Big Time Mallin'

Living, loving and loathing in the mini-cities of the Valley's malls

Nevertheless, Lang understands why so many of his peers end up working in dead-end mall jobs.

"The one thing you can say about working in the mall is it's convenient. The buses come here, so it's good if you don't have a car. And there's always lots of places to work.

"It's kind of a pointless place," he says. "But it's a job."

Paradise Valley Mall's Jason Kron, at your service: "You can literally feel your IQ dropping around here."
photos by Jackie Mercandetti
Paradise Valley Mall's Jason Kron, at your service: "You can literally feel your IQ dropping around here."
Zales saleswoman Shy Khan helps out at Serkan Akgun's Krazy Krabs booth at Metrocenter.
Jackie Mercandetti
Zales saleswoman Shy Khan helps out at Serkan Akgun's Krazy Krabs booth at Metrocenter.

Born to Be Mild

For a few fast-paced hours every fourth Friday in November, when shoppers rise ludicrously early to be first in line for the big day-after-Thanksgiving sales, the nation's malls dominate the morning TV wake-up shows and become, once again, the phenomenon they were originally built to be -- what Victor Gruen, the Austria-born architect who designed the first enclosed mall near Minneapolis in 1956, envisioned as a Main Street for suburbs without a town center.

Gruen dreamed of a gargantuan public space offering not only shopping but also "social life and recreation, in a protected pedestrian environment."

And on that one morning each year, even the shabbiest area mall is transformed into that great communal meeting place, teeming with people of all stripes united in a common pursuit, surrounded by everything under the sun to try on, eat or play with.

"We're all here for the same thing," remarks a heavy middle-aged man who's arrived at PV Mall alone on his way to work, himself in line for a free Beth and Bill floppy hat. "It's like a rock concert!"

But a scant four hours after the big doors open, the buzz is gone, and the mall begins to feel like, well, the mall again. The early bird specials are over, the remote news crews begin packing up their gear, and suddenly, being in a crowded, closed-in echo chamber full of Gaps, GNCs and Cinnabons doesn't feel fun anymore.

A man fully stretched out on a Sears-O-Pedic Comfort Cloud mattress whines to his wife, checking out handbags nearby, "What are we still doing here?"

In theory, going to the mall oughta be a constant kick in the pants, an endless source of stimulation.

"You see a lot of a community's life in its mall," writes noted "retail anthropologist" Paco Underhill in his new book, Call of the Mall. "The retail arena is still the best place I know for seeing what people wear and eat and look like, how they interact with their parents and friends and lovers and kids. If you really want to observe entire middle-class multigenerational American families," Underhill advises, "you have to go to the mall."

And yet, the mall usually feels anything but stimulating. Some of that's because the mall doesn't function like a true public space. In 1972, when malls had become prime venues for Vietnam war protesters, the Supreme Court ruled that malls did not have to permit distribution of anti-war fliers on the premises. In 1980, the court decided individual state laws could determine the amount of free-speech rights allowed at malls.

Today, Arizona is one of 11 states where malls are not required to allow any First Amendment rights. Wanna test it? Watch how fast even a deaf mute selling pencils is escorted from the food court.

But the mall is also, in a sense, deliberately dull by design. The stores themselves may want to look as cool as possible, since youth fashion clothing and accessories account for the bulk of a mall's business. But malls don't want to be so cool to hang out in that they attract too many loitering teens, creating an attractive environment for runaways, wanted juveniles and penniless slackers.

Phoenix Police Sergeant Steve Wamsley, whose district centers on Metrocenter in west Phoenix, says several Valley malls are paying firms a lot of money to do CPTEDs, or Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design studies, to determine what's so cool about hanging out at the mall -- and then change it.

"That's why PV Mall plays classical music in its parking garage," Wamsley says. "If you have a mall parking lot where kids are slinging dope, and you put on classical music, they don't wanna stay there."

Not all of the dull-down measures are limited to crime prevention, however. A while back, Metrocenter did away with the benches on the upper level to stop boys in baggy hip-hop pants from hanging out all day ogling the girls down below.

"If they gotta stand there instead of sitting, they'll get tired," Wamsley reasons.

It's worked, too: Upper-level ogling has decreased dramatically.

Some efforts squeeze cops between wanting to help needy kids and serving the mall's businesses. "We also had reports that the kids were sleeping up against the building at night because it was warm," Wamsley says. "So we asked the mall to trim their bushes down a little bit, which they did."

All these subtle changes, says Wamsley, are made by malls "to make it so kids can't really hang out there anymore. Now, by that, I'm saying, the kids that we don't want to hang out there anymore."

After all, even the worst troublemakers buy a Hot Topic tee shirt now and then.

"Don't forget," Wamsley says, "gang members shop, too."

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