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A Brief History of the Shopping Mall, Zombies Included

5 January 2011 One Comment

by Alexandra Edwards

That Dawn of the Dead owes much to its inspired use of setting — the Monroeville Mall, as pictured above — is a no brainer.  The image of zombies shambling through a suburban shopping mall has, without a doubt, permeated our cultural consciousness.  Witness, for example, this sly Twitter joke lambasting holiday-season shoppers:

@reb_dj Newly released footage from Dawn of the Dead http://bbc.in/fyCnnN

It can be easy to forget, in this zombie-saturated age, that George Romero was the first to posit the hordes of living dead as a metaphor for our culture of consumption.  Likewise, it can be easy to treat the shopping mall as an anti-historical institution. We shop at shopping malls, it seems, because we have always done so.  Didn’t the Egyptians just pop down to the mall when they needed to pick up a few things? we think.

Well, didn’t they?

Actually, they didn’t.  The particular notion of the shopping mall has not existed since time immemorial.  Surely, the mall can look back to both open air and covered markets: Al-Hamidiyah Souq in Damascus (7th century), or the Grand Bazaar in Isfahan (10th century), Tehran’s Grand Bazaar, or the Grand Bazaar of Istanbul (15th century), which is still in operation today.  But the indoor, enclosed, suburban shopping mall, made infamous in Dawn of the Dead, is a creation of the 20th century.  It built on urban planning ideas developed in France and England in the 19th century, but was created as we know it today by the specific combination of America’s post-war economic boom, seemingly endless supply of available land, and strong automobile culture.

Old-school arcades

An arcade is a succession of arches, each counterthrusting the next, supported by columns or piers, or a covered walk enclosed by a line of such arches on one or both sides. (Via Wikipedia)

In 19th century France, the term arcade came to signify an area with two rows of shops, united by arches and covered to protect pedestrians from the elements.  (The French can turn anything into shopping, without a doubt.)  Arcades, or Passages couverts de Paris, as they were known in French, were an important part of public life — not only a place to shop, but a place to parade, to see and be seen by society.  They quickly began to dominate the cultural minds of France; philosopher Walter Benjamin began, but never finished, a giant work called the Arcades Project.  It gathered together over a decade of writings on the cultural life of Paris, as experienced by Benjamin, mostly as he strolled the arcades.

(Interior of the Providence Arcade. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

Transported to the States, the arcade became America’s first covered shopping area, in the form of the Providence Arcade in Providence, Rhode Island.  It was built in 1828.  Though still standing today, has been closed for renovations for 2 years.

Stores with departments

While the arcade is an obvious precursor to the suburban shopping mall, another 19th century invention — this time hailing from England — would be necessary to create the modern mall as we know it: the department store.

The idea of a store that would provide for customers’ needs for durable goods, both for the home and personal use, spread like wildfire, jumping from England (John Lewis Newcastle, formerly Bainbridge) to France (Le Bon Marché) to Ireland (Delany’s New Mart) to Australia (David Jones), and finally, to New York City (Macy’s).

By the early 20th century, writers were becoming as enamored of the department store as Walter Benjamin had been of the arcade. Theodore Dreiser, in his 1900 novel Sister Carrie, waxes absolutely rhapsodically about the invention (while also claiming that they began not in New York but in Chicago):

At that time the department store was in its earliest form of successful operation and there were not many. The first three in the United States, established about 1884, were in Chicago…

The nature of these vast retail combinations, should they ever permanently disappear, will form an interesting chapter in the commercial history of our nation. Such a flowering out of a modest trade principle the world had never witnessed up to that time. They were along the line of the most effective retail organization, with hundreds of stores coordinated into one, and laid out upon the most imposing and economic basis. They were handsome, bustling, successful affairs, with a host of clerks and a swarm of patrons. Carrie passed along the busy aisles, much affected by the remarkable displays of trinkets, dress goods, shoes, stationery, jewelry. Each separate counter was a show place of dazzling interest and attraction. She could not help feeling the claim of each trinket and valuable upon her personally and yet she did not stop. There was nothing there which she could not have used—nothing which she did not long to own. The dainty slippers and stockings, the delicately frilled skirts and petticoats, the laces, ribbons, hair-combs, purses, all touched her with individual desire, and she felt keenly the fact that not any of these things were in the range of her purchase.

The suburbs & the suburban shopping mall

As the 20th century continued on, the department store and the arcade thrived in America.  But new technologies and standards of living developed and worked to unite the two concepts into the form we know today.

The automobile made it possible for individuals and families to travel farther faster.  Massive tracts of available land, combined with the booming American economy of the post-WWII era, precipitated the idea of suburban living, and cars made it easier to commute both for work and pleasure.

As people no longer needed to live in urban areas, it followed that they no longer needed to shop in them either.  A handful of fully enclosed shopping malls, anchored by large department stores, began to crop up in the 1950s.  Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen pioneered the design of these malls, beginning with the Southdale Center, which opened in a Twin Cities suburb in Minnesota in 1956.

The early malls moved retailing away from the dense, commercial downtowns into the largely residential suburbs. This formula (enclosed space with stores attached, away from downtown, and accessible only by automobile) became a popular way to build retail across the world. Gruen himself came to abhor this effect of his new design; he decried the creation of enormous “land wasting seas of parking” and the spread of suburban sprawl. (Via Wikipedia)

Now with more zombies

It’s important to remember that the suburban American shopping mall was barely 20 years old when George A. Romero created his scathing critique of American consumerism in Dawn of the Dead.  What began as a suburban convenience in the 1950s had, by the 1970s, become a cultural phenomenon.  Youth culture combined with consumer culture and that particular brand of 70s social decadence, and the mall was at the center of it all.

The film’s zombies shamble through the tiled walkways, looking eerily similar to normal shoppers: braindead, half alive victims of a culture in which goods are purported to fulfill our every desire.

Fran: What are they doing? Why do they come here?
Stephen: Some kind of instinct. Memory, of what they used to do. This was an important place in their lives.

Romero has mentioned that the idea for the setting of the film first came to him while taking a tour of the Monroeville Mall.  The mall, located in a suburb of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania, became the actual setting for the film.  Open during the day, the mall would host the film crew at night, then be cleaned and opened for customers again each morning.

The Monroeville Mall is still open, though it looks rather different inside these days (the mall’s anchor department store, JC Penney, is still there, though rebranding means you won’t see that iconic old Penney’s logo from the film).  It is a sight of some fascination for fans of the original movie — possibly one of the most famous malls in the country — and regular tours visit the mall’s most famous spots.

The remake: now with more mall-ness

Zack Snyder’s 2004 remake eschews nearly all the sections of the original film not set in the mall, along with much of the cultural criticism Romero lobbed at capitalist America.  It seems, in fact, as though the producers just wanted a zombie movie set in a mall; realizing that the idea had already been done, they called the new movie a remake just to get around the issue of being copycats.

Maybe it’s not such a bad reflection of our culture 30 years later.  To be sure, by 2004, the suburban shopping mall had become a beast we could barely control (our current recession has put the breaks on most new mall development, but rest assured, once the economy bounces back, so will the mall).  And, as the Twitter jokes pointed out, our drive to consume is just as monotonously insistent as ever.  Zombies never get tired of human flesh, and we never get tired of buying stuff.  ✪

Further reading

For a more detailed look at the history of the shopping mall, visit Evolution of the Shopping Center.  The blog Malls of America has vintage images and videos.

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