In Defense of Mini-malls

The people of Los Angeles have a tighter grip on existential thought than the French. It is one thing to ponder the singularity of being and nothingness while strolling down the misty banks of the Seine and quite another to be sad where the sun always shines. When you grow up in L.A., your world is peopled with cars and you accept the beauty of highways. Six-lane city streets with their wide stretches of pavement can feel cozy, and mini-malls can be places of rest.

Reyner Banham, a displaced Londoner, wrote in his seminal Los Angeles: The Architecture of Four Ecologies, “I learned to drive in order to read Los Angeles in the original.” People from elsewhere will fall into a begrudging acceptance of the car—especially if the road to reason is eased with a particularly saucy convertible—but they usually refuse to budge on the mini-mall. Empty, they’ll say. Soulless and depressing. How much dry cleaning does one city need? All of their vitriolic thoughts and unfulfilled Hollywood dreams are released on these poor corner lots, pilloried on the spikes of their own convenience. “Oh my god,” says the one-time New Yorker, with as much of a Valley Girl accent as he can muster, “do you have to work on your tan? Do you want to go get some fro-yo?” What’s to like, they’ll ask? Why can’t we just wipe them out and start over ?

Mini-malls, it turns out, were actually built on that urge to write over an unsuccessful past. In 1973 the La Mancha Development Company put up the first modern-day mini-mall, on a corner lot in Panorama City, in the San Fernando Valley. It was the start of the OPEC oil embargo, and hundreds of gas stations across the county were going out of business. Those abandoned sites, surrounded by chain-link fences and strewn with ripped-up chunks of concrete, were usually at busy intersections chosen with the motorist in mind; oil companies were eager to get rid of the properties, and they were priced to sell. Later, in the mid-1980s, Standard Oil sold off the last of its iconic gas stations in Los Angeles, again providing a bonanza of cheap real estate for developers like La Mancha.

I am nearly the same age as the mini-mall. And though lovers of cities will weep for me, I must admit that much of my life has been spent—not at the mall, as you might expect of a San Fernando Valley girl—but at the local mini-mall. Just three blocks away from our Northridge tract home, this prototypical collection of Chinese restaurant, beauty salon, candy store, and dry cleaner was the first place I was allowed to go on my own. I would skateboard or bicycle over with my fifth-grade friends, ready to pick out jelly bean flavors and watch the ladies come and go, talking of nail polish colors. My first job, at 17, was next door to the candy store, personalizing bar/bat mitzvah favors and children’s birthday presents with puffy paint—I got very good with “Ashley,” but nothing’s as sugary as my “Brittany” with a heart over the “i.”

The center of things is where you find it. In the pre-Starbucks era, when coffee shops first began to appear, we spent our nights listening to bad poetry and decent guitar playing at Common Grounds. I learned about chakras at the Psychic Eye bookstore, in the same mini-mall, which was New Age back when it was actually something new. (It’s since been replaced by an Internet café where hosts of teenagers gather to do online battle in a multiplayer game called Counter-Strike.) I had sushi for the first time at Kabuki Sushi, a neighborhood mini-mall mainstay that my parents—and every other raw-fish devotee in the surrounding area—walk to weekly.

On television in 1992, in the wake of the Rodney King trial, I saw Korean small-business owners on the roof of a mini-mall, armed with guns, ready to defend their shops and restaurants from looters. Historic Black-Korean tensions rose to near breaking point in the city, and I began to see how neighborhood borders can be drawn like battle lines. It provided my first glimmer of insight into the corrosive nature of racial enmity, which allowed me to understand how you can sympathize and disagree with all sides at once.

From the air mini-malls can look like staging points for urban battle. Cars crisscross the city down below—on brief recon missions, traveling well-worn supply routes, or launching lengthy forays into the desert. Drivers stop at these L-shaped buildings fronted by small parking lots with easy street access—places to fortify themselves with coffee and donuts before speeding into the daily fray. From the street, from the driver’s seat, they look like easy places to rest your tired vehicle. Like little nests, lined with things you need.

Of the many evils that mini-malls are blamed for, the worst is the murder of the pedestrian shopping street. But in Los Angeles—where the car has come to feel like an extension of the self—people simply do not use the sidewalks as much as they do in other cities. Mini-malls are a symptom of the disease, not the virus itself. In a metropolis seen mostly from behind the steering wheel, mini-malls actually enable the chance encounters and new experiences that a city needs to stay alive.

The first of Jane Jacobs’s four famous conditions for generating “exuberant diversity” in The Death and Life of Great American Cities says, “The district, and indeed as many of its internal parts as possible, must serve more than one primary function; preferably more than two. These must insure the presence of people who go outdoors on different schedules and are in the place for different purposes, but who are able to use many facilities in common.” The salesperson who stops by for a morning cappuccino, the wardrobe assistant who picks up dry cleaning and a pair of flip-flops, the junior-high-school kids who read magazines at the convenience store after school, the young couple who has dinner at the new Brazilian restaurant—they can all do their business at the same corner, at different points throughout the day.

Lately all of the frozen-yogurt stores that proliferated throughout the 1980s and 1990s are being replaced by boba tea parlors. Mini-malls have always been a good measure of change. They provide low-priced storefronts to try out the new, which can then be folded up quietly if supply does not meet with immediate demand. In a city that works, according to Jacobs, things you need to do should be next to things you want to do. If Los Angeles is—as it has often been called—the city of the future, it is in part because of this fluidity, this ability to constantly reinterpret both our wants and our needs.

Last year the Grove, the latest in “destination shopping,” reared its fancy head on Fairfax Avenue. A high-end megaplex filled with Banana Republics and J. Crews and Crate & Barrels, it turns a fortress face to the street. When you enter the Grove or any of its cousins—the Shops at Willow Bend outside Dallas, Horton Plaza in San Diego, Lenox Square in Atlanta—you are entering a place of carefully created experience where your every move has been anticipated and your every desire will be directed to a point-of-sale.

If the choice is between the mega and the mini, I’ll take number two. In the face of those enormous retail centers, the hated mini-mall starts to feel subversive, almost punk rock. There is no pretense in pizza stands. The visionary architect Charles Moore, who lectured and wrote about the social responsibility of architecture, liked Los Angeles but asked, Where would you go to start a revolution? In this scattered, disparate city the revolution will have to come from all sides. Mini-malls manage to be at once pervasive and low-key, filling your neighborhood with Sri Lankan spice stores and Korean hot-pot joints—while you’re busy bemoaning the steady march of chain restaurants. Things will start to simmer there, in the unexplored but much used crevices, along the enveloping edges of this metropolis. The revolution, if it ever comes, will be slow and steady—you’ll wake up one morning and realize that it was waiting for you all along.

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