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Omigod, the Galleria Died

We have a fascinating death in progress here. Soon, the Sherman Oaks Galleria will cease to exist as a mall. The owners have abandoned any hope of reviving it and will shut down the Galleria in a few months, commence a heavy renovation and convert the great hulk into an office center.

A big deal, this demise. We are witnessing the last, ragged breaths of the beast that created mall culture. Many other gallerias followed down the same path, of course, but they served as mere copies of the original, spreading the cultural seeds throughout the land. Only the Sherman Oaks Galleria provided the ooze from which grew the teenage subcultures of mall crawling, food court romancing and the like. Only the S.O. Galleria incubated the Valley Girl. And so on.

These days the term “mall culture” seems quaint. But in the early 1980s people paid attention. Anthropologists flew out to study the Galleria in the belief that something important was taking place. They positioned themselves at the Food Court or the bench outside the Gap, taking notes in the same way their predecessors studied natives in New Guinea.

And, of course, Hollywood made movies about it. “Valley Girl” and “Fast Times at Ridgemont High” both presented the Galleria as the dominant institution in the lives of their young characters. You could argue that Nicolas Cage and Sean Penn, who first won widespread attention in those movies, partially owe their careers to the Galleria.

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In these movies, the mall functions like a parentless home to the kids. It offers a certain level of protection, a haven where the kids can, in effect, guide each other through the vagaries of teen life. In the mall, anything can happen. The sense of promise is everywhere.

“C’mon, Linda,” one teenage girl says in “Fast Times” to her best friend, pulling her into the Food Court. “You’re the one who told me I was going to get a boyfriend at the mall.” Then the two girls march into a sea of young people waiting, it seems, just for them.

These days, as with Machu Picchu, the Food Court sits largely abandoned. And the shopping corridors are worse. The Gap packed up and left long ago. Ditto Victoria’s Secret. And Sam Goody’s.

Customers have gone too. After a few minutes spent listening to your own footsteps on the marble floors, you can actually get spooked by the place. It feels like the site of a neutron bomb explosion, where the building and all its parts remain but the people have vanished.

On a tour last week, I walked into the Buccaneer Smoke Shop. Virtually alone on a corridor, its doors were open, and inside Harry Sahelian was holding out. Sahelian has operated his store in the mall for 10 years, he says, but soon he will also be leaving. And not returning.

“I am 73 years old,” he says. “All of my friends at the mall are gone. My wife, she says to me, ‘Enough, already.’ ”

What happened to the Galleria? The recited business dogma suggests the recession of the 1990s, bad architecture and an ugly fight between the mall owners and its anchor tenant, Robinsons-May.

All good enough reasons, no doubt, but they don’t really satisfy. As Daniel Rosenfeld, the former head of real estate operations for the city of Los Angeles, says, “The death of the Galleria suggests something profound and mysterious. No one can know for certain what killed it. Whatever the forces were, they were big.”

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For his part, Rosenfeld believes that the demise just might be good news. “Malls were terribly destructive to city life,” he says. “They sucked people off the street and placed them in this synthetic, cold environment. They left you feeling disconnected from everyday life, an almost disembodied experience.

“So if the Sherman Oaks Galleria, one of the national icons of mall life, suddenly collapses and dies like some dinosaur, it leaves you hoping that the whole phenomenon of malls may be crumbling. What’s bad for malls is good for any city, and that’s especially true in Los Angeles.”

As it turns out, there’s plenty of evidence to support Rosenfeld’s theory. A half-dozen other malls around Los Angeles have similarly fallen on bad times, from Hawthorne to Pasadena to Palos Verdes. At the same time, old-fashioned street shopping has revived.

Take, for example, the extraordinary contrast between the throngs of customers in Old Pasadena and the deserted halls of the Pasadena mall only a few blocks away. Customers have voted with their feet, and they are walking away from malls.

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A quick review of press reports around the country shows a similar trend. Some malls continue to thrive, but many others are close to joining the Galleria. The reports out of Atlanta, Richmond, Va., and Greensboro, N.C., tell the same story over and over again: Customers have withered away, leaving the malls looking like abandoned relics of another age.

If this trend continues in Los Angeles, it could suggest a historic turnaround. As Richard Longstreth recently wrote in his book “City Center to Regional Mall--Architecture, the Automobile and Retailing in Los Angeles, 1920-1950,” this city led the way in the creation of shopping centers after World War II. We demonstrated for other cities how their urban cores could be destroyed by devotion to the automobile and auto-dependent shopping.

So complete was the transfer of retail activity here that, by the 1980s, Los Angeles’ downtown was virtually devoid of the department stores, furniture stores and clothing stores that had been founded there. The suburban malls had taken over.

So now, if Los Angeles is turning away from that mode, we may be looking toward a brighter, more interesting future. The die is not yet cast but, as Rosenfeld says, the death of the Galleria most likely is good news.

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Actually, the news may be good for the Galleria also. Douglas, Emmett & Co., the present owner, has developed a plan for remaking the Galleria that could establish it as a model for other failed malls. The company will attempt to transform the space so it houses a small community of business offices with attendant shops and restaurants.

City Councilman Mike Feuer, whose district includes the Galleria, believes the plan will work. “The old structure of the mall will be opened up, making it more inviting. And businesses badly need office space in the Valley. I think this plan is going to succeed for years to come.”

So maybe this is a story where everybody wins. We get a more interesting city, and the mall owners get a new life as promoters of office complexes.

Albeit, in the case of the Galleria, an office complex augmented by certain ghosts. Of the Tiffanys and Bryndas who found just the right shoes, of the Steves and Brets who scored at the multiplex. Of Ginger who met Brad at the Food Court, and so on.

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A trippingdicular time, as they would say, however long ago. Let’s not forget.


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