A Mallrat Repents

I have a confession to make. I was a mallrat.

I spent endless hours of my tween and teen years hanging out in and malls.  I loved movies featuring mall scenes like Can’t Buy Me Love, Weird Science and Back to the Future (all of which I saw in a mall theater). As a kid growing up in the suburbs it was the ‘cool thing’ to do. Even though my hometown had a pretty decent downtown, I viewed it as a place for ‘suits’ and tourists. Ironically, it wasn’t until a new downtown mall opened that I started exploring city life outside of it.

A few years later, I moved away to college, and discovered the joys of a small town’s main street. I then spent a few years in the urban mecca of Vancouver, and several more in the eastern city of Ottawa. I began taking city life for granted. I enjoyed hanging out at locally owned coffee shops and bars and finding unique items at local businesses. I discovered the writings of Jane Jacobs. I only stepped foot in malls on an occasional basis, usually to catch a movie at the Cineplex or to buy something of a gift registry for a wedding or baby shower. I started going to the grand old movie theaters whenever possible. I had become an urbanite.

Thus, moving to Phoenix was a culture shock. It is next to impossible to avoid malls here. Even the downtown urban infill projects that the city is lauding have more in common with a suburban mall than an urban main street. This is why a film I saw yesterday at the Phoenix Art Museum resonated with me in such a strong way.

The film was Malls R Us. It was co-presented by No Festival Required, as part of its almost monthly series of documentaries and ‘indie’ films. It was sponsored by CityCircles, a new resource for exploring the city by light rail.

Malls R Us is a provocative documentary that looks at North America’s love affair will the mall. Produced by Helene Klodawsky, the film takes us through the history of the mall from its unassuming beginnings of the mall in suburban Minneapolis in the 1950s to todays mega-projects in Dubai and India. Helene attempts to portray a balanced picture of the mall and its place in our culture and communities. Despite this attempt at neutrality, I left the theater with an even stronger revulsion for malls and the damage they represent, not only to our built form, but our social interaction as well.

Part of the reason that movie resonated so deeply with me is its portrayal of places and people I’m familiar, with. The movie opens with a panoramic shot of the Sonaran Desert, complete with saguaro cacti.  One of the main protagonists of the film is a Canadian film developer who whose wants to develop the world first ‘green’ mall on a parcel of environmentally sensitive land in the outskirts of Montreal. His search for tenants take him to Cabela’s, the outdoor megastore in Glendale, a Phoenix suburb. This closed the circle for me as a Canadian living in Phoenix.

I won’t go any deeper into what the movie reveals, because I strongly urge you to see it yourself.  But I did want to leave you something to think about. I understand that special places that malls occupy in our memories. I certainly have many happy memories myself. But like Santa Claus and the Tooth Fairy, as we grow up, we need to stop over- romanticizing and realize that full truth behind these memories. I hear all the time what a special place malls like Park Central, Christown Spectrum and Biltmore Fashion Center have in the hearts of long time residents.

What we tend to forget though, is just as malls like Metrocenter and Scottsdale Fashion Center lead to the demise of malls like Christown Spectrum and Park Central; Park Central and Christown led to the demise of downtown Phoenix. So feel free to reminisce, but don’t mourn too much. It is only with the demise (and hopefully adaptive reuse) of such malls, that our downtown core can reach it’s potential as a vital hub for the city.

Perhaps now with the difficulties that CityNorth is having, politicians and developers will wake up and realize that the era of the North American mall is over. Too bad it is just beginning in place like Kazakhstan and India.

Related Site: Deadmalls.com

Yuri Artibise

Yuri Artibise is an experienced policy analyst, community engagement practitioner and social media specialist. I have a Master of Public Administration degree with over 10 years of public policy research, analysis, and advocacy experience.

  • Where might one get a copy of this movie, any suggestions? The Icarus site want 398 for a DVD. That can't be right, can it??

    If the era of American malls is over, what will take their place? I'm a little concerned it might take a while before all Americans are as enlightened as you.

  • Where might one get a copy of this movie, any suggestions? The Icarus site want 398 for a DVD. That can’t be right, can it??

    If the era of American malls is over, what will take their place? I’m a little concerned it might take a while before all Americans are as enlightened as you.

  • Andrew, the film is still in theaters/on the film festival circuit, so it’s not available online or video yet (unless you want to part with $399). However, if the attendance on Sunday was any indication, keep your eyes open, it may play again in Phoenix. Let Steve Weiss at No Festival Required and/or Harkins Camelview 5 know you’d like to see it.

    I agree that it may take a while for However, nothing necessarily needs to take their place. the US has at least TEN TIMES the global average of retail sq footage, and I’ve heard that AZ has almost twice the national average. Given the rapid increase in online shopping, it is likely that the demand for mall based retail is likely to decrease even further.

    So instead of thinking about more retail, people are thinking of new uses for the malls. Check out: http://tinyurl.com/yznmzrg (via @azdurawrap)

  • Andrew, the film is still in theaters/on the film festival circuit, so it's not available online or video yet (unless you want to part with $399). However, if the attendance on Sunday was any indication, keep your eyes open, it may play again in Phoenix. Let Steve Weiss at No Festival Required and/or Harkins Camelview 5 know you'd like to see it.

    I agree that it may take a while for However, nothing necessarily needs to take their place. the US has at least TEN TIMES the global average of retail sq footage, and I've heard that AZ has almost twice the national average. Given the rapid increase in online shopping, it is likely that the demand for mall based retail is likely to decrease even further.

    So instead of thinking about more retail, people are thinking of new uses for the malls. Check out: http://tinyurl.com/yznmzrg (via @azdurawrap)

  • Anonymous

    Thanks for the comments.I’ll be sending a link to the director Helene Klowdawsky and the distributor,whom I’m sure will appreciate the thoughtful analysis.

    I’ve seen the films many times now,and always get something more out of it. That, and the fact it’s shot so well, makes it one of my favorite documentaries of the hundreds I’ve seen and screened.

    One thing to always remember, many mall stores in the old days were sole proprietors. Certainly there were always franchises and chains(did Canada have Orange Julius?), but you’d also find private-owned shops interspersed. This was probably the intent of the original shopping center, but then they fell into the corporate big-box “anchor tenant” mode.

    I worked at a Waldens bookstore in Tower Plaza mall, Broadway department store at Biltmore Fashion Mall and Antique Photo Emporium in Metrocenter. It wasn’t until right now that I realized I worked in three malls! Thing is, I never hung out in any of them. To me, shopping was go, get the thing,leave. As a kid I loved the animals and aquariums and aviaries of Thomas Mall and Chris-Town, but it was the really unique Town and Country Shopping Center, with its distinct locally owned shops and open-air design…and great food court with amusement games!…that kept my interest.

    I can show the film again if I get enough of an audience to justify the rental cost, my time and venue payment to screen it again. I’d love to see it screen for a week! Maybe we’ll do it again at Fractal?

  • Look like the cycle is continuing: Westcor is ‘transitioning out’ of beleaguered Metrocenter “’Changes in consumer-shopping patterns no longer favor large indoor malls,’ including former crown jewel in Phoenix”

  • Look like the cycle is continuing: Westcor is 'transitioning out' of beleaguered Metrocenter “'Changes in consumer-shopping patterns no longer favor large indoor malls,' including former crown jewel in Phoenix”

  • Here's another article on Metrocenter: Metrocenter mall to be 're-themed' in attempt to bring it back to life. I didn't realize that this was where Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure was filmed (another move I saw in a mall theater!).

  • michelechaves

    I'd be interested in this film.

    Like most who grew up in Phoenix, malls play a big role in my youth mostly because there wasn't much else for young people to do. I don't know if the current state of malls has been romanticized or not…in a place like Phoenix where there have historically been so few places for people to congregate and find shops and food in one place, they worked here. There are pockets now, but Phoenix isn't like other cities where there are large areas where you can walk from shop to shop, restaurant to bar. Phoenix needed malls. Now we need to get rid of the malls…but replacing what they represented is going to be more of a challenge.

  • Anonymous

    I’d be interested in this film.

    Like most who grew up in Phoenix, malls play a big role in my youth mostly because there wasn’t much else for young people to do. I don’t know if the current state of malls has been romanticized or not…in a place like Phoenix where there have historically been so few places for people to congregate and find shops and food in one place, they worked here. There are pockets now, but Phoenix isn’t like other cities where there are large areas where you can walk from shop to shop, restaurant to bar. Phoenix needed malls. Now we need to get rid of the malls…but replacing what they represented is going to be more of a challenge.