopping mall. It has everything they might need: food, clothes, furniture, television, guns. Unfortunately the mall too is seething with zombies, stumbling along the corridors, stiff-legged, gangly, lethal. The intrepid refugees lock themselves inside a closed department store, before clearing the mall in a paroxysm of violence.

Then, once safe, they celebrate by shopping, choosing new watches, trying on clothes, grinding fresh coffee, going ice skating with new skates. They parade around their liberated mall with beaming smiles, loaded with new gear and gadgets. They lose themselves to festive shopping.


In the subdued light of morning, the Mall is a thoughtful place. It is Sunday, before the stores open, and I wander the empty corridors of the Mall at rest. There are a few resolute elderly walkers, a man reading the newspaper at the open coffee shop, but mostly there is the shuttered quiet of a vacant place of commerce.

I am here for church. Each Sunday at 10:00 AM, the River Church has a service in the rented space of the Great Lakes Ballroom in the southwest corner of Camp Snoopy. I arrive early and watch the eager participants get everything ready. There are twenty or so people milling around, musicians onstage, a technician putting the finishing touches on a PowerPoint presentation about today's sermon. The mood is earnest, yet informal, and everyone, it seems, is under forty.

More people arrive and the lights dim, and the band launches into a Thelonious Monk tune, with agile soloists and swinging drums. I'm tapping my feet. After a few songs, a white man with a pudgy face asks us to bow our heads for fellowship. "God," he says serenely, shutting his eyes to address Him. "You are an awesome God."

For the past few Sundays, Pastor Chris Reinerston's sermons have been breaking down the Lord's Prayer, phrase by phrase. Today he will focus on "Your Kingdom come, Thy Will Be Done, On Earth as it is in Heaven." The last two phrases, he says, are pretty self-explanatory, so he asks our permission to concentrate on the first: God's Kingdom.

Reinerston describes a world of plenty, where children's bellies are bloated not from malnutrition, but from eating so many of God's wondrous fruits and vegetables. "God will blow our minds!" Reinerston announces enthusiastically. He gains momentum as he speaks: everything will be provided for, the stock market will go up and up, and there will be no single parent homes. "It will be," he says at one point, "like everyone sitting around, watching TV, just loving each other!" I can't do it justice of course, because Reinerston means everything he says, means it intensely, fervently. But when he says that in God's Kingdom there will be, "no more run-down buildings, no more cracked sidewalks, no more graffiti," that "everything will be new!" I can't help but wonder if the place he is describing isn't actually the Mall of America, with all its abundant, excessive newness. Imagine the Mall, full of God's Elect lounging at the Bose Audio Store, watching DVDs of the latest releases, frolicking on God's trampoline, trying on clothes straight off the Macy's rack. "Imagine," he says later, voice quavering, "a world without poverty. Imagine never seeing another one of those commercials for starving children in Third World countries!"

Ultimately, what Reinerston has described is the contemporary American condition: a rarified vantage point, where it is not poverty we decry, but the televised representation of it, as if the real thing were too far, too distant and abstract to pierce this pretty, pretty bubble. Poverty, of the American variety, is on the rise, or so the newspapers are saying. But here?

After the service, I ask Pastor Chris about some of these things. He is an energetic man in his mid thirties, a father of four, he tells me proudly, and eager to talk. Why a service in the Mall of America, I ask him. "It wasn't my idea," he says, "It was God's." Bart Holling, another River Church leader, joins our conversation, and he puts it this way: "The Mall of America is a river of life. People come here looking for stuff to fill their hearts with. We believe there is God-size hole in each of person's heart, and they're always trying to fill it with other stuff, but we're here to help them fill it with God." I am not convinced. What about Jesus throwing the money-changers out of the temple? Haven't you brought the temple to the money-changers? In response, Pastor Chris re-interprets his sermon as anti-consumerist, referencing commercials, he says, is just a way to connect with people.


After the service, I wander into Camp Snoopy and run into Juma, looking uneasily at the empty checkers table. He wears the same clothes as yesterday. His partners haven't come. It is past 11:00 AM, and he is itching to play. He recognizes me and all but drags me to the checkers set.

I am a disappointment. He beats me in a flurry of decisive moves. We set up and he beats me again. In between, I ask him where he is from, and listen over the rising noise of the Mall as he evokes in halting English a faraway African city: Kampala, Uganda. He owned a fabric store in Kampala, before Idi Amin, the murderous, self-aggrandizing dictator, expelled him 31 years before. "I have four sons here," he says proudly. "They study." He chose to leave. Here, in the comfort of the Mall of America, Juma doesn't seem to regret his decision – and why would he? "The Mall is good," he says. "No problems."

No war at your front step. No landslides or floods, droughts, strikes, or coup attempts. The Mall banishes all worldly problems, man-made or natural. It is no wonder that so many people come, not only to the Mall, but to the United States: to be near so much power, so much money is to believe in the possibility of earthly tranquility.

Is it too simple to say that the whole world wants in? In one memorable scene in "Dawn of the Dead," the four heroes stand triumphant on the second floor balcony, decked out with guns, jewelry and resplendent fur coats. Below are the bodies of zombies, and beyond that the doors of the shopping center, where hundreds more living dead claw and press against the glass, trying desperately to get in. "What do they want?" one of the survivalists asks. Another answers thoughtfully:

They're after the place. They don't know why, they just remember they want to be in here.

What the hell are they?

They're us, that's all.
Daniel Alarcon has written for Harper's and the New Yorker. His first book of stories, 'War by Candlelight,' will be published by HarperCollins in April 2005.
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