September 26, 2004

mall reality

We went to The Grove yesterday to pick up my now-fixed computer at the Apple Store. (Which now has a new sound board and a new i/o something or other, take that, silly AppleCare dudes who thought I could just zap the firmware and fix the problem.) My mom came too, fresh off the plane from Nova Scotia via San Francisco. The Grove is a relatively new mall and somehow we'd never brought her there. I think she liked it. And why not? What's not to like? It's a carefully designed outdoor space with a grassy center park much like a town square, a circular dancing fountain a la the Bellagio in Vegas, a picturesque double-decker trolley that trundles through every few minutes, and shop facades designed to look like a small California town's homey architecture. A small town in a big city. Main Street USA, but calculated down to its cobblestones and streetlights.

When it opened, I loved it and hated myself for loving it. Twenty years ago? I would have laughed at the absurdity of this enclosed faux community filled with national chains like Crate & Barrel and Victoria's Secret and nothing else. It may put on airs but it's an ordinary mall in fancy dress. Just like the enormous Vegas hotel casinos that create cities inside their doors, ancient Rome, Venice and Cairo, an art deco New York, but beneath their intriguing production designed surface, they're just buildings with slot machines, baccarat tables and adjacent tourist trap shops.

The fact that I loved The Grove and, honestly, still love it means I've been in Los Angeles too long. This is a city without a center. It's got a lot of character but it sprawls so much, as if someone took all the tall buildings, shook them up and spread them out along the major boulevards, that it's impossible to walk around and soak up the flavor. You have to drive to the flavor, stroll along half a dozen streets, get back in your car and drive somewhere else. So a mall that encapsulates a community, no matter how manufactured that community may be, feels fresh and new and needed. People jam onto the main "streets" of this "town." A band plays on the "town square." We throw pennies in the fountain and watch the goldfish grow ever bigger. We enjoy this environment even though it's not the one we truly want. It's main street Disney-style and yet it works. And so every single time I go, I both love and hate it. I wish for a real walking city, one with architecture that holds history and truth and messiness and graffiti and shops that don't have to be pre-approved by Management. But this is the city where we live and this is the compromise we make.

And you know? When I watch a woman shake her hips to the band's music on a balmy night, when I watch a child peering over the bridge rail into the dark water below in utter fascination, when Damian pulls me by the hand, "Come see the dog, Mommy!" and I look at the miniature pup sitting patiently by a genial woman resting on a bench, when I go to The Grove and live it instead of contemplating it from a distance, I realize: sometimes the environment is not all. It's a fun backdrop, pleasant scenery, an excuse to gather. What people bring to the place is not ersatz, never manufactured. And ultimately that's why I love it there.

Posted by Tamar at September 26, 2004 10:55 PM

For the first time, I get why you've never liked malls. I can finally understand why someone who has all that stuff available to them in a "walking city" as you put it wouldn't want or need to drive to a place that reproduces a Disney version of it. It's just that where I live, there is no such thing as a "walking city" -- not even New Orleans, which is very spread out and often dangerous to foot traffic, and so I had no concept of your reality that you grew up with. This was really interesting -- thanks!

Posted by: toni at September 27, 2004 12:08 PM