Matthew Newton On The Nostalgia, Decline And Future Of The Shopping Mall

Sep 8, 2017

From the aroma of the food court to back-to-school shopping, everyone has memories of the shopping mall. But for Pittsburgh author Matthew Newton, the mall says much more about our society.

Newton's new book "Shopping Mall" explores the role of the mall in community development, white flight and American consumerism. He spoke with 90.5 WESA’s Virginia Alvino Young.

Their conversation has been edited for length and clarity. 

VIRGINIA ALVINO YOUNG: You write that the shopping mall itself was a fairly radical design when it emerged in the 1950s in America.

MATTHEW NEWTON: Yeah. The first mall that I kind of look at is Victor Gruen’s Southdale Center in Edina, Minn., which opened in 1956. I think what was important about what Victor Gruen did is that he was an Austrian emigre and he kind of brought this European sensibility. ... It was the first fully enclosed multi-level shopping mall, and not only did he want to bring people together in a climate-controlled pleasure dome or whatever you want to call it, he also wanted to bring in that feeling of a European street like, "Oh, there's cafes and there's plant life and there's sculptures."

ALVINO YOUNG: That was the architect's intention, but in the book you talk about how the culture surrounding that space evolved from being about leisure to shopping obsession. Was it the mall space that was creating interest in shopping, or was the mall responding to America's growing interest in consumerism?

NEWTON: It was definitely I think a response to that post-war boom. Housing construction [created] a boom, in jobs, and I would say the consumerism, they kind of grew hand-in-hand. As time moved along from the 1950s to the '60s, more and more of those spaces that were supposed to be civic sort of weren't as important to the design of malls.

ALVINO YOUNG: And then taking it further into the '70s, the “shop till you drop” mentality really developed.

"Shopping Mall" is out now from Bloomsbury Publishing.
Credit Bloomsbury Publishing

NEWTON: Yeah, I mean George Romero was this kind of great touchstone, or at least “Dawn of The Dead,” the film that he filmed at Monroeville Mall here in the late 1970s. George Romero had sort of started to see that when he would go to the mall that shoppers are sort of walking around in somewhat of this catatonic state. You know, in sort of a meditative -like trance. So he really took that to another level by lampooning the idea of what shoppers look like.

ALVINO YOUNG: For better or worse, everyone really does have these memories of being at the mall at different points in their life. What is the meaning of that connection that we all share?

NEWTON: I think the connection to the mall that everyone has is different. Some people are very anti-mall, they're very against it. I grew up listening to punk rock, you know, and the mall is sort of like everything that's wrong, it’s completely conformist. But I think for so many of us who came of age when the mall was at its peak, from my mother working there when I was a young child to going there as a teenager to kind of wasting time in the sort of isolation and boredom of the suburbs. And then even as an adult, strangely being drawn there to just randomly walk around for no particular reason. There's this idea of aspirational living that's really tied to the mall.

ALVINO YOUNG: In the book, you also talk about the mall as a component of city and suburban space and a centerpiece for suburban planning. What impact does the mall have on communities?

NEWTON: Starting back in the mid-1950s when malls started popping up, it was an alternative. It was this idea of there's more and more suburban housing plans being built and the mall was essentially this place to serve those residents.

As far as how it affected urban planning, what I don't think that a lot of people expected was that it was going to be like this magnet. Not only was white flight taking so many people to the suburbs, there were also these main streets even around here -- small towns like Braddock and Homestead. And when Monroeville Mall was built and South Hills Village and different places outside the city, it impacted and then eventually depopulated a lot of Main Street businesses. So it has a huge impact that I think we're still kind of grappling with right now.

ALVINO YOUNG: Here in the Pittsburgh area, we have the Mall At Robinson, which is really thriving and in the more affluent space, and then less than 20 miles away you have Century 3 Mall in West Mifflin that is slowly closing and all the anchor shops have gone. What do ghost malls or the decline of some malls represent to you, and can mall culture survive?

NEWTON: Shopping malls in many senses have outlived their original intent. As far as in a larger scheme, of course everyone wants to point to online shopping as a huge reason for the downfall of malls. But I think it's larger than that. The mall was essentially the internet before the internet existed. Like back in the '90s. You know, young folks, for the most part, the mall doesn't appeal to them. I think more and more it's almost become sort of this nostalgic sort of funny thing, almost like, “Oh the mall, like, let's go and walk around.” And especially the Century 3 is one of those examples.

For the future of the mall, I think what we're looking at now is more and more malls are returning to this idea of trying to provide entertainment and trying to provide spaces that are beyond just retail. It's kind of in limbo right now where it's not back to the days of Victor Gruen, where it was this utopian view of everything encompassed under a roof. I think that's the future of malls -- to try to take them back to that and making them into civic spaces that are more than just retail. But I also think there's a long way to go.