Malls, Shopping

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MALLS, SHOPPING. The rapid, post–World War II ascendancy of the shopping center—of which malls are the largest and most important type—represented the confluence of demographic, technological, and institutional trends affecting the retailing of goods and services that had been under way since the late nineteenth century. A long-term demographic shift toward the concentration of population in urban areas, as well as a steady rise in per capita income, had culminated in the exodus of many middle-class households from increasingly crowded inner cities to the more spacious suburban developments that began to surround metropolitan areas. Suburbanization, in turn, was only possible because of Americans' increasing reliance on the automobile for personal transportation and the publicly subsidized road and highway infrastructure that supported it. Finally, the success of mass marketing techniques and organizations—especially the advent of regional and national department and chain stores—steadily changed the nature of retail distribution and helped to achieve the economies of scale that facilitated the emergence of a full-blown consumer culture in the postwar United States.

Early Shopping Centers

At the heart of this culture was the shopping mall—a centrally owned and managed cluster of architecturally unified retailing spaces designed to accommodate automobile access on its periphery while restricting traffic to pedestrians in its core. Malls had their precursors in the public marketplaces of the colonial and early national periods and the enclosed arcades of mid-nineteenth-century Europe. The malls' design, construction, and management, however, reflected not only the symbiosis of peculiarly American circumstances, but also the rise of an aggressive new breed of entrepreneur who flourished in the postwar suburban landscape: the real estate developer.

Perhaps the earliest planned shopping district in the United States was built in 1916 in Lake Forest, Illinois, a Chicago suburb, but more influential was Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, Missouri, designed by J. C. Nichols in 1922 as an integral part of a wider suburban community. Although some shopping centers were built in the 1930s (Highland Park Village, Dallas, 1931; River Oaks Center, Houston, 1937), and a few visionary developers like Don M. Casto of Columbus, Ohio, promoted them as the wave of the future, the Depression and World War II delayed their full emergence.

Enclosed Regional Malls

At war's end there were only a few hundred shopping centers in existence. By 1958, just a little over a decade later, there were nearly three thousand, although the over-whelming majority (then as half a century later) were what later became known as strip centers: a row of shops with parking in front, usually anchored by a major store, such as a supermarket or a large "five-and-dime." Many large department stores, nearly all of which were located in

the central business districts (CBDs) of cities or on Main Street in smaller towns, were at first reluctant to establish major branches on the suburban periphery, preferring to let customers travel to their long-established locations instead. The man who broke this deadlock and thus pioneered the next stage of shopping center design was Victor Gruen, an Austrian-born Nazi refugee.

Gruen belonged to a reform-minded wave of urban design theorists who were helping to plan many new suburban communities like Levittown, New York, and after the war he quickly became known as the nation's premier designer of shopping centers. Having identified shopping as a vital part of public experience in modern America, Gruen designed shopping centers that were intended to be, as he put it, "crystallization points for suburbia's community life," both as functional marketplaces and as nodes of cultural and recreational activity. From the outset, however, Gruen relied on department stores to assume a key role in shopping center development. He designed his first shopping center for a department store, Milliron's, in suburban Los Angeles in 1947, and in 1954 his innovative two-level, open-air design for Northland Mall in Detroit was underwritten by a development consortium of two major Midwestern department store chains, Dayton's of Minneapolis and Hudson's of Detroit. The Dayton-Hudson Company also financed Gruen's next project, in Edina, Minnesota, outside of Minneapolis. The Southdale Mall opened there in 1956, and Gruen designed it to feature not one but two department stores, each anchoring opposite ends of the two-level mall and separated in the middle by a central court. But even more portentously, Gruen's Southdale was the first completely enclosed mall, sealing consumers inside a controlled and secure shopping environment.

Southdale was a huge success, and over the next two decades its basic layout was duplicated by hundreds of new enclosed malls around the country. Department stores quickly overcame their earlier qualms about suburbia and some chains established their own shopping center development companies, led most notably by Sears, Roebuck's Homart. Relatively cheap land with minimal zoning restrictions, in combination with generous federal tax code changes in 1954 that allowed accelerated depreciation write-offs for new commercial construction, quickly attracted many venture capitalists into lucrative suburban shopping center development. A new generation of real estate developers like Edward J. DeBartolo of Youngstown, Ohio, Melvin Simon of Indianapolis, Indiana, and California's Ernest Hahn began constructing ever-larger shopping malls in advance of existing suburban development, usually near the junctures of highways being built as part of the federal government's ambitious interstate highway system.

Urban Malls

Such regional malls—featuring 300,000-plus square feet of space—sought to attract customers from wide geographic areas, and their rapid proliferation in the 1960s represented competition that overwhelmed older downtown retail districts. (See sidebar.) By the 1970s, however, critics of suburban mall development (who by now included Victor Gruen) helped spur a trend toward locating new malls back in CBDs as centerpieces of urban revitalization projects. Sunbelt developers like John Portman of Atlanta (the Omni) and Gerald D. Hines of Houston (the Galleria) pioneered in the design and construction of multi-use mall facilities that included offices, hotels, and atrium shops. Long-time designer-developer James Rouse's successful renovations of Boston's Faneuil Hall Marketplace (1976), Baltimore's Harborplace (1980), and New York City's South Street Seaport (1983) received national acclaim despite criticism of the apparent commercial gentrification they propelled.

A Questionable Future

By the 1990s, with nearly forty thousand shopping centers—of which almost two thousand were regional malls—signs of an oversaturated and changing market became evident: older malls were in decline; discount retailers like Wal-Mart and the advent of e-commerce were making deep inroads into mall sales; and the shift of women into the workplace had eroded malls' customer base. Hailed as the signature structures of postwar American affluence not long before, these cathedrals of consumption thus entered the new millenium facing an uncertain future.


Cohen, Lizabeth, Thomas W. Hanchett, and Kenneth T. Jackson. "AHR Forum: Shopping Malls in America." American Historical Review 101 (1996): 1049–1121. Three articles discuss aspects of the postwar shopping center boom.

Gillette, Howard, Jr. "The Evolution of the Planned Shopping Center in Suburb and City." Journal of the American Planning Association 51(1985): 449–460.

Harris, Neil. "Spaced Out at the Shopping Center." In his Cultural Excursions: Marketing Appetites and Cultural Tastes in Modern America. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1990.

Kowinski, William Severini. The Malling of America: An InsideLook at the Great Consumer Paradise. New York: Morrow, 1985. Nonscholarly, but still a thoughtful and detailed account.

Scott P.Marler

See alsoConsumerism ; Retailing Industry .

Malls and the Death of Main Street, U.S.A.

In 1985 William Severini Kowinski described the effect of two suburban shopping malls on his hometown of Greensburg, Pennsylvania:

Now the department stores of Main Street were gone, including Troutman's, which held on as a forlorn and somewhat tawdry three floors of merchandise until early 1985, when it closed completely. Most of the old shops and nearly all the restaurants, coffee shops, and tearooms had closed. But there was a brand-new Troutman's (now owned by a national department store chain) opening at Westmoreland Mall. Sears had already moved there; Penney's and Royer's had long since been at Green-gate [Mall]. Two of the five-and-tens had closed, and the other—Murphy's—had new stores at both malls. Many other small businesses relocated at the malls, including a women's store called La Rose Shop, which left after fifty-five years on Main Street under the going-out-of-business-sale banner of The Future Decided.… The train station was boarded up and abandoned, and the hotels were empty. The fate of downtown retailing was more than symbolized one spring day shortly after I came back, when the facade of the long-abandoned Bon Ton [department store] literally fell onto Main Street.

It's a short drive from Main Street to Greengate Mall, especially if the driver takes the Route 30 bypass just west of downtown. This east-west bypass was built in the 1960s to make it possible to zip from Ligonier to Pittsburgh without passing through Greensburg's downtown. Few at the time thought it was going to affect Greensburg except for the better. There were too many stoplights in town that slowed the efficient traffic flow, and the impatient cars wanting to get through made walking on Main Street more dangerous than before. But now the sad truth was obvious: Main Street had been totally bypassed. People can drive from Westmoreland Mall to Greengate without crossing Main Street at all, and they do.

SOURCE: William Severini Kowinski, The Malling of America: An Inside Look at the Great Consumer Paradise (New York: William Morrow and Company, 1985), p. 43.