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Mall Is Not Lost

The return of malls in San Diego County heralds better third places for American teens
Hot Topic

Hot Topic, daycare for hardcores.

My daughter and her preteen friends hang out at Target. Not to go shopping; they just walk its aisles in herds, cruise the place, look for other groups of preteens. Maybe get trinkets. The big red bullseye has become their social space. They will come of age right next to the shampoo and the affordable clothes and the TP.

I can’t tell you how sad this makes me. These kids have tech that makes Atari game systems look like cave paintings from the Mr. Belvedere era. Plenty of diseases have been eradicated or tamed for them. But their third places really, really suck.

For those unfamiliar with the term, a third place—coined by sociologist Ray Oldenburg—means a separate space just to be other than home and work or, in the case of these kids, school. Good hangout spots, Oldenburg wrote in 1989, are “the people’s own remedy for stress, loneliness, and alienation.” They’re “gathering places where community is most alive and people are most themselves.”

Target, while a quality retailer, is not much of a third place. It’s a place you go to get the cream that will undo the rash, the place for bed sheets and starter electronics and birthday toys for kids you don’t really know.

And these 11-year-old girls choose to go hang there. They do laps, gossiping and pointing and laughing and exploring the world through the lens of a highly successful and functional mass-market retailer. Granted, it has a Starbucks. (My daughter has made it clear that this Starbucks is not the real thing, that the drinks taste watered down or like an off-brand extension.) But still, I can’t help but feel that this really blows.

This is all due to the death of the American mall and other factors that could take up another essay in a different issue. Because up until the 2000s, we had the whole Fast Times at Ridgemont High experience in suburban San Diego thanks to the indoor wonderland known as North County Fair.

Our buddy Oldenburg argued that true third places exist “outside the cash nexus.” But for junior highers with about 10 dollars of babysitting money to our names, the mall was exactly that—just a self-contained, relatively safe place where we could all stumble through puberty as a publicly shared spectacle.

Where we could learn the ropes of group socialization outside of a school setting. School socializations is not like after-school socializations. In school, you’re allotted specific times and breaks and sent to a single uninspired area with a little free time between snacks and lunch to contemplate preteen-ness with cohorts in that terrifying journey.

In malls, there is no preordained order to things, just a bunch of wild lights and a multitude of new impulses and stimuli you must learn to navigate together on the fly. (Also, maybe an arcade.)

We’d wander its long, highly illuminated gallery of shops and learn about what adults like, what we might like as we got older and aged and weird shit started happening to our bodies and brains and souls. We’d walk through Nordstrom to find out what rich people wore. We’d giggle at the Victoria’s Secret store. We’d get exposed to kicks culture at the shoe store. The food court was where we’d get our first taste of multicultural cuisine—Belgian fries, almost-Chinese fast food, you name it. At the nauseatingly odorous store, we’d wonder what kind of extra-dry humans need all this lotion.

Get In Loser, We're Going Shopping

“Get in loser, we’re going shopping.”

The mall was like a massive, incredibly diverse, neon curio of capitalism. Even if capitalism is late-stage and all the cool kids are leaning toward socialism these days, the old market-driven society still governs. The mall was bumper bowling for adolescence. We could observe herd mentality; peruse the current desirable objects of life in capitalistic culture; and discuss, gawk, commune, and learn to navigate the sociological milieu that, within seven years or so, we’d be forced to contend with on our own.

And because it was so massive, the mall gave us SPACE to get lost, wander, make mistakes, tell secrets, harmlessly make out, or get rejected in somewhat private… It was the magical third place for American preteens and teens.

And now that’s been reduced to a single, big-box retailer best known for cleaning supplies and blenders. Jeff Bezos failed my daughter and a hundred million American teens, and he should feel compelled to write a formal apology on Medium.

But! This is all changing. The American mall is coming back! UTC Westfield has become its own city, many of its retailers giving way to restaurants, bars, activity spaces (like bowling and go-karts), and places that offer sociability, group activities, and interactive humaning—something we’re all missing.

You go there on the weekends now and it’s packed again, thriving. And to my point, its public relations team asked that we refer to it as a “center,” rather than a “mall,” because Westfield sees itself as more of a “lifestyle destination.”

And they’re not alone. One Paseo is like its own Cape Cod-ian village; across the street, Del Mar Highlands is like Fast Times for the breathwork crowd; Westfield Mission Valley is the pre-movie social race track.

And now, they’re remaking North County Mall in Escondido, formerly known as my beloved North County Fair. Allegedly, and keeping with this nouveau mall formula, it’ll have stronger retailers and more entertainment options, like new restaurants and possibly a movie theater.

I realize they can’t make it exclusively for preteens and teenagers, because those kinds of humans are broke, and that’s a terrible business model. But they really should consider the preteen and teen, and make it a safe, invigorating place for them—a well-designed bazaar of essential and discretionary choices for their future income. A glimpse into the desires of the fully formed, capitalist adult citizen.

A place better than Target. No disrespect to Tarzjhaay. I quite honestly doubt the benevolent overlords common daily needs even wanted this. They’re just serving as an involuntary nanny for our kids because Bezos killed the mall.

Well, now, you son of a bitch, the mall is back. You can gobble up all the retail sales, you can own three-quarters of the world, but you underestimated our innate need to walk around in a group and awkwardly become human together.

By Troy Johnson

Troy Johnson is the magazine’s award-winning food writer and humorist, and a long-standing expert on Food Network. His work has been featured on NatGeo, Travel Channel, NPR, and in Food Matters, a textbook of the best American food writing.

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