By the 1960s and 1970s, department stores were supplanted by value-oriented warehouses. Now, reflecting an urge for authenticity, malls mimic a real city without the attendant inconveniences.
By the 1960s and 1970s, department stores were supplanted by value-oriented warehouses. Now, reflecting an urge for authenticity, malls mimic a real city without the attendant inconveniences.

It's a Mall World After All

It's big. It's familiar. It's the latest and greatest shopping experience, and what The Streets at Southpoint supermall has done with Durham consumerism is being writ large around the country.
October 1, 2002

 

Nordstrom makes me think of Nostradamus. Did the sixteenth-century astrologer prognosticate a consumer-service revolution? And sampling a store named Impostors makes me--well, a little uneasy about my identity. Am I only as authentic as the purchases I make?

There's authentic--a tricky word, it turns out--big news in Durham. Really, really big. It calls itself The Streets at Southpoint, a mega-mall with 1.3 million square feet providing a "shopping, dining, and entertainment destination," an "attraction of monumental proportions," as a press release puts it.

Something so big requires big thinking to absorb. So I gather my M-team, professors who would revel in or at least put up with maneuvering around a mall: Annabel Wharton of art and art history, James Rolleston of Germanic languages and literature, Lynn Maguire of the Nicholas School of the Environment, and James Bettman of the Fuqua School of Business. Cultural experts all. And, of course, confirmed shoppers.

For this merging at the mall, I park next to Organized Living, wondering if the store's "Make Life Simple" message is a lure or a dictate. And I find myself walking along a faux Main Street, so identified by a faux street sign. One of its central attractions is a large "interactive fountain"; as I dutifully "raise and lower hand over sensor to control fountain," I don't find the stream of water especially responsive, but I enjoy the spurts of aquatic energy just the same.

Southpoint Mall, Durham NC

Rolleston, on the sculpture: "They're shaped children, quasi-diverse children, racially kind of in the middle.

A kiosk sign advises, "Always unexpected. Be on the lookout for the Southpoint Street Performers." A second kiosk promises "an atmosphere reminiscent of a bustling city street. The energy is vibrant, the spirit is familiar, and everything is unique down to the feeling you walk away with." Can the familiar be unexpected and unique? Maybe not, but we do find something thoroughly unexpected and unique--rock music. This is authentic rock music--"Don't Know Much About History" and "Rock This Town"--pouring out of speakers embedded in Main Street's fake rocks.

Wharton, an expert on modern architecture and theory, mentions the "tortuous" aspects of travel. "I was sitting out in our own Raleigh-Durham airport and I noticed how there's no visual resistance anywhere. Everything is plastic, neutral in color, flat, rectilinear. There's nothing to look at. Putting in fountains and trees and such is a way of providing some visual resistance, something interesting in the environment that allows you to know where you are."

Rolleston enjoys cultural complexities and ironies: He's drawn to literary theory because it may parallel the role once played by Romanticism and Modernism--as he puts it, "the role of bringing together seemingly disparate phenomena (art and advertising, pleasure and politics) in the cause of conceptualizing human culture as a whole." He could hardly find a richer mix of art and advertising, pleasure and politics, than in a regionally renowned mall.

The mall has different impacts on Bettman, an expert on consumer decision-making, and Maguire, who studies public participation in environmental decisions. Maguire had vowed not to set foot in Southpoint, but agreed--with the utmost reluctance--to join in this scholarly investigation. She says the political process for approving the mall was flawed and didn't properly reflect public sentiment, is skeptical of the presumed economic benefits, and is convinced that this particular mega-development doesn't meet the standards for good planning.

If the modern mall has a famous antecedent, it was in an urban center rather than suburban surroundings, and its most famous philosopher was Walter Benjamin, a German-born author, translator, and critic, and a subject of Rolleston's scholarship. Benjamin conceived his Paris-based Arcades Project in 1927; he was still working on it when he took his own life in 1940, in flight from the Gestapo. The ideal in city planning articulated by Baron Georges Haussmann, the nineteenth-century street designer of Paris, "consisted of long straight streets opening onto broad perspectives," he wrote. "The temples of the bourgeoisie's spiritual and secular power were to find their apotheosis within the framework of these long streets." Benjamin considered the Paris shopping arcades the most important architectural form of the nineteenth century; his flaneur, or man-about-town, was "the observer of the marketplace," committed to the notion that "the fruits of idleness are more precious than the fruits of labor."

To Benjamin, shopping in the arcades was more akin to entertainment than to a household imperative: "It takes only a minute, only a step, for the forces of attraction to gather; a minute later, a step further on, and the passerby is standing before a different shop." The "dream houses of the collective," in his view, embraced the shopping arcades along with "winter gardens, panoramas, factories, wax museum, casinos, railroad stations." It's the department store--the ultimate promenade--where the urban dweller's "fantasies were materialized."

Though not exactly reminiscent of the boulevards of Paris, Southpoint's Main Street steeps itself in a view of history. One faÁade displays a blown-up Durham Herald-Sun from July 21, 1969, which was a notable debut day of sorts: "MAN SETS FOOT ON MOON," it reads in big block letters. The timeline of events then leaps to the newspaper's issue of March 9, 2002, debut day for the mall: "THE STREETS ARE ALIVE, Shoppers Rise Early to Discover Southpoint." (That page also preserves a report about more somber streets: "Bloody Day in Mideast Kills More Than 40.")

If it hasn't earned its place in history as a super mall, Southpoint is a "super-regional" mall. According to The Herald-Sun, in a story not receiving wall-display status, it might attract a regular customer base from within five to twenty-five miles while also drawing "destination" shoppers from as far as 100 miles away. Based on industry standards for sales-per-square-foot, the mall's developer, Urban Retail Properties of Chicago, expects Southpoint to sell $297 million in merchandise annually. That means $5.2 million in city and county sales-tax revenues--though such estimates don't account for lost sales at other stores or the cost of providing government services to the project. Southpoint's influence on South Square, which opened in 1975, was instantly devastating; within a month of Southpoint's opening, South Square's occupancy was down to 40 percent. Now it's virtually empty. For that matter, county tax assessors have publicly questioned the developer's tax-value projections.

In its first three days, Southpoint was the destination of choice for 300,000--many of whom had to endure long waits in traffic and fight for a parking place. The presumed millionth shopper was counted in late March and was awarded a $1,000 shopping spree. Around the time of Southpoint's opening earlier that month, Wharton was in Charlotte for the Atlantic Coast Conference men's basketball tournament. Southpoint was front-page news in Charlotte, and chartered bus trips were being planned. She says, "I couldn't believe it."

Believing in Southpoint means buying into packaged nostalgia. The mall is off an interstate highway in southern Durham. It's surrounded by suburbia and, as a retail community, it's in the middle of nowhere--an island of commerce in a sea of parking lots. (One local columnist wondered about the implied message of a "Durham 6 miles" sign on the mall roadway. The mall is in Durham, but the issue is to what extent it sees itself as being of Durham.) Still, the mall tries to establish visual identity with a downtown, and particularly downtown Durham. Red-brick building faÁades hint at tobacco warehouses. The name "Southpoint" itself appears down a fake smokestack. A press release mentions that floor tiles are meant to "resemble the texture of a sidewalk and further create the feeling that shoppers are walking along a city street." The visual theme of a street grid is repeated in wrought-iron railings, lampposts, and even wastebaskets.

Murals convey authentically old-timey advertising messages: "Delivered to your door--fresh milk. Your best food." "Russ's Used Cars--to fit your purse." "Kingston Toasted Corn Flakes--healthy mornings." "From the Arctic North to the Heart of the South--Atlantic Ice." There are some strange messages in that mix: "Try Joe's Delicious Bar-b-q--the flavor is the thing. Visit us at the corner of Main and Southpoint." Well, Main and Southpoint would seem like a "real" address on the faux Main Street, though the sign carries a frivolous phone exchange. The flavor is "the thing," but is Joe's the real thing?

Entertainment options abound in unexpected mall niches--like a conspicuously labeled Public Safety Office. Through a big picture window, we peer at a couple of security guards in front of a dozen TV monitors. Those monitors are focused on the mall's pedestrian "streets" and the parking lots. Other mall-goers join us at the window. Watching the guardians of the mall watching for troublemakers is itself an attraction.

This is a mall filled not just with brick but also with kids and dogs--of a heavy-metal variety. Children sculpted in metal share a bike and a friendly metallic dog trails beside them. Two girls wearing rain slickers and carrying umbrellas try to fend off the spray from a fountain. Kids are lying, kneeling, and surfing on manhole covers that carry "The Streets at Southpoint" logo. A boy in a wheelchair hurls a Frisbee to a dog (while a real mall girl climbs up to pet the fake dog). A girl (perhaps a Native American) is peddling copies of the Southpoint News while some cute canines rest at her feet.

The sculpted children "aren't just children," Rolleston declares. He considers them multicultural hybrids. "They're shaped children, quasi-diverse children, racially kind of in the middle--not obviously white or black children. So there is an attempt to lock in all our categories of diversity that may divide us in everyday life. But they can unify us in the mall setting."

Bettman says of the sculpted kids, "It's not high art or anything, but at least there's a statement in these things, and it is something different to look at." "Well," says Wharton, "the sculpture is better in quality than what we have on campus. Our university has no public sculpture worth looking at. It's a kind of nostalgic, figural art form. You can do children in a more abstract way, a more visually interesting way. But this fits in with the architecture."

Interior of Southpoint Mall, Durham NC

Wharton calls the self-conscious nostalgia "absolutely essential" to the mall. "If it were a kind of modernist, functionalist architecture, it wouldn't have the same attraction." "I'm dubious about that," Maguire responds, "as to whether people are sensitive to the imitated local culture."

Wharton: "Why do all contemporary houses look identical? Everyone wants a cute house. Why wouldn't they want a cute shopping mall? I don't think you can discount the style."

Bettman: "If you built it in a different style, would fewer people come or would they enjoy it less?"

Maguire: "What if it were a Swiss village or Paris' Left Bank?"

Bettman: "This mall wants to have something to do with the way people think about the area, so they can say, 'it's ours.' Nordstrom is ours if it looks like a tobacco warehouse rather than looking like a Swiss village."

Wharton, who has written about the Hilton hotel chain and whose scholarly interests include sacred sites as destination points, says a mall "might function now in the social landscape like the urban hotel in the 1920s, when the better your hotel was, the more status your city had. So virtually every city had a grand hotel." Including Durham, she notes. "They were regarded as democratic spaces, public spaces and not private spaces."

Southpoint is "the only place around here where you get that sort of public-space experience," says Bettman. "I see people enjoying the fountains. Kids love them." Wharton agrees. "It's probably also the only place in the area where you can sit on a sidewalk and eat without looking at a parking lot."

Rolleston has a somewhat different vantage point. "This is virtual public space, with invented streets. It very much fits with the computer age."

Maguire wonders why something similar couldn't have been plunked down in the core of Durham. Rolleston responds, "They've been saying that for twenty-five years." Maguire: "But they haven't put any money into it. Take however many millions have gone and will be going into the infrastructure required for Southpoint and the ancillary developments, and put it in a more central location and see what happens."

Bettman points out that South Square, where the new-mall impact has been most directly felt, was "decaying" for a long time, and says that downtown Durham needs an infusion of specialty stores, not chains.

Culture commentators: Maguire, left, of the Nicholas School of the Environment, and Bettman, of the Fuqua School of Business

Culture commentators: Maguire, left, of the Nicholas School of the Environment, and Bettman, of the Fuqua School of Business.

Rolleston asks, "Is this and the revival of downtown Durham mutually exclusive? It could be that this destination mall, with its hokey, allusive, distanced-yet-positive relation to Durham, might help, not hurt, the downtown. Self-conscious 'renewals' haven't really worked."

Nostalgia aside, the mall is dominated, Rolleston points out, by chain stores: J. Crew, Eddie Bauer, The Body Shop, Victoria's Secret, Benetton, Godiva. Many of the chains--Abercrombie & Fitch, The Gap, Pottery Barn--have adjoining kids' stores, a feature that presumably contributes to the training of consumers in the making (or that accommodates the shopping sensibilities of status-minded parents).

Here, time doesn't exactly stand still, but it's been slowed down: The Roman-numeral faces on the big clocks are ten minutes slow, perhaps to encourage more leisurely shopping. Wharton is amused by attempts to "make the inside look like the outside." "Blue curvilinear elements" allude to clouds, and the facings of stores mimic faÁades along a street. "There is a kind of consistency; moving from inside to outside, buildings don't change in their surfaces. It's like Disney World. We've learned so much from Disney World."

A mall motif comes through in the sleek Apple Computer Store; the backs of the staff T-shirts read "Shop Different." Moving on, we discover a Southern outpost for Yankee Candle, which is offering Bay Breeze, Wild Cherry, and Stargazer Lily fragrances. White House/Black Market is promoting either racial closeness or monochromatic clothes. We have a hard time figuring out j.jill, whose sign omits every dot above a letter. As our group stands outside trying to deconstruct (or properly construct) the store name, a clerk inquires earnestly, "Are you taking notes about our store?" We youthfully zip by a Fountain of Youth kiosk; no aquatic entertainment here, though we do catch the assurance that we might "never have dry skin again."

We spend some time, just beyond Banana Republic, experiencing the alternative reality of Aveda, which is dedicated to "the art and science of pure flower and plant essences." The "sensory journey" leads to "lush lashes" nurtured by "our new 'mosscara,'" which sounds more pleasant than lashed lushes. We're offered some sugar- and caffeine-free "comfort tea," a social gesture that inspires further checking out of aromatic product offerings: Rainforest, "like a walk in the woods after rain"; Valencia, "like a morning stroll through a Spanish grove"; and other products playing to wet or dry sensibilities. I'm rather taken with the Aroma Ring, which generates gentleness from a light bulb, and the Pacifying Aroma Candle, which is "connected with the spirit of the Earth."

Maguire isn't connecting well with such inducements; she's bothered by the store's strong aromas and has to make a speedy exit. She also complains about the noise level of the enclosed mall. "At least outside, sound isn't bouncing and reverberating. But the inside is really badly designed. There's just this kind of roar in the background." "Is that intended?" Rolleston wonders. "There are people who like noisy environments."

Rolleston likes--for its implicit irony--Impostors. Impostors is a jewelry store that seems to delight in, as it were, kicking its mall competitors in the jewels. Advertising "the luxury of fine jewelry at Impostors prices," it has its own take on authenticity--as with "the jewel that sparkles more than a diamond for a fraction of the price."

Art historian Wharton: architecture&squot;s self-conscious nostalgia is "absolutely essential" to attract Southpoint&squot;s shoppers

Art historian Wharton: architecture's self-conscious nostalgia is "absolutely essential" to attract Southpoint's shoppers.

Rolleston observes, "The most intimate and localized shop in the mall sells fake jewelry and calls itself an impostor. There is nothing else localized except the decorations."

"People really want everything the same," says Wharton. "They want to know exactly what they're getting, whether it's food or jeans. So the distinction between the faÁade, which makes an allusion to the local environment, and the universal, globalized nature of the mall itself seems exactly right--unfortunately--for our culture."

Rolleston applies a novel label: "It's funky in a managed way: Managed care."

We manage to reach a culminating point, Nordstrom--North Carolina's very first outpost of the fashion department store. At the foot of the store's escalator, a pianist segues from "Moon Ri- ver" to "Somewhere My Love." (This is an authentic human piano player with a Muzak repertoire, not inauthentic piped-in Muzak.) We pass signs reading "Personal Touch," "Customer Service," and "FaÁonnable"; the first two seem mysteriously inviting, and the last seems disturbingly pretentious.

Rolleston is taken with the dress style of the mall's sales force, with a vigorous nod to Nordstrom. "Back in that jeweler's shop, they dress like funeral-home directors. But they're only selling jewelry. There's a disparity between the required uniform of these salespeople and the total sloppiness of the scruffy people who are the customers. That says something about us and about a sort of professionalization of salesmanship. It must be a reversal of class relations. If you were at Harrod's in the 1930s, you'd expect modest-looking salespeople and rather smart customers who had dressed up to go out and shop. People now dress down to go out and shop; it's a complete deformalization of shopping."

Wharton doesn't quite buy that historical phenomenon. Growing up, she remembers being waited on in England by salespeople wearing morning suits. "There's been a degeneration in both directions."

We veer away from $275 Park Avenue shoes, $115 Ermenegildo Zegna ties, and $1,295 Hickey-Freeman suits. The $10 dress socks and $25 flag-decorated baseball caps are only slightly more tempting. What I really like are two even bigger-than-life, stuffed brown Dobermans; a salesman helpfully demonstrates their movable ears and tails. There's no attached price tag, and I guess that if you have to ask, you don't deserve the Dobermans.

Nordstrom's Café Bistro sounds as much like a redundancy as an eatery. Beyond Nordstrom, the Fork in the Road food court produces another Southpoint contrast in themes (as well as another effort at conjuring the downtown stroll). Auntie Anne's makes me think of fried chicken and biscuits; it is offering pretzels and lemonade. Ichiban, which suggests images of an unpleasant German roadway, is serving tempura and rice dishes. Chao Cajun just seems ethnically confused; likewise Max Orient. Frank & Stein is too silly to be tasty. As the group splits up, I retreat to California Pizza for a mixed-metaphors meal: pizza topped by chicken and barbecue sauce.

Has the mall become a symbol of the city--in this case, a symbol of Durham's certifiably entering the ranks of the New South? No scholars in this mall investigation team could imagine courting a prospective colleague through a side trip to Southpoint. "We'd take them to good restaurants," Wharton says. She adds, "Professors are just weird. For the most part, people working in the area may have a different level of desire than academics when it comes to shopping."

Given the fact that many Duke students grew up in a mall culture, is Southpoint any kind of a student lure? Bettman says Southpoint may be emblematic of a sophisticated urban environment, and in that sense it conveys an important signal: "You may have people with preferences for being in a major area because of what they're looking for outside of their college experience. We get that all the time with the European students we admit to graduate school. A student from Milan may have a hard time imagining living in Durham for five years."

Wharton says, "That may be particularly true for graduate students. I think parents play a larger role for undergraduates. So Duke has the attraction of being safe, suburban, and familiar. I can't imagine that parents would consider where the nearest shopping mall is."

Maybe, but an informal survey of students late in the spring semester found broad recognition of the new mall--and numerous accounts of multiple mall visits. One student told me, "Southpoint is a great place to window-shop. You could spend hours there!" With its "pretty upscale" shops and the sense of a safe environment, the mall "definitely made me and my friends feel differently about the Durham area," she reported. "I had many conversations with friends where we said, 'Man, I wish Southpoint had opened when we were freshmen!' "

On a visit to the area to write about Durham, Jane Wooldridge '80, travel editor for The Miami Herald, makes a few mall musings. She's wary of pegging malls as destinations. But "shopping comes up very high on the list" of what people do on vacations--from native Mexican markets to Nordstrom. Good shopping, then, can at least induce tourists to extend their stays. (Durham area hotels now offer "Southpoint Shopping Weekend Getaways.") And as would-be residents contemplate moving to an area, shopping plays into quality-of-life considerations, she says. "Schools, culture, restaurants are all important. If you have to fly to New York for the fashion look you want rather than finding it locally, that's going to be a consideration, too."

The fashionable mall is now as basic to the American fabric as--well, shopping. The Streets at Southpoint is just a suggestion of the phenomenon. It's hardly the culmination.

One culmination will come in a few years to Syracuse, New York. Syracuse is planning DestiNY USA; the mall, in this verbal and commercial formulation, becomes both destiny and destination. The New York Times describes it as "a behemoth of a shopping, tourism, and entertainment complex that will take up more square footage than two Empire State Buildings." Among its features will be 400 stores, 4,000 hotel rooms, more than thirty restaurants, a saltwater aquarium, rock- and ice-climbing mountains five stories high, a sixty-five-acre enclosed park, a twenty-screen movie complex, a 15,000-seat concert hall, and a miniature Erie Canal.

But is that the end of the phenomenon? A little context comes from Alex Greenwood '89, downtown coordinator for the redevelopment division of Oakland, California. Greenwood points out that there's been "lots of evolution in the way people want to shop, and that evolution has sparked different retail developments." So the department store came of age in the late nineteenth century; by the 1960s and 1970s, it was on its way out. Department stores were supplanted by value-oriented warehouses. Now, reflecting an urge for authenticity, malls mimic a real city without the attendant inconveniences.

Even in an age of life on the computer screen, the city center has enduring importance, Greenwood says, as a place of "commercial exchange, intellectual exchange, cultural exchange. There's something about a downtown that really speaks to people--the storefronts, the bustling activity, the look and feel of it." A retail complex that is "very safe, controlled, and clean but is isolated from everything else by seas of parking lots" can "somehow fall short of a genuine cultural encounter," he says. There are successful development models that build on the authentic downtown; they have worked successfully in places like San Diego--places with traditions of being friendly to pedestrians, with existing commercial areas that provide a foundation for expanded development, and with a network of mass transportation for getting people there and back easily.

Greenwood wonders about the durability of the city-mimicking, beyond-the-city shopping mall. Retail concepts do have finite life cycles, and places like Southpoint and DestiNY USA in time may lose their attractiveness. What remains could be awfully big and expensive holes in the ground. Shopping as a social activity has an enduring appeal. But shopping concepts--even those fixed in brick--come and go.