“Everything is melting into shopping.”

Nothing says “Fourth of July Weekend” like curling up indoors with a good book. Two years ago I was captivated by Danielle Allen’s tour de force Our Declaration: A Reading of the Declaration of Independence In Defense of Democracy, a brilliant reading that demonstrates that the concept of equality is as essential to its claims as the concept of freedom. I found it inspired and inspiring.

(OK, last year I was in Gilmer watching fireworks.)

This year, fittingly in the season of Donald Trump, my selection, though a delightful read, was ultimately a bit more somber.

Wade Graham’s Dream Cities: Seven Ideas that Shape the Urban World–a gift from my colleague Michael Parker–is a smart, well-paced “field guide” to urban form as it has evolved to become the modern city. Focusing on the stories behind the structures, Graham outlines the contrapuntal genealogy that runs from Daniel Burnham to Le Corbusier to Robert Moses to Jane Jacobs, finally to Buckminster Fuller, Norman Foster and other dreamers of the “techno-ecological city.” While Graham claims to be neither utopic nor dystopic, the narratives unfailingly reveal the way best-laid plans devolve into dysfunction and displacement (in the immortal words of James Baldwin, “Urban renewal means Negro removal”).

The story of Jane Jacobs’ very public take-down of Robert Moses is familiar, though it’s worth the reminder of her core beliefs.

First, she said, one must be clear about the object: “Great cities are not like towns, only larger. They are not like suburbs, only denser.” Their rules are distinct. They aren’t collections of object-buildings, each with a distinct function, the provision of which will guarantee social order and good outcomes–a relief that Reinhold Niebuhr called the “doctrine of salvation by bricks alone.” A city isn’t just schools, housing, parks, and buildings, but the interactions between them and their inhabitants and users. Cities, insisted Jacobs, are “problems in organized complexity.”

In the decades after Jacobs’ pathbreaking work, as cities grappled with truly complex problems associated with white flight to the suburbs, a novel solution emerged: the transposition of the suburban mall into the heart of the city.

The shopping destinations of my generation–for example, Raymond Nasher’s NorthPark in Dallas–were excitingly suburban. These many years later, I learn that they were inspired by one man, architect Victor Gruen, whose first elegant, air-conditioned mall was outside of Detroit (1954).


NorthPark at 50: 50 Years of Style

It was springtime all year long in these low-slung structures anchored in a sea of asphalt. The distance between doors was scientifically calibrated to conform to the distances people would be willing to walk. The timing of Gruen’s work and Disneyland is so close it’s hard to tell which influenced which.

Gruen cherished great hopes for his malls as communal spaces: “Shopping centers have taken on the characteristics of urban organizations serving a multitude of human needs and activities,” he wrote. It was a city “in miniature, recreating a form of urbanism in the suburbs to alleviate the suburbs’ rejection of the city.” But as the model proliferated–by 1970 there were 13,000 of them–his ideals became compromised; developers jettisoned all but the most profitable features, provoking Gruen to say (as he retired to his native Vienna), “I refuse to pay alimony for those bastard developments.”

And yet they kept coming, a total of 36,515 suburban shopping centers by 1990. (On the “shift from the shiny excess of the 1980s toward an era of slackers and grunge culture,” see Michael Galinsky’s splendid documentary project Malls Across America.)

In response to the hollowing-out of the inner cities, meanwhile, the pendulum had begun to swing. James Rouse’s Faneuil Hall Marketplace in Boston, which opened in 1976, defined a new genre: the “festival marketplace.” His Baltimore Harborplace (1980) was another successful example, although others failed–it was early days for this model, at least without stronger support from urban policymakers.

Mayor Pete Wilson of San Diego caught the vision. As a solution to a “blighted” downtown area, he imagined a modern shopping center. The result was Jon Jerde’s Horton Plaza (1985), “an elongated, multilevel version of the festival marketplace.” Tapping into the postmodernist trend of the moment, it featured “free use of historicist decoration and stagey, populist borrowing from lowbrow commercial design,” while it borrowed from existing styles, from Spanish revival to Art Deco. Jerde’s aim was that the spaces “feel bigger than life. You experience the place at a higher volume, as the ideal fantasy of what you believe this pace to be.”

Today, alas, Horton Plaza is a threatened “historic treasure,” but in the mid-1980s it secured Jerde’s career as designer of hugely successful, transformative downtown shopping centers. Moreover, this solution created as a response to an urban problem was re-transported to suburbia, as aging enclosed malls were redesigned with passageways and storefronts: a new formula to “rejuvenate” an old mall “using urban values in the heart of suburbia.” Ultimately his model proved that a shopping mall, done well enough, could serve as an “entertainment destination in its own right.” Jerde’s project on 96 acres at the intersection of two major highways outside of Minneapolis-Saint Paul, the Mall of America (1992)–complete with indoor amusement park–today attracts more visitors than Disneyworld, Graceland and the Grand Canyon combined:

Here Jerde was obeying, and demonstrating, Reilly’s Law of Retail Gravitation–which states that, “all other factors being equal, shoppers will patronize the largest shopping center they can get to easily”–and proving in the process that the Jerde formula wasn’t tied to a city location, but about creating the sensation of a certain kind of urbanist and communal environment, fulfilling Victor Gruen’s visions for a mall-centered, urbanist suburbia. “Communal experience is a designable event,” Jerde wrote, wherever the site may be.

Jerde’s next signature project, Universal CityWalk (1993), greeted guests with a riot of storefront surfaces, colors, and neon. It “takes the mishmash of Horton to a new level,” writes Graham. At last a threshold had been crossed: critics called out its “fake urbanism.” But that didn’t keep it from being wildly successful for what it is: a shopping/dining/entertainment destination.

From CityWalk Jerde moved on to Las Vegas, as the casino owners, navigating a recession and changing demographics, “sought to remake Sin City into a family-oriented resort destination.”


Fremont Street, Las Vegas (John Phelan, Creative Commons)


From Las Vegas it was a short step back to the project of revitalizing the city: to “the penetration of the new retailing model into the urban fabric of cities all over the world.” The Hard Rock Cafe and Chuck E. Cheese come out of this era, as well as the Disney Store in Times Square and over 500 other locations, “a paragon of the globalization of branded space in a new, consumption-dominated world economy.” Said Jon Jerde, “We are like psychoanalysts, uncovering the dreams of our clients and helping to make them come true.”

But do these spaces truly define the stuff of urban experience? Graham frames the question by returning to Jane Jacobs’ conditions for generating “exuberant diversity in a city’s streets and districts” and concludes, surprisingly and sadly, that “in most cases they do, at least during their open hours.”

Not only is shopping melting into everything, but everything is melting into shopping. Through successive waves of expansion–each more extensive and pervasive than the previous–shopping has methodically encroached on a widening spectrum of territories so that it is now, arguably, the defining activity of public life.       –Sze Tsung Leong, Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping

Little wonder, then, given the constriction, the privatization of public space, that the practice of street art has been on the upswing. Street art “demands a discourse with democracy,” writes Alison Young, a professor of social and political sciences at the University of Melbourne. Street artists pose the question of “whether our urban centers can ever be(come) public cities” again. 

(Trio) | Sally Greene | Flickr_Page_1

Old Chapel Hill bus station, 2004, before its demolition to make way for the Franklin Hotel.

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