18 June 2007

Taking the new mall for a spin

Our town has a new mall, after the slow and languid death of the old one many years ago and the black hole of construction that occupied it for a long time. A friend mentioned recently that her dad had, back when that first mall was built, turned down a chance to own some of that land.

Now it is owned and operated by Macerich, and it is that corporation's territory in more ways than I had realized.

I hadn't understood that malls have a different status from other public spaces because of the ownership of the land. It's like your parents saying, "Our roof, our rules!" when you come home with your "special" friend. They get to say, "No demonstrations on our property because they block trade on private property, our private property." They get to enforce traffic and other regulations fairly selectively, as I understand it.

And what are we left with?

I spent an hour there today because I'm curious. Who goes to this mall? I know bored parents of small children do because it's safe, full of pairs of eyes, full of similar people with similar issues. I saw lots of mall workers arrive, as I arrived around 10 so I could redeem a coupon for a freebie at Panera Bread. I never know what I want there when I go in. I always feel kind of perplexed at the panoply of pain: all those white breads and pastries, all that starchy, sugary stuff with nary a whole grain in sight despite dustings of whole oats suggesting otherwise.

Looking at their menu I felt like I was choosing a breakfast item from the dairy case at the supermarket: Let's see, Grands buttermilk biscuits or the can of cinnamon rolls? Both of those choices are pale imitations of the biscuits, scones, and rolls we typically make at home, but I know people get seduced into thinking that prying those spiral-sealed cans open with a spoon is the experience of baking or is an improvement on the time and labor baking requires. Looking at my options at Panera I felt like I was choosing from a selection of Betty Crocker cake mixes, which are fine for what they are but again are not the same as beating butter and sugar, adding eggs and flour and milk and salt and rising agents and baking it all together until it becomes something more than the simple sum of its parts.

I am deeply skeptical of how designed the whole mall experience feels today. At Panera I like their muffin tops, called "Muffies" -- all the best part of a muffin, a great idea -- and the free "souffle" was okay yet enough salt to burn the back of my throat seemed to be standing in for some of the cheese in the four-cheese "souffle," an eggy center baked inside a pastry shell that stayed pleasingly warm for a while. I know people who write at Panera because of the free wifi (I think we should start pronouncing it wiffie or weefee; I like the play on the word wifey, too). I love it that people like me can work anywhere now, that people like me are being courted with the free wifi and the endless refills, that we are encouraged to make these spaces our mobile workplaces. But I don't like the way the staff are relegated to fast-food workers, assembling cookie-cutter items and always having to answer to some remote entity called "Corporate."

I've felt a tinge of the same dismay every time I've visited a new Peet's coffee outlet in the past few years. They're all pretty, with nice finishes and art that professes the company's interest in the places they buy coffee. But there's little there there, as Gertrude Stein infamously said of Oakland. Mall coffee shops are the unisex replacement for the disappearing lounge adjacent to the department store restroom. The room that allowed you to call it a restroom and not just a bathroom or toilet. Mall cafes and other spaces offer public parlors, environments that are clean and inoffensive enough to disappear so you can use them for your own purposes for a while.

All these wipeable surfaces feel alien after living a block from the original Peet's store in Berkeley for two years in the early 1980s. We were lucky enough to land not on the Telegraph side of campus but on the Chez Panisse side.

I've only dined at Chez Panisse three times, each of them memorable, but at least once a week my housemates and I would amble the block, threading our way along the heaving concrete sidewalks of North Berkeley, to Peet's for a small cup of their rich, deep elixir. We'd claim a little patch of sidewalk or stairway or lean on a newspaper box and watch other people come to life with us under the effects of the brew. Thus was one of the final nails driven into my life before coffee snobbery. (I was a goner from way back: there were too many things urging me in that direction, like when my sweetie returned from Boston with tales of coffee a friend at MIT made after cooling the coffee with liquid nitrogen; the theory was that the highest temperature differential between coffee and water made for the best flavored brew; this accounted for our freezing of all our coffee beans for the next twenty years.)

Peet's defined Berkeley for me: nestled among the Craftsman bungalows of the Berkeley hills, all that dark wood paneling and shelving under low ceilings made for a cozy cubbyhole that got steamy when it rained. It's hard to say whether the wood was all stained dark deliberately or whether some of it was simply coated with the patina of a million visitors, a million transactions before ours. I think it was a lot of both. I loved the way intellectuals engaged with each other, caffeine as the facilitator.

But here, at the Peet's at the new mall, there's no patina, nor do I find impassioned intellects at odds. I go in and buy coffee there anyway, because it's a decent place to sit and write. A woman is reading next to me, a guy is on a laptop, and a couple of women are chatting in the section I choose, the one with a great view of the Flatirons, our beautiful mountains. Real estate agents and contractors meet their clients here and pore through checklists with them. I find I can't concentrate on my novel about a Venetian police detective, again, and I'm distracted from the gorgeous view of our dramatic mountainscape by the names etched on the tops of the boxes across the parking lot: Men's Wearhouse; Staples: The Office Supply Superstore (also subtitled by me "The Only Office Supply Store Pretentious Enough to Have a Name with a Subtitle"); and a storefront with a name that always perplexes me, Massage Envy.

I walk back toward my car along the main row of shops, and even at up to 60 percent off, I know there's nothing I need in any of these stores. I bought socks for our daughter at Gymboree the other day. My friends and I liked the drinks at The Purple Martini one evening when we arrived at the tail end of their four-hour "happy hour." (But the volume of the music videos they had playing on screens all over the bar seemed to increase exponentially while we were there and our ears were ringing by the time we left, around 9:30, when the night was still young for most people.

A man who is maybe thirty walks past me, talking animatedly with himself. "Why? I don't know why!" he exclaims, a daypack and a cotton sack with handles bouncing behind him as he strides south. Off-Center Guy doesn't seem to be slowed by the store displays any more than I am. Maybe it's just us who are out of sync with everyone else, but I'm not so sure.

There's nothing here for him, there's nothing here for me. A couple of shops looked like they reflected someone's individual style: Christina's Collection and a denim boutique. Perversely, the kind of jewel box that is Christina's Collection, preciously named and looking like a little museum, a thoroughly curated expression of one person's unique sensibilities, is simultaneously more attractive and extremely suspect: I worry that if I cross its threshold I may be subjecting myself to the sticky snares of some person for whom this little shop is the absolute culmination of their hopes and dreams, my every glance will be pounced upon, and my every murmur met with an essay revealing the storekeeper's extensive interest in just that detail. Sometimes you just want to browse in a very anonymous way, and that, I'm convinced, is also the appeal of the chain stores. I know people who are very attached to the freedom of being able to buy dinner without getting out of their cars now; at the mall, I have that same feeling. I could buy a garment here without anyone I know judging me for where I shop or what I buy; the store clerks and owners are simply glad to have me as a customer because that means, for now, that they have jobs.

But everything here feels like it's for someone else. The store with all black, white, or black-and-white stuff? Cool idea, but I don't need any of that right now, thank you. I'm just not a person who updates my decor continuously, who swaps out candle holders, dish towels, and coordinating oven mitts every season.

And I know my reluctance to buy my little trendy tops at mall chain stores is slowing a certain economy down in some ways. By buying used things, however, I'm also nurturing other economies I believe in more than I believe in The Macerich Corporation. My friends and I lament that for what you get back it's hardly worth consigning at Childish Things, a shop just a half a block north of the new mall that resells used clothes, toys, and incidentals for families with little kids and babies, yet I still bring some of our used stuff there anyway, if simply to support someone who I think has built a nice business for Boulderites and a kind of refuge for parents of small children, no small thing during that peculiarly isolating time.

I get the most help from a stocking clerk at Macy's, who directs me where I want to go (I feel so geeky for asking the young Hispanic woman for "swimwear"). A make-up clerk who had just started to work with another patron still has a "hi" with a smile for me as I go by. She'll go far, I'm sure, if she doesn't piss off the people she's already working with to get to the other ones she wants to work with.

So who does shop here? Who is this for? Who falls for this?

I suspect this is all for the people moving into all those new houses that look just like the ones on Extreme Makeover: Home Edition. I think that show has held up quite a standard in contemporary home design; now I'm seeing so many siding-and-stone clad houses they're starting to look like what we called the "mushroom houses" of the 1980s and 1990s to me. Those houses the developers build on that TV show have become a powerful icon, one that people are grasping hold of right now despite having been lured to overextend themselves with exploding mortgages that they couldn't really finance unless everything continued going just as well as it had been, and we all know how that turned out for most people, don't we? Unfortunately, we don't know how it's going to turn out for a whole lot more people very soon, but foreclosures are on a scary-big upswing.

I think TV is still selling that whole package as hard as it can, though. If you can have everything paved, landscaped, a nice car, and a flat-screen TV, all will be well, right? People think they will be accepted if they look like the ones they watch on prime time nightly, or if they have that house, keep up with the fads. We don't watch much TV compared with the average Joseph P. America, so now and then I'm incensed when a movie or TV show tries to tell you that its people are quirky and charming and special yet all the stuff around them cries, "These people are total fashion victims, enslaved by what people think they should do and want!"

I see around me the minimum-wage workers who have jobs here at the mall and shop here because it's what they know. I recognize the parents with young children who are both bored silly by life in front of the TV and come here for the all-important activity of simply Getting Out of the House so the moms can say they "did some errands" by the end of the day and feel better about themselves.

My mother and I talked this morning about my deeply skeptical attitude toward this new "public space" and she reminded me of Frank Zappa's question, "Is that a real poncho, or is that a Sears poncho?" No Sears stores here at the new mall, but Zappa's question still slices right to the heart of the matter after lo, these many years. Is this a real mall, or someone's idea of what you might want from a mall? Is this a real experience, or a made-up experience? I keep wanting to meet the people the mall designers had in mind when they developed this project. It is not lost on me that all those cool ideas about mixed-use this and that that people brought up during the open comment period before the new mall was developed simply evaporated. Now we've got a soulless outdoor mall (which is ok when the weather's fine but seems bleak and unenticing in the cold of winter, encouraging me to forget about the place for months at a time), filled with national chains selling stuff no one really needs any more, if they ever did. This outdoor mall has no connection with our older downtown pedestrian mall, a missed opportunity to link this with the real center of town if I ever saw one. Why there aren't free shuttles between the two places I do not understand.

So I'll skirt the mall and cash in my freebies now and then (California Pizza Kitchen sent me a free dinner for four just before their real opening but on my last visit they served me food with rancid nuts and I just haven't worked up any enthusiasm about going back there). And instead of buying Major Dickason's Blend for $13/lb. coffee at Peet's, I'll sip my $6/lb. organic, free-trade Italian roast from Lucky's Market and enjoy our own free wifi from my back deck instead. Malls like this one always remind me to look inward, closer to home, for the there I sometimes misguidedly seek out there.

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