When sound artist Jonathan Mitchell returns to his mid-western hometown he often ends up at the mall with family and friends. He offers an audio portrait of today’s American commons.
CURWOOD: Like it or not, you’ll probably find yourself in one before the holiday season ends. I’m talking about “The Mall,” that Mecca of merchandising and marketing that has come to define how and where many Americans not only shop, but socialize as well. Producer Jonathan Mitchell returned to his hometown in the Midwest to bring us a sound portrait of the place that was, and still is, the community’s center, if not its very identity.
[UPBEAT ORGAN LOUNGE MUSIC]
MALE: Edge City development.
MALE: That was the sign of the future.
MALE: The very future of who we want to be.
FEMALE: Younger, fresher, cleaner.
FEMALE: You know, what we have here is what we have, and –
FEMALE: BAM! It’s all there. It’s all there.
FEMALE: People were so ready for a mall to come here and it –
MALE: It was just an untapped market.
FEMALE: You have to change with the times, and you have to figure out what people want.
FEMALE: Who wants to walk around downtown in the middle of winter? Nobody.
MALE: The mall offered a whole new range of national companies that weren’t present in the community at that point in time.
FEMALE: Everybody will want to come to our mall now.
FEMALE: It was American, it was –
FEMALE: Why are we the only town that doesn’t have a mall in the United States? So, when it came –
FEMALE: We were hip and happening! We were a real town. (LAUGHS) We weren’t just some little spot in the middle of a cornfield!
[HARP STRINGS STRUMMING]
FEMALE: We’ve made it!
FEMALE: And it left, it left such an enormous hole in the downtown.
[MUSIC TEMPO SLOWED, DRUMBEAT]
MALE: I kind of liked downtown like as it was when I was a kid, you know? All of the businesses were downtown.
MALE: For many years, the downtown had been the epicenter of retailing.
MALE: Older people don’t like change that much. They like to have it just like it was.
MALE: Downtown was magical. People came down here on Friday night and it was the hangout. It was the place where you came, where you had something to eat, where you shopped. And we felt with a great deal of pride that we were the leading department store in town. Started in 1886 on Fifth Street. My grandfather and his two brothers built this ten-story building at the corner of Fifth and Washington in 1925 and 1926.
FEMALE: I think that changed –
MALE: With the coming of the automobile.
[AIRY SYNTHESIZER MUSIC]
MALE: Edge city development –
MALE: Suburbanization, automobile culture, the moving outward.
FEMALE: It was the ‘60s, and the trend of the day was these new malls that were popping up everywhere.
[HARP STRINGS STRUMMING UP, XYLOPHONE FOLLOWS]
MALES: Malls were being built, and we wanted to be involved.
[ORGAN LOUNGE MUSIC, SLOWER TEMPO BACKBEAT]
FEMALE: The large department stores made a pretty quick exodus from the downtown to the new mall.
MALE: Because it was part of being in business and trying to grow your business.
MALE: The usual newspaper stories appeared decrying, you know, the loss of our downtown, our sense of community. And I think with some real basis.
MALE: We had heard these horror stories in certain towns where a mall had been built and the downtown stores had dropped its volume as much as 40 percent. Well, that’ll put you out of business in a hurry. And we knew we were going to drop volume because some of the volume of the people that came downtown to the store were going to go to the new shopping center, obviously. So we calculated that it would be about 25 percent. Well, when it was all said and done it was 100 percent because the store was eventually closed.
FEMALE: When I was five years old I remember driving by the mall just to see its progress, and seeing this huge…
MALE: And it was so huge!
FEMALE: This huge building.
MALE: This mall was just massive!
FEMALE: These huge forms. I don’t remember seeing anybody actually working on it, but I remember watching it and wondering what was going on in there. Because at that time I didn’t understand the concept of a mall.
FEMALE: Okay, we are now driving around the mall. There’s a Sears…
MALE: It looks like any other mall.
FEMALE: We’re looking for…we’re going to go around the mall to the second level, and it’s where the theater, we have a movie theater, where the entrance is. But that’s also the main drag into the food court.
MALE: People tend to have their favorite entrance. Even if the store that you’re going to is far away you always park up in the, you know, upper level by Bergner’s, because that’s where you’ve always parked. (LAUGHS). And it’s easier to get out or, you know, they all have their motivations.
FEMALE: This is my favorite place to park because it takes you – BAM! – right into the food court.
MALE: My favorite place to park is actually the lower level near Bergner’s, yeah. Because it’s overlooked because it’s actually sort of cutting into the hillside.
FEMALE: If I cannot find a good parking space, which it’s not looking good…
MALE: There’s hardly any parking places out here.
FEMALE: Then I go down to the lower level of Sears that will take me into the automotive section…
FEMALE: Just park anywhere.
MALE: Should I just park in my normal spot?
FEMALE: Yeah. I don’t think it’ll be open, but –
FEMALE: We are now in G9, upper G9, and – wait, is this a parking space? Because if it is, I’m taking it. DNGG! I hate when that happens!
MALE: That’s handicapped…
FEMALE: That’s handicapped…
FEMALE: It’s not looking good, dude. Let’s go down to Sears.
MALE: We could park right here!
FEMALE: What, you want me to park here?
MALE: Oh, look, here’s a parking place. Amazing. Well, there’s always the possibility of a better one.
MALE: We’re still only half a block away from –
FEMALE: I suppose so, but you know what? I walk nowhere.
FEMALE: I don’t! I don’t walk anywhere. I drive everywhere I go.
FEMALE: So, for me…
MALE: But, even when you’re far away you’re still, like, if you were downtown you’d have to walk blocks, probably.
FEMALE: That’s true. But you know what? I don’t go downtown. Most people don’t go downtown. You know why? Because the mall brought everybody here.
[CAR DOOR CLOSED, VIOLIN MALL MUSIC STARTS UP, HUM OF CROWD]
MALE: All right, here we are.
FEMALE: Whoo-hoo! We are at the mall. What are we going to do?
FEMALE: We just walk around, and we look at the clothes…
[MELANGE OF VOICES, AS IF IN A DREAM SEQUENCE]
MALE: Time disappears…
FEMALE: Oh, that’s nice…
MALE: And everything was shiny and new…
FEMALE: Restaurants and drug stores and movie theaters, and--
MALE: Smiling clerks greet you…
FEMALE: Oh, that’s nice…
FEMALE: And it smelled new…
MALE: It’s clean, there’s no crime…
MALE: There’s a place in the center of the mall that they call Center Court…
FEMALE: Can you meet me at Center Court?
MALE: But, you know, it had skylights, and it had trees growing inside, which was really bizarre…
[BIRD CALL, HARP STRINGS]
FEMALE: It was a good place to go look and just, look around. And I was kind of like wishing, you know, you go there, and you wish, I wish I had this, or when I get some money maybe I’ll come back and I’ll get this, and…we did a lot of wishing. Everybody did a lot of wishing.
[HARP STRINGS PUNCTUATED BY TRIANGLE]
FEMALE: That’s cool…
FEMALE: Isn’t that cool! I love that, isn’t that cool?
MALE: What are you looking at?
FEMALE: This right here. I always want to stop here and look in. I’m like drawn into the store…
MALE: It’s got shiny objects.
FEMALE: That’s exactly (LAUGHS) it is, it’s got shiny objects. Look at that, isn’t that cool? How much is that?
[MUZAK VERSION OF THE DOORS’ “LIGHT MY FIRE”; HUM OF SHOPPING CROWD]
MALE: I guess it became the place to go. For shopping, for entertainment, for just that sort of teenage adolescent lingering around kind of thing.
MALE: There’s a lot of young people in here.
MALE: I’m looking, I’m standing here looking around, I could be the oldest one here.
FEMALE: Look, right over there.
MALE: A lot of kids.
FEMALE: Look at the way they’re kind of walking. They kind of got the little twitch in their hip, and their hair is kind of bouncing a certain way, and their eyes are darting back and forth.
MALE: The eyes…
FEMALE: And they’re lookin’.
FEMALE: You would walk around in search of boys.
MALE: When you’re of a certain age, the mall is the place where you find your freedom.
MALE: That was where everybody went.
FEMALE: Looking for boys and clothes and whatever else you could find!
MALE: Traveled in little tribes around different locations in the mall…
MALE: And look for girls. That’s it.
MALE: Like this group of guys here. They all have stocking caps all pulled down like over their eyebrows.
FEMALE: Some guys following us around…
MALE: Yeah, I stalk ‘em. So, all you girls out there, watch out now! (LAUGHS). I’m just playin’.
FEMALE: We’d all act like we were cool and we really didn’t want them to follow us, but…
FEMALE: Do you look for guys here?
FEMALE: Yeah. (LAUGHS)
FEMALE: You know, that was the whole reason why we were there was for them to follow us.
FEMALE: Have you ever found a girl here?
MALE: Ahh, yeah, yeah. A few times.
FEMALE: I don’t know, like you’d be in line and they’ll ask you something and then they’ll just start talking to you.
MALE: Be myself, that’s all you can be.
MALE: I met people by working there.
FEMALE: Thank you very much.
FEMALE: Thank you.
MALE: Everybody that I knew, all my friends, worked at the mall.
FEMALE: Oh, I became the assistant manager and acting manager, thank you very much.
MALE: I think what there was, was there was a food chain related to where you worked. And, you know, you started working at McDonald’s or one of those god-awful kiosks in the center that sold like, you know, barbecue paste, and then you’d work your way up. And I got to the point where I was the guitar salesman in the music store, and I worked in the CD shop, as well. So, that was probably the coolest I’ve ever been.
MALE: Oh, you know where we should go?
MALE: The perfume department.
[ROMANTIC STRING MUSIC]
FEMALE: The perfume department (SING-SONGY)
FEMALE: I’m a beauty advisor, is my actual title, so, like, when people come up I tell them about like, color, and that kind of thing. And then, um, sell makeup, basically.
FEMALE: Do you do makeovers?
FEMALE: Mm-hmm. I don’t really like working at the mall. I would come to shop and that used to be fun, but now I just feel like I don’t even want to come here anymore because I have to come here all the time to work. Most people are rude. I used to think most people were nice but most people are rude.
FEMALE: There was a part of working at the mall that I didn’t like. I didn’t like the idea that I could look outside windows and see what was going on outside. I was stuck inside this cave.
FEMALE: The mall is, I don’t know, it’s pasty. It’s just, it’s sunless and windowless and…
MALE: That sort of hermetically-sealed mall type of environment, that corporate street.
MALE: A really safe environment where there’s security all the time.
MALE: Very orderly, very modern…
MALE: It gives you a place to be inside.
FEMALE: You don’t have to get out in the cold or the heat.
MALE: What is a mall but a large cocoon keeping the world out?
[ROMANTIC STRINGS CONTINUE]
FEMALE: They’re too…
FEMALE: And there’s nothing unique about them anymore.
MALE: It’s sort of a homogenous experience, where if you go to almost any mall in the country…
FEMALE: Any mall in any town in any state…
MALE: Every mall and every place and every town there’s –
FEMALE: Gap Gap Gap Gap Gap.
MALE: It’s very similar, by design. Maybe there’s comfort in that.
FEMALE: Our city, I think, has a lot to offer people. But, basically, people talk about the mall. People go to the mall, people are talking about what they bought at the mall.
FEMALE: You know, what we have here is what we have.
FEMALE: And if you want things, that’s where you have to go to get them.
MALE: Anything you every wanted is inside of a mall.
MALE: Well, I met my wife at the mall (LAUGHS). When I was cool. We would get off work at 9 o’clock, because that’s when the mall closed, and we would hang out in the parking lot at the mall.
[CRICKET SOUNDS, CAR SOUNDS]
MALE: And we would make jokes about how the full moon was beautiful, shining off of the windshields of you know the ’88 Buick. And sometimes we would ride in my convertible around the mall parking lot. And you know, despite all of the problems and cultural homogenization, it’s still a pretty fond memory.
FEMALE: My husband bought his tux there right before we got married. And then when I was pregnant I went into labor there.
[BABY MAKING BABY-TALK]
FEMALE (TO CHILD): Honey, Mommy is recording right now, all right? Do you like the mall, Hannah? What’s your favorite thing about the mall?
BABY: The Disney Store!
FEMALE: The Disney Store.
[CHIMES. TENSION-TEMPO STRING MUSIC]
MALE: Now it’s interesting, in the history of retailing in the 19th century actually, before the development of the great department stores, most shopping was done in small regional areas, neighborhood grocers and so on. And as it became centralized, a group of merchants in Chicago brought suit against the stores like Marshall Fields and others as an unfair competition.
MALE: Well, some people get left out and there’s nothing that anybody can do about it. It’s just the way it is.
MALE: Obviously, that didn’t keep Marshall Fields and other large department stores from prospering. And we began to think of our downtowns traditionally as the center of our community.
FEMALE: Cities are a living, breathing, changing entity. Right now, malls are going through a very difficult time.
MALE: Now, these many years later the mall has spawned so many other “big box” stores.
FEMALE: And perhaps the bigger threat are the big box stores. So, it’s nothing new. This is a way that cities live or die.
FEMALE: And maybe, maybe, you know what? Maybe if we never got the mall, maybe our city would just be this small little town that had nothing – not even a mall.
MALE: And I think what’s significant here is we not only look at history as something that’s 100 years old or ten years old or even one year old; we look at history as happening today and in the future.
FEMALE: Where are we going, what are we going to do, what are we reaching for?
MALE: Well, the world is moving pretty fast, and as you get older it even seems to move faster.
FEMALE: Trends come and go.
MALE: We decide as a society the things that are good for us.
FEMALE: If you can see that things can change and that you can survive and that they can be better.
MALE: Is it better? I’m not sure it is. But that’s the way it is.
[BIRD SONG, DISTANT HIGHWAY SOUNDS]
FEMALE: Our city, I think, has a lot to offer people.
MALE: It’s a really nice place to live.
MALE: It’s easy to buy a house.
FEMALE: It’s a nice size city.
MALE: Fairly easy to make a living.
FEMALE: I think it’s a safe place.
MALE: And the cost of living is very reasonable.
FEMALE: It’s really a great place to raise a family.
FEMALE: It’s the middle of America. I think that’s a good thing.
MALE: Fits my taste perfectly.
FEMALE: You’re probably going to find its beauty in the people.
[HUM OF CROWD]
MALE: Be myself, that’s all you can be.
MALE: It’s the people. And I think by and large, we have a community full of wonderful, wonderful people.
FEMALE: But while I think the people shape the town, the town shapes the people.
FEMALE: The question is, do these people look happy that they’re here?
MALE: Do you think they do?
FEMALE: I don’t know.
MALE: She didn’t look too unhappy.
FEMALE: No, I think they look pretty happy.
MALE: It’s just fun to see our country be our country, and our people be our people. And what better place to do it at the mall?
[MUSIC: Laurie Johnson “Happy Go Lively” from ‘Music For TV Dinners’ (Scamp – 1997)]
CURWOOD: Our portrait of “The Mall” was produced by Jonathan Mitchell of the Hearing Voices Radio Project, supported by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.
Living on Earth wants to hear from you!
P.O. Box 990007
Boston, MA, USA 02199
Donate to Living on Earth!
Living on Earth is an independent media program and relies entirely on contributions from listeners and institutions supporting public service. Please donate now to preserve an independent environmental voice.
Major funding for Living on Earth is provided by the National Science Foundation.
Kendeda Fund, furthering the values that contribute to a healthy planet.
The Grantham Foundation for the Protection of the Environment: Committed to protecting and improving the health of the global environment.
Contribute to Living on Earth and receive, as our gift to you, an autographed copy of one of Mark Seth Lender's extraordinary hummingbird photographs. Follow the link to see Mark's current collection of photographs.