August 27, 2018

Shopping Malls and Social Change

Headshot 3.13 cropcompressBy Karen Sternheimer

When I was a teen in the 1980s, the shopping mall was the center of social life. It was a regular gathering place for people my age; it was one of the few places to go that was free (unless you decided to buy something), parents generally felt like it was safe, and we might see other kids our age there. Remember, there was no email, no Internet, and no social media, so aside from the telephone, hanging out was the only way to socialize.

Malls were also a site of aspirational consumption. While I could occasionally buy clothes, records (on vinyl or cassette), food, or other goods, mostly the mall was the place of imagination of what I would buy if I could. My friends and I could try on clothes to see what styles were flattering for occasions we might someday need an outfit for. This was not just a way to pass the time, but to bond with friends. Memorialized in movies like Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982), Valley Girl (1983), and Mall Rats (1995) to name a few, malls were center stage for middle-class American teens living in the suburbs.

Malls and other local retailers often provided teens with their first jobs. As I blogged about in 2016, in the late 1980s the employment rate among sixteen- to nineteen-year-olds rate was about 60 percent. Afterschool and summer jobs were much more readily available; one of my first jobs was at a children’s clothing store in our local mall. Not only was it a chance to earn some money, but the job provided another opportunity to spend time at this social hub.

The Bureau of Labor Statistics reported that by 2010 the teen employment rate had fallen to about half of what it was in the late 1980s. Just over 30 percent held jobs in 2010, compared with nearly 60 percent then. This is not simply the result of fewer teens wanting part-time work, but the changes in the labor market that I addressed in the 2016 post.

Decades later, the mall isn’t what it used to be. Colby King recently blogged about the shifts taking place in malls across America and the challenges management faces with changes in retail spaces in the age of Amazon and online shopping. Even if malls were still thriving everywhere, my guess is that they would not be the hub of social life as they were in the 1980s. Teens can now interact on social media, and some malls even limit the presence teens, as I wrote about in this post from 2010.

When a local mall announced it was dramatically downsizing, shoppers lamented the end of an era, the disappearance of a space they had grown up with. The 1995 movie Clueless had been filmed in this once-bustling mall. In the 1990s, you had to get there early if you wanted a parking space, especially on the weekend. Three tiers of shops stayed busy with plenty of foot traffic.

My most recent visit last year was dramatically different. Once occupied storefronts were empty, and I was virtually alone in the cavernous mall. No kiosks offering high-end skin creams or jewelry or cell phones occupied the middle of corridors. Floors of parking spaces remained available at what had once been a sought after shopping establishment.

But this mall hardly had deep roots in the community—it had only opened in 1985, well after many shopping malls were first built in the U.S. Historian Lizbeth Cohen, author of A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Consumption in Postwar America examines the growth of suburban malls in the decades following World War II. Just as technology and the economy has changed how we shop—and where we shop—in the twenty-first century, postwar changes led to the proliferation of malls.

Spurred on by the growth of suburban housing tracts (largely aided by public infrastructure funding and low-cost mortgage loans for returning GIs), malls sprung up outside of city centers to cater to these new upwardly mobile families. The suburban mall was clearly constructed for people with cars, and thus made possible by the postwar prosperity that enabled many families to purchase automobiles.

Due to practices such as redlining and other restrictive lending schemes, suburbs were largely segregated spaces. Cohen details how malls were exclusionary spaces as well, as she explains how some new malls were created far from public transportation. This was not incidental, but instead served the purpose of keeping people from cities away.

Check out this video for a short history of American shopping malls:

Malls are historically specific sites of consumption, sites that remind us that change in market forces and technology can spur on changes in the ways we socialize and spend our time. These shifts impact people’s lives on a large and small scale, from how we interact with others to how cities and suburbs use space. They affect large groups of people who are economically connected with mall shops, from business owners and workers who might find themselves struggling financially.

What other social changes are the causes or effects of downsizing malls?

Comments

Since some malls are downsizing it gives the local economy a chance to grow. Making people who, for example, own a local restaurant, gives them the chance to bring in more business and therefor more money for them and or their family. But with the malls downsizing it also takes away more job opportunities for the people in that area who might really need the money for their selves and or family. To include since the malls are downsizing it therefore wares down the social aspect of going to the mall and meeting with friends, new people ect.

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