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Are Malls Democratic?

Shopping centers may resemble town squares, but civil rights and commercial interests don't always mix — and freedom is often the loser.

What have we here? It looks to be 300 or so 6-year-olds assembled in an open space on the mall's ground floor, just inside the entrance, kicking at one another as hard as they can. Their mothers and fathers and siblings surround the squalling mob, smiling and waving. How wholesome can you get?

All over American malldom, similar scenes are playing out -- here we see the local martial arts schools raising money for a worthy cause with what they call a "kick-a-thon." Somewhere else, it's the local ballet school, or the glee club, the marching band, the Boy Scouts, the art league, the roller-hockey league, the Junior League, the high school drama club performing highlights from Brigadoon. Or is that Bye Bye Birdie?

This is where the mall-as-community shows its shiny, peppy face. If we were a village society or even an urban one, these activities might take place at the schoolhouse or the community center or the village green on market day. But since we're a predominately suburban nation, and suburbs tend to be short on gathering places, it all happens at the mall.

For which the mall, of course, is mostly happy. The mall is not earning a profit on every kick these little tae-kwon-do apostles deliver, but this activity is a good way to ensure the presence of their moms and dads at 10:30 on a Saturday morning. Once they've gone to all the effort of driving there and parking, it seems wasteful not to acquire something or other. And the mall likes having the cute children of wage-earning parents around. It brightens up the place. It's cheaper than real entertainment. It's good for the image. There's a profit motive to being such a willing host and accommodator of various community-minded endeavors.

Some of the attempts by suburbanites to take malls seriously as quasi-public spaces seem innocuous enough. For example, an entirely new form of mass exercise was born of the mall. No sooner had America's first enclosed shopping center opened, in 1956 in the Minneapolis suburb of Edina, than did area doctors begin advising older patients to get their cardiovascular exercise inside the mall, where they could stride without fear of slipping on snow or ice. Mall walking caught on quickly.

If you've ever gone into a mall before the stores open, you know the sound -- the silence is broken only by the squeak of senior citizen mall-walkers in their sneakers. In the beginning, many malls extended a special welcome to these elders in sweat suits and allowed them inside before normal business hours. (There was always the chance that they'd stick around and buy something.) Some shopping centers began special programs for senior citizens -- mall-walker clubs, free coffee, discount coupons, holiday parties.

And then, inevitably, came the backlash. Malls began to feel they were being taken advantage of by the walkers, some of whom felt entitled to the amenities and special favors they had been granted. There was always some question as to whether the discounts and programs actually made any economic sense. Some developers tried curtailing mall-walking. In Minnesota, the Mall of America attempted to force the walkers to use a parking lot so far from the building that shuttle buses were required. The walkers retaliated with an informational campaign, reminding the stores of how much money they spent there. Before long, the mall management caved in.

Sneaker-scuffed floors are the least of the inconveniences that come with being suburban functional Main Streets, malls have learned. The various free-speech-related activities that go with American democracy soon followed everyone else to the mall -- activists realized that there was no other way to encounter fellow citizens in a suburban milieu where no one walks. These were the moments that tried a mall's commitment to a vision of itself as some kind of quasi-public space, the town center for towns where no true center exists. This got at the heart of whether a mall is the suburban Main Street or a tightly controlled fortress devoted to a single activity: retailing. Or is it something in between?

Political candidates collecting signatures, activists protesting, sympathizers leafleting for causes popular and otherwise, even Klansmen, all descended upon American malls. In 1968, the US Supreme Court began getting involved in the matter. In that year, it ruled that malls could not interfere with the exercise of First Amendment rights in the case of union workers picketing a store. Score one for the people. Then, four years later, it went the other way and said the First Amendment did not require shopping centers to permit the distribution of antiwar leaflets on the premises. Score one for the mall. That ruling seemed to settle the argument by establishing shopping centers as private property, the same as an individual store might be.

Then, in 1980, in a unanimous decision involving a California mall, the court said that individual states' laws could require malls to allow greater free-speech rights than the First Amendment does. Since then, courts in six states (California, Colorado, Massachusetts, New Jersey, Oregon, and Washington) have deemed malls to be at least quasi-public spaces, where at least some forms of expressions must be allowed. Eleven more (Arizona, Connecticut, Georgia, Michigan, Minnesota, New York, North Carolina, Ohio, Pennsylvania, South Carolina, and Wisconsin) have decided not to require malls to behave like public places.

Developers are technically correct when they point out that the mall is private property, not the village square. According to a Gallup Poll in 1990, nearly three-quarters of shoppers surveyed believed the mall should keep out political activists, which is consistent with what we know of the average person's tolerance for commotion (especially when it interferes with shopping). And yet the fact is, the mall phenomenon took the place of the town square, the public zone.

f you need proof of suburban malls' smug, insular nature, consider this: They can almost never be easily reached by public transportation. If you can't drive here, the mall seems to say, you can't come. This is in contrast to European and Japanese malls, which are often built near train stations for the convenience of shoppers.

America's postwar suburbs are for the most part inhospitable to any form of transportation that isn't an automobile. So the mall isn't remarkable in this regard. But sometimes the consequences are tragic. In 1995, an African-American teenager was killed while trying to cross a busy seven-lane highway on her way to work at a mall near Buffalo. She was forced to walk across the road because the mall prohibited city buses from stopping on the property. Local civil rights activists accused the developer of doing so in order to keep minorities out, since the buses carried residents from a mostly black part of town. The mall denied any racial motive, saying it wanted only to keep rowdy young people away. The bus ban was lifted after the activists threatened a boycott. The girl's family sued the mall, which settled the case for $2 million.

Are malls racist? It's not such an outlandish question. It seems clear that malls hope that by limiting public transportation, they can control who will enter. The fact that you need to drive doesn't ensure that a surburban mall will get only the middle class, since in America, people of extremely modest means still manage to own cars. Still, city dwellers and teenagers most often are the ones without wheels. So keeping the mall unattainable by public transportation goes a long way toward segregating it.

Malls might argue that, from a business point of view, keeping low-income urban teenagers out is a smart goal. In one survey taken by a University of Florida sociologist in 1993, 50 percent of malls claimed they had problems with gang members, and 90 percent claimed they had trouble with teenage loiterers. After all, the mall is meant to be a refuge from the bad city streets, from cold and wind and rain but also from panhandlers and vagrants and teenagers with bad attitudes.

In truth, it's easy to stroll these tranquil pathways and forget that crime exists anywhere, let alone that shopping districts are sometimes magnets for pickpockets, shoplifters, and muggers. That's the lulling effect of the mall -- you are surrounded only by fellow shoppers, all drawn together in a communion of consumption. There are no outskirts here, no dark recesses or easy getaway routes (not even for the law-abiding), which makes a crime such as purse-snatching an unlikely occurrence.

Suburban subdivisions segregate people based on how much they can spend on real estate. Everybody knows that wealth and poverty exist, but many suburbanites get no closer to either end of the spectrum than their television screens. We humans seem to find comfort in economic homogeneity, and the mall does its best to preserve that condition.

We are living in a time when, nationally, crime is down, especially the personal, violent offenses that worry us most -- murder, robbery, rape, assault. The danger of urban streets, whether real or presumed, is part of what drove us to the suburbs and then to the mall in the first place.

Malls probably don't need to make much special effort to keep dangerous elements out. There's already a remarkably efficient self-regulating mechanism that maintains orderliness in the world of shopping. It uses symbolism and nuance to attract certain people while repelling certain others. Say what you will about the snootiest downtown shopping districts of any city in America -- you can get there by public transportation, or even on foot, no matter where you live. There's no obvious police or private security presence stopping armed thugs or mobs of marauding adolescents from descending upon Madison Avenue and making waste of it. And, yet, it doesn't happen.

People of modest means may dream of someday indulging a taste for Armani, but they tend not to try for it until they can afford it, and no armed guard is required to turn them away in the meantime. People enjoy shopping in places where they feel wanted and needed and loved, even people without much money. They have their own favorite stores where they shop, not necessarily out of need but because it's fun.

We think of malls as being wholesome and all-American, but they are not uniformly so. Some are also snobbish, xenophobic, elitist. Others oppose some of the freedoms Americans take for granted. But we're still going to spend the day there.

Paco Underhill is president of the market-research company Envirosell Inc. This article is excerpted from his book Call of the Mall, published by Simon & Schuster. Copyright © 2004 by Yobow Inc.

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