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Valley Made the Mall a Cultural Icon and Rite of Passage

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TIMES STAFF WRITER

Earlier in the decade, The Times had a contest to rename the San Fernando Valley. Among the wry proposals were Suburbank and Beige-Air. But the winner was Twentynine Malls.

We know that shopping pre-dates the settlement of the Valley, but it is here that shopping acquired celebrity. Given how much of the entertainment industry is Valley-based, it is probably inevitable that local institutions, including the dozen or so area malls, have a tendency to become full-fledged cultural icons.

Thus, when the long beleaguered Sherman Oaks Galleria closed in April, a columnist in far-off Little Rock, Ark., lamented its passing.

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Dubbing the Galleria “the Shrine of the Shallow,” Jennifer Christman told readers of the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette that the Galleria was more than a mall, “It’s a historical landmark--a significant modern cultural icon of Woodstock and Graceland proportions.” The latter was high praise indeed from a reporter in the American South.

Christman admitted she had never actually been to the Sherman Oaks Galleria, but she had seen “Fast Times at Ridgemont High”--the 1982 film in which the mall co-starred with Sean Penn--”about 193 times on cable.”

In its heyday, the Galleria, which opened in 1980, was the natural habitat of the Valley Girl, as Frank and Moon Unit Zappa dubbed their prototypical teen shopper. Indeed, the mall was also a major player in Martha Coolidge’s 1983 film, “Valley Girl.”

The Galleria was shopping center as lifestyle, an adolescent planet with distinctive dress and customs, even its own language. As reporter Daniel B. Wood told readers of the Christian Science Monitor, in yet another eulogy, “For most of the 1980s, the Galleria defined what was ‘like, totally awesome’ and what was ‘grody to the max.’ ” Riding with your friends on the escalators at the mall became a national rite of passage.

If the Galleria was the most famous shopping center in Twentynine Malls, it was not the first. Opened in 1964, Topanga Plaza in Canoga Park was the first enclosed shopping mall west of the Mississippi. The mall represented a breakthrough in America’s obsession with shopping--the understanding that it is better to park once than to jump in and out of your car to visit several stores. Topanga Plaza took the concept to another level when it introduced valet parking--something only a few malls in the American Northeast have yet to discover.

The 1994 Northridge earthquake struck a major blow to mall culture, one from which it has yet to fully recover. The recently retrofitted Topanga Plaza fared well in the quake, but the Northridge Fashion Center suffered major damage, including collapsed parking structures.

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In fact, just as the buggy was replaced by the automobile and the stand-alone department store was replaced by the mall, the era of the mall as we know it may be drawing to a close.

Destination malls like Minnesota’s Mall of America, with their rain forests, thrill rides and wedding chapels, may soon replace the regional malls. No one knows exactly what changes e-commerce will make in how we shop, but everyone agrees that change will come. If having to park only once is good, how much better is never having to get into your car at all?

Even as the brave new world of digital shopping looms, the Valley mall is evolving. In Panorama City, two entrepreneurs from Israel have created a mecca for Latino shoppers with La Curacao, which appeals to consumers from Central America and Mexico with ready credit, Latin music and the ability to buy here and deliver locally to relatives in El Salvador or Guatemala. Nothing is more American than the concept of shopping until you drop, which may be why newcomers have embraced it just as passionately as Valley girls once did.

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