When The Mall of America opened 25 years ago this week, the media panned it as a really dumb idea. For one, they said, it was too much a gimmick. The biggest mall in America — the size of five Yankee Stadiums — came with nightclubs, a medical supply store, and an amusement park with a roller coaster and log flume. Beyond that, it was pending financial disaster. The Los Angeles Times called the convergence of attractions and retail a “risky mix” and a “carnival approach;” The Washington Post posited that The Mall would be a lose-lose for itself and existing local retail; The New York Times doubted the worth of a “monster mall in the middle of a recession.” Over time, however, it’s only doubled down on this perceived fault: The Mall has since been host to a subterranean aquarium, a budget wedding chapel, hotels, office buildings, a community college, a high school, a clinic, a place that only sells cheese from Wisconsin, a Prince retrospective, and the excellently named MinneNAPolis, a sort of sleeping station where you could rent a bed by the minute (that venture only survived a few months). Last year alone, The Mall hired a Black Santa, closed its doors on Thanksgiving to give its employees a break, and hosted a writer-in-residence who only wrote on a typewriter. All these events made headlines.
And yet, despite the grumpy outlook, The Mall of America is one of the few retail success stories in an otherwise uncertain time for IRL commerce. Analysts have called this a retailpocalypse, the American malls and their empty corpses serving as shameful reminders of what happened when we thought formica-tiled materialism could buy us freedom. This year, 5,300 stores have already shuttered, which puts it on track to become the single worst year for store closures in history. A note put out by Credit Suisse predicts that by 2022, as many as 25% of U.S. malls will close.
But there is no formica at The Mall of America (they got rid of that three years ago). It is also profitable, and increasingly so. The Minneapolis Business Journal found that the MOA is Minnesota’s most valuable real estate asset, and there are plans to nearly grow The Mall’s footprint by another million square feet. Though there are no public financial figures for the privately held company, The Mall of America claims that its shoppers spend 52% more per trip than the national average. More people visit it annually than Disney World — a figure so wrong-sounding that I had to fact-check it three times.
The reason for The Mall’s success was the reason for its criticism. In boring terms, The Mall has survived because it has always subscribed to the notion of mixing retail with entertainment. That may have been cause for concern in the '90s, but today it's being touted as the answer to fixing the national brick-and-mortar crises. Around the country, malls are adding Lego Discovery Centers, bowling lanes, surfing simulators, and pizza buffets to spice up their offerings. They are trying to become what the Mall of America already is: a real, meaningful part — and reflection — of its local community, even if that means making decisions without immediate profit in mind.
“It’s literally for everyone. If my cousins from out of town were here, I’d tell them they have to come to The Mall, just to see it,” Moona, a young Muslim woman tells me in the food court as she’s waiting for her friend to arrive. “But, I feel like I need to go to The Mall of America every once in awhile. I need my outfits! But I need it, too.”
To understand The Mall of America, you must first understand the first mall in America. That would be the Southdale Mall, which opened in 1956 just twelves miles down the interstate in Edina. Designed by Victor Gruen, a Jewish socialist who fled Vienna during World War I, the Southdale mall was as innovative an architectural invention as skyscrapers were for their time. But instead of up, Gruen went in.
Gruen’s big idea was to recreate the city square but with a roof on top, a crucial advancement in Minnesota where winter temperatures make outdoor shopping an impossibility. Phase one of his plan — and what would become commonplace in the modern American mall — included stores and a “garden court” where people could relax as they would in parks, surrounded by newsstands, murals, and “sidewalk” cafes to provide refreshments. According to a 2004 New Yorker profile on Gruen, he installed a fishpond and a 21-foot cage of exotic birds.
But all that was to prepare Southdale for phase two: turning it into a real community, with connected apartment buildings, offices, hospitals, parks, and schools within the mall. According to Gruen, Southdale would “provide the needed place and opportunity for participation in modern community life that the ancient Greek Agora and our own Town Squares provided in the past. By affording opportunities for social life and recreation, by incorporating civic and educational facilities, shopping centers can fill an existing void.” For Gruen, the main point was community, not profit.
Half a century later, Southdale is still stuck in phase one, and has perhaps even reverted. Gone are the ponds and gardens; the only birds are the sequined ones found in the discount chains surrounding the main atrium. Given the opportunity, you could probably name 80% of the stories within it, just based on the most obvious choices. It was far from the type of dead mall we’re used to seeing in the news. But, it was about as alive as a couch potato.
Gruen could not foresee how tax laws, cheap land, and American’s affinities for their cars would corrupt his utopian cityscape. Because of investment incentives and loopholes, developers over the next thirty years built mega malls (the bigger the property the better) in underpopulated areas (the cheaper the land, the better) and were still guaranteed to recoup a profit. Soon, there were too many mediocre malls for too few shoppers, each less a reflection of the community it serviced than a carbon copy of the others (Gap, Orange Julius, Sears…). In 1978 — the same year George A. Romero excoriated malls with zombie classic Dawn of the Dead — Gruen gave one of the most depressing speeches of all time in which he turned his back on what he created: “I am often called the father of the shopping mall. I refuse to pay alimony for these bastard developments. They destroyed our cities.”
The Mall before and after its 2014 renovations.
As far as Gruen’s full original vision goes, the Mall of America comes pretty close. “Look around you,” a sales associate at a beauty retailer tells me, pausing for a moment from passing out trials of a facial cream infused with gold. “How many people do you see with shopping bags?”
He has a point. It looks like half of the people walking at noon on a Thursday were empty handed. To be fair, a weekday afternoon is arguably one of the less popular times to shop. And yet, the mall was buzzing. There were drive-in tourists from neighboring states and inexplicably, a huge amount of Icelanders (I later found out The Mall successfully pushed for a just-launched direct-flight deal with Delta from Keflavik to Minneapolis-St. Paul); many young moms with strollers, and a few dozen pre-teens on a summer camp field trip who took up ten tables at the food court, but all brought sack lunches.
To outsiders, the lack of commerce might seem like a sign of The Mall’s coming demise. Not so. “We love The Mall of America,” says Omar who works at Centro Tyrone Guzman, a non-profit Latino organization in South Minneapolis, whose trips are oftentimes subsidized by The Mall and its attractions. “We come to the Sea Life aquarium pretty regularly, because it’s educational, and the kids love it. The Mall of America is so central to this community. In a lot of ways, it’s a cultural hub for them. They also do a really good job of being accessible to us as a non-profit.”
But, if you’re willing to spend some cash, you will experience a range of emotions that you didn’t know a mall could elicit. I tried out flight simulation FlyOver America that contained a scene of a single-engine plane so splendid and stirring, a child had to ask me if I was crying because I was scared (tears: $16.95). At Sea Life, I met a sea turtle name Seymore who was recovering from “bubble butt syndrome” with the aid of the University of Minnesota who were building Seymore a custom shell to help him balance (awws: $20.99). I bought a hand-woven basket by House of Talents that I found at Debut, a Mall of America owned-and-operated store that helps identify and incubate local talent (future Instagram: $29). After a marathon 12-hour day at The Mall, my mother joined me for a night at the Radisson Blu, which meant I could say I’ve slept at a mall before (relief: $143.65). And though I didn’t buy anything there, I felt such delight talking with an employee at Juno Active, a plus-size activewear brand I hadn’t ever heard of. She told me that The Mall of America helped secure the online-only store venture into its first-ever brick-and-mortar location, and secured it a primo spot, came up with a customized marketing plan, and representatives email them all the time to check in. “It’s wild. I used to come to The Mall as kid, and now I work here for a brand I really love.”
Saunders points out that the inclusion of local shops, groups, and spaces is an undervalued but crucial component to the health of successful malls: “Most malls rely on the spend of the local population. Whether that be services like health, or a place to put community events on, or special things for local schools or charities you can run there — those things can make a very big difference. It’s diversity. It’s interesting.”
The Mall’s slow move toward increasing its diversity of offerings, has led to some tensions with the older business that are more commerce focused. A shop-owner who has operated her storefront for over 20 years couldn’t see the benefit of people posting photos with her store mannequins as free advertisement: “They think it’s a photo opportunity. No it isn’t — it’s my display window! They’re just looky-loos.” She and a few other longtime managers have felt the creep of competition, and a drop-off of financial, advertising, and moral support from The Mall of America team over the years: “I’ve talked to many of the restaurants, and they’re bummed because The Mall decided to bring in so many other businesses,” she says. “Their businesses are in half now.”
“There’s a handful of retailers that haven’t been able to adjust to be competitive in the future,” The Mall of America’s senior VP of marketing and business development Jill Renslow tells me. “We of course value the relationships with all of our tenants; we want to retain them for as long as possible. But we have to seek out brands that continue to evolve with our customer’s needs. It’s about keeping things fresh.”
If you think Renslow sounds a little like a politician, that’s because the Mall of America is basically a lobbying entity. Given its size, it enjoys a powerful local influence that can negotiate in Bloomington and state politics. A recent deal with Delta and Explore Minnesota introduced direct flights to make it easier for international travelers to access Minnesota’s sales-tax-free shopping. When the Metropolitan Council constructed a metro line, The Mall made sure that it was a stop. Renslow herself is a chair on the Minnesota Chamber of Commerce, which advocates on behalf of Minnesota businesses at the State Capitol.
The Mall of America’s size also allows it to make meaningful resource and financial contributions that don’t conflict with its bottom line. Renslow tells me that The Mall gives the equivalent of $12 million annually in cash, products, and in-kind support for charitable causes. When Mall officials noticed that many homeless youth were taking the metro from downtown Minneapolis to The Mall for shelter and diversion, they offered an on-site office to a local nonprofit, Oasis For Youth. The organization advocates on behalf of young people experiencing homelessness for jobs, housing, and transportation, and is able to connect open mall positions with eager job seekers. “Being in The Mall is a huge advantage to us,” Oasis case manager Jess Nelson tells me. “Young people want to be at The Mall.”
That's a good PR line, and a vote of confidence for those among us who’d rather not see malls, and those who have affection for them, become relics. But it’s also true that The Mall isn't equipped to deal with the dissent and conflict that real town squares attract. Last year, following the police shooting of Jamar Clark, Black Lives Matter demonstrators were arrested for trespassing and obstruction of justice, and an investigation by The Intercept revealed that mall security had been creating fake Facebook accounts to monitor BLM organizers’ activities.
The crack-down on protestors is a reminder that, in many ways, The Mall is just a mall. “Instead of the town square on the public sidewalk, The Mall has taken over that role,” Minneapolis civil rights and criminal defense attorney Jordan Kushner told Democracy Now about recent Black Lives Matter protests. “But they can govern speech and restrict it in a way that’s only conducive to their profit-making and doesn’t serve any other kind of community function.”
Nevertheless, there is weight behind the reasons the protesters chose The Mall in the first place: The Mall is a microcosm of the racial, class, and religious inequities already within Minnesota. “Research has been done around the racial profiling and discrimination that happens especially to our Muslim brothers and sisters and East African immigrants inside of The Mall. Anti-black violence and Islamophobia [...] happens everywhere, including The Mall of America,” says BLM protest organizer Kandace Montgomery. (A 2011 report by NPR News Investigations and the Center for Investigative Reporting found that mall security reported minorities to local police at much higher rates than white mallgoers). In response, the Mall of America stood by its security operations, led by the Risk Assessment and Mitigation (RAM) unit: “With more than 100,000 people inside Mall of America on any given day, security remains our top concern. We are obligated to keep those visitors as safe as we can, and RAM is a significant part of those efforts. We fully support our RAM unit and the officers that staff the program.”
For some, like Maryanne, the young woman who Moona was waiting for in the food court, police presence is a comfort. “Safety is a priority here at The Mall,” she offers, adjusting her hijab. “Since this is a tourist area, there are more eyes watching.”
Two teens I met whose arms were laden with shopping bags from PacSun, Victoria’s Secret, and American Eagle told me that they shopped at The Mall of America because it feels safer than its emptier counterparts: “I get creeped out in other malls,” says Alicia. “There’s always people at The Mall of America.” Her friend Izzy chimes in: “Also, there’s a snack place every hundred feet. And the PacSun sells Brandy Melville, but can you tell them that if we had a normal Brandy Melville, that would be insane? Also a Windsor. Their clothes are like Forever21, but a little higher quality. That would be great.”
On my last day in the mall, Sarah Grap, The Mall’s senior public relations manager, tells me a story about Peggy Gruner. Gruner, 93, was living in a Wisconsin nursing home in Eau Claire, and wanted The Mall of America’s help in checking off an item on her bucket list: zip-lining. Gruner would have been 33 years old when Victor Gruen first built Southdale, and like many other suburban women, she spent decades frequenting malls to shop and socialize. But this was the first mall that fulfilled a lifetime wish.
According to Grap, Gruner got the adventure cleared by her doctor, and took a van with a bunch of her buddies to Bloomington. “She had a little fan club with her,” Grap remembers. “She was so stinkin’ cute.” In a video of the event, The Mall’s attractions manager helped Gruner and three of her friends poke their way up the rope course to the top, across balance beams and up narrow stairs. Upon reaching the bottom, an ecstatic Gruner celebrates: “It was amazing, indescribable, more than I could dream of. Follow your dreams!”
Later I found out I wasn’t the only one charmed by Gruner’s story. After a quick Google search, I found that it was a story that was pitched by The Mall and picked up by half-dozen local news outlets. After relaying the anecdote, Grap told me that Gruner had passed away. Was this The Monster Mall as predicted by its critics — one that considered Santa Larry and acts of kindness as “trials” and pilot programs, and Black lives not quite as important as shoppers’ lives?
As I stood at the top of the zip-line myself, heart pounding and cheeks stiff from smiling, I realized that the truth is somewhere between Gruen’s socialist utopia where dreams come true and critics’ capitalist dystopia. The Mall is complicated because it’s a projection of its visitors, who are as kind, obtuse, generous, and heinous as our own neighbors can be. The Mall, as any mall, is a space for humans to shop — but The Mall of America, because of its size, because of legacy, has also become a place for humans to be human, for better and worse.
“Oh my goodness! Oh my gosh!” Gruner whoops in the video, as she soars across a park of cheering mall patrons. “Oh! Oh. This is beautiful.”