CHICAGO — I remember my first mall — Lincolnwood Town Center just north of the Indian and Hasidic Jewish blocks of small business on Chicago’s Devon Avenue. Too far to walk and just close enough that driving there with my grandma was a treat not a chore, the two-floor mall was my young girl consumer dreamhouse come true — giant windows, epic food court, brightly lit storefronts, and carts that sold cheap fake gold jewelry. In the center of the mall, a fountain of mermaids spouting water from their tails welcomed visitors to toss in shiny pennies — make a wish and hope for something, and then keep shopping. My grandma and I stopped going to the mall when Waldenbooks closed and I began arguing with her about the clothes she picked out for me at Carson Pirie Scott. But the memory of that mall stayed with me for years after my girl breakup with it. A symbol of American consumer culture and capitalist empire glorified into a one-size-fits-all space, the mall is more American than apple pie, and shinier than that penny I just threw into the suburban lake-like fountain.
In Michael Galinsky’s project Malls Across America, the artist unearths a series of photographs from 1989 that he shot of malls from New York to South Dakota and Seattle. Inspired by the likes of Jack Kerouac’s On the Road and photographer William Eggelston, Galinsky first wandered into the Smith Haven Mall in Garden City, Long Island, and started shooting. Fascinated by the coming together of disparate people and social groups, as well as the more mundane aspect of rampant consumerism, Galinsky followed up with a mall-filled road trip to be compiled in a book forthcoming in November; it will be published by Steidl-Miles.
“When I started the project I was looking at the malls as the new ‘town square,'” Galinsky tells Hyperallergic. “The theory that I was going with was that the mall was designed to replace the downtown, thereby making the public sphere a private sphere that was climate controlled.”
In a 1991 report entitled “A Brief History of the Mall” published in Advances in Consumer Research Volume 18, researchers Richard A. Feinberg (Purdue University) and Jennifer Meoli (Indiana University of Pennsylvania) note the evolution of the mall and its original intention as a ‘community center’:
Shopping malls didn’t just happen. They are not the result of wise planners deciding that suburban people, having no social life and stimulation, needed a place to go (Bombeck, 1985). The mall was originally conceived of as a community center where people would converge for shopping, cultural activity, and social interaction (Gruen & Smith, 1960). It is safe to say that the mall has achieved and surpassed those early expectations. In today’s consumer culture the mall is the center of the universe.
American consumer patterns have since changed with the proliferation of big box stores that simultaneously drive away small businesses, pay abysmally low wages and try to block workers from unionizing. Compared to the havoc of contemporary big box hellishness, present-day malls have taken on that nostalgia for the ‘simpler shopping days.’
Not that the mall was ever actually a community meeting center, a place where young adults could learn about building healthy relationships with the self and others. Inside the mirrored rooms of the Claire’s at the Lincolnwood Town Center, where as a young girl I got my ears pierced and learned the accessories of femininity. Galinksy’s documentation of the malls from yesterday bring back memories of the first time we learned that consumerism isn’t anything it’s advertised to be — but it’s still glossy and as magazine picturesque as ever.
Michael Galinsky’s Malls Across America is available for preorder on Amazon.