Shopping malls are more than marketplaces. They have a hidden political life, determined more by their proprietors' concerns over security than by civil liberties.
The pendulum in retailing seems to be swinging toward safety at the cost of what makes cities worth living in. This caution also hides a history of erasures and denials.
The "malling of America" took place when public spaces were disappearing from the inner city, 1945 to 1975. The trend was particularly noticeable in Southern California. It included the bulldozing of old downtown shops, smaller park budgets, more caution and surveillance in public plazas, tinier entryways to office buildings.
By the 1970s, increasingly, pedestrian life meant a short walk from the underground parking lot to a restaurant, or along cement pedways near an office building.
Today, we have malls like cities, mall-urbias dedicated to uninterrupted "theme" shopping. It's true we also have theme shopping on rejuvenated city streets, exemplified by Old Town Pasadena, the Santa Monica Promenade and the casino malls and amusement parks in Las Vegas. But the most innovative recent variation, Universal CityWalk, is a shopping mall masquerading as a street, not a real one.
We are experiencing a sea change in urban life: public streets increasingly replaced by private spaces and streets remodeled in the spirit of malls. This has brought with it a host of issues, since malls are identified outside the political, moral, even constitutional questions that we associate with city life.
They are legally private property, the Supreme Court has ruled, and that's how their jittery proprietors treat them. Printed warnings proclaim, "Areas in this mall used by the public are not public ways but are for the use of the tenants and the public transacting business with them."
A classic response was the decision by Odeon to protect Universal CityWalk by refusing to screen "Poetic Justice," a love story about African Americans, on the weekend it opened. CityWalk is to be expanded enormously. Will the same caution be applied as it grows?
A kid who slides down the escalator at the Town Center in Valencia is handed a card stating the mall's rules. Music by visitors is not permitted, it says, and forms of "non-commercial expressive behavior" are not encouraged.
Malls are gathering places for youth, and there is often an unwritten limit on how long they can hang out without buying something. Mall people are painfully aware of the Westwood phenomenon. By 1991, Westwood Village had become associated with loitering teen-agers and crime, with a devastating effect on business and street life.
The justification for controls is understandable--to discourage shoplifting, to prevent muggings, to protect business when whole chains of department stores are disappearing. But we have grown to accept a Victorian-style separation of classes in our public life.
Particularly since the Los Angeles uprising of 1992, there is a panicky desire to enhance the safety zone that keeps shoppers coming. Proprietors seem prepared to accept whatever policing it takes. This involves intensified surveillance and more police visibility near shopping and parking structures. Police stations are becoming common features of malls--the newest is to be in the Antelope Valley Mall. Street musicians in Old Town Pasadena are being asked to stay off the main thoroughfares, away from the flow of shoppers.
It seems innocent on first viewing, like the policies to restrict panhandling on key streets--but is it? With mall cities replacing pedestrian life generally, we may be crossing a line without realizing the consequences. Or must we simply admit that democratic liberties in public cannot survive without severe restrictions?
In the 19th Century, homelessness took on epic dimensions in large cities like Paris, London and New York. A wave of urban planning was enacted to prevent the lower classes from mixing with the wealthier, for fear of the paying customers being frightened away by so-called "street Arabs." Central Park in Manhattan was designed partly to keep the Broadway riffraff away from Fifth Avenue.
By the 1880s, the collisions took place anyway. Classes mixed in what had once been exclusive neighborhoods. And while some brownstones and Victorian mansions did turn into slums, the mix arrived with considerably less horror than expected, less crime, less threat to real estate values, certainly into the late '20s.
This new pluralism was praised because it brought livelier vaudeville for a mixed-class audience, the market for movie theaters, more buzz downtown.
Chicago architect Louis Sullivan called this polyglot mix of classes "democratic ways." In fact, much of what we love and fear today about large cities emerged out of the collisions: the mix and flurry of pedestrian life on an active and vibrant, but complicated, city street.
I hope that urban planners do not let the hysteria over crime, however justified in some cases, erase what little open public life we have left. Now that malls are the preferred model for pedestrian life generally, I hope that the surprises we welcomed in old industrial cities--the unexpected conversations, the rhythm that gives life--can be protected.
There is a fine line between safety and repression. Urban vitality should be seen as emotionally and culturally necessary, as a democratic right, even a legal right sensibly enforced, to maintain the balance. We do not want to see an Operation Hammer in mall cities, moats around walled towns. In an era of turmoil, we might lose sight of why we go into public places at all.