walking through: walking the mall
For the last month, I have been living in winter. I usually live in milder Georgia where I am finishing my PhD program but have returned to my parents’ house in Michigan during holiday break. Lately, I have been retreating to their house for all of my breaks—doing, as a 33-year-old woman, what my parents wished I had done as a 19-year-old. They live on a small inland lake and there are few things I like more than winter lakes; they are such still, unpeopled places.
This winter month has oscillated between warm and cold, but I haven’t been walking much, not as much as I planned. There is a park near my parents’ house with a path that rings another small lake. I walk there at least once each winter, vowing each time to do so more. My mother walks there often. After a snow, it is the perfect place for solo walking. Of course, it is best when sunny and crunchy and fresh. For the few days before I leave for my last semester of graduate school, however; it has been gray with a near-constant ice drizzle. I go to the mall and walk its carpeted hallways but get pulled into stores and buy a couple of shirts I don’t need.
Lots of people walk the mall here in winter. The one close to home is one-level and circular; one lap around is about a mile. One of the state’s largest walking clubs meets at the mall and the building opens early for them—seemingly empty, but with walkers moving powerfully through the space alongside the quiet work of employees setting up the day. Raising gates and folding displays.
As a younger person, I may have scoffed at mall walking. Go on a real hike, I might have thought. Get away from consumerism. (I think my remembrance of hypothetical selves is harsher than I actually was.) But those kinds of judgments have fallen away as they tend to do. Michigan—designed so thoroughly for its auto industry—can seem to lack walkable spaces. It makes so much more sense to me to walk the bare, yet colorful mannequin-lined hallways in the mornings before work. Before the day begins in earnest.
There is a long history and tension between shopping and flânerie, particularly when thinking about the flâneuse. As Ruth E. Iskin notes in The Invisible Flâneuse: Gender, Public Space, and Culture in 19th-century Paris, Balzac, in 1845, recognized the presence of women in public spaces partaking in a kind of flânerie using “common strategies of shopping and walking quickly, which women used to maintain their respectability in the city” (114). Lauren Elkin, in Flâneuse, (a book mentioned often in this column) argues for the long tradition of the flâneuse using, in part, the work of David Garrioch to show the eighteenth-century Parisian market spaces as an example of the fact “that, in a way, the streets belonged to women” (Elkin 14). There remains a tension between the idea of “shopping” being a limiting activity, but one which has historically freed women to explore and travel beyond the confines of home. There also remains the class tension between salesperson and shopper, but, I argue, plenty to suggest despite rampant systemic inequities, a way of seeing flânerie as able to encompass both/many ways of navigating public space within a marginalized body/identity/perspective.
Iskin also describes the connection Walter Benjamin made between flânerie and consumerism, including in her argument Benjamin’s observation that “the department store is the last promenade for the flaneur.” Iskin goes on to connect this to the work of historian Lisa Tiersten who explained “the very scale of the place, the sense of open space seemed to make the store a city in itself” (Tiersten, qtd. in Iskin, 114). The mall also becomes its own city space, a seeming compromise for those of us wary of American consumer culture, but yet still, despite all of that, full of these empowered (as well as consumer-culturally prescribed) movements through space.
During my master’s program, I took an architecture class on the history of the American city, a class which I was intensely interested in and which continues to influence my writing and work. One of my favorite sections was learning about the history and evolution of shopping malls, from their inception to the rise of “dead malls,” also called “ghost malls,” which are abandoned shopping mall structures that proliferated beginning in the 1990s (with the growing popularity of online shopping) and which intensified after the Great Recession. It was in this class that I learned about the first shopping mall, the Southdale Center in Edina, Minnesota, which opened in 1956. The architect Victor Gruen would later come to regret the influence of his design, which was copied by malls across America. He saw his initial mall as full of green plant life and places for people to come together, taking inspiration from the public, open-air squares of Vienna. He wanted the shopping mall to correct the lack of gathering spaces in suburban towns and initially intended it to include a library, town hall, and police department. The mall was designed with car culture in mind, however; as a driving destination with ample parking. In reality, the trend further contributed to the racist and classist isolation of white suburban culture. It was in many ways, designed for women as a destination away from their suburban houses, but it was designed for a particular woman and it holds all of those inequities within its intentions and history. It was limiting and freeing at the same time, as it remains today.
As someone who grew up in the suburban Midwest and as someone who used malls as a teenager as a space away from parents to gather with friends, it was so interesting to me to think about Gruen’s plans and how, in my mid-twenties, especially, I considered the shopping mall to be the absolute antithesis of walking Vienna’s squares. I considered it completely separate from the realm of the outdoor spaces of any European or older, more walkable American city, for that matter. It was so far from any idea of the flâneuse that I might have had then. The contradictions of the mall and its evolution and, in many cases, abandonment, is a topic I keep returning to and one I plan to write even more about.
A year ago, someone posted on Facebook an article in the New Yorker by Jia Tolentino titled “The Overwhelming Emotion of Hearing Toto’s ‘Africa’ Remixed to Sound Like It’s Playing in an Empty Mall.” I watched and listened to the animated YouTube video by Cecil Robert and shared the article about it on my own news feed saying, “I’m kind of obsessed with this.” There is something incredibly affecting about the tinny airiness of the song floating through an imagined ghost mall. The accompanying image of the quiet mall never changes—light shines in from high windows on the left illuminating the pink-hued tile and a single (probably faux) potted plant. Empty glass storefronts stand in relative darkness on the right side of the mall promenade. The hallway perspective stretches into the distance suggesting there is vast empty space out of view. Tolentino says, “Our lives increasingly play out in virtual spaces: instead of going to malls, we surf on Amazon; many of us would happily forgo the mess of a party to stay home and flirt through an app.” The song and the mall image makes me feel somehow like a play piece in Mall Madness, the board game I had as a kid that gave fake credit cards to all of its juvenile participants. Born in the mid 1980s, my entire early life was full of a particular late-century consumerism. And now, conflictingly, I am nostalgic for it.
I have always been drawn toward abandoned places (I wrote a whole series of poems about them in my first book.) But also, it is easy—often problematically so—to sentimentalize emptiness. I can’t help but be drawn toward their echoes and evocation of solitude. Their unpeopled stretches of space.
Lindsay Tigue is the author of System of Ghosts, which was the winner of the Iowa Poetry Prize. Tigue writes fiction and poetry and has been published in journals such as Verse Daily, Blackbird, and the Indiana Review. She was a Tennessee Williams scholar at the Sewanee Writers’ Conference, a James Merrill fellow at the Vermont Studio Center, and a former assistant to the editors at the Georgia Review. She is a graduate of the MFA program in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University and is a PhD candidate in Creative Writing at the University of Georgia.
Read earlier posts from WALKING THROUGH here.