Malls and churches in America

May 22nd, 2019

Growing up in the mall

When Victor Gruen, an Austrian émigré who left Nazi-threatened Europe, created the first shopping mall in Edina, Minnesota, in 1956, he didn’t think he was changing both the American landscape and culture forever. Looking at the growth of postwar suburbia, Gruen wanted to recreate the urban density that he felt was vital for vibrant community. Suburbs, he complained, were “soulless” and needed the charm and energy of real cities, like the Vienna he had left behind.

By the time of his death in 1980, he had already begun to lament what he had created. Malls had become a symbol not of a renewed urban vision but of suburbia itself. He bemoaned that they were surrounded by “the ugliness and discomfort of the land-wasting seas of parking.”

Decades later, generations of American teenagers have grown up in the environs Gruen imagined: climate-controlled complexes with myriad shops all under one roof, two-tiered structures with escalators descending and ascending through open spaces, garden courtyards under skylights, cafés, kiosks — and big, soft pretzels.

While the model spawned by Gruen has been sturdy for years, times are changing. Retail outlets of all types are struggling in the Digital Age, and malls are struggling to adapt. Some are shuttering entirely. Some have even becoming churches.

The rise of ubiquity

“Malls are the meccas of ubiquity,” says author Suzannah Lessard in her new book The Absent Hand: Reimagining Our American Landscape. While visiting King of Prussia, Pennsylvania, home of the second largest mall in the United States, Lessard notes, “Where older landscapes are defined by what is special about a given place, the new pieces of King of Prussia could be anywhere.”

Malls initially attracted business because of their safety, cleanliness and attention to a certain kind of beauty. Malls also quickly became a center of socialization, which invested them with emotional meaning. Speaking to ArchDaily, retail historian Ross Schendel says, “When malls replaced downtowns in the mid-20th century, they became the de facto gathering place for those living in suburbs, and created these collective experiences and fond memories we have.”

But malls have struggled as more and more of our lives, especially our social lives, have moved online. In 2012, Emily Badger reported in The Atlantic that in 1990, at the peak of their popularity, 19 new malls popped up in the United States. Badger then added, “We haven’t cut the ribbon on a new one since 2006.”

In recent years, anchor tenants like JCPenney and Sears continue to close, and many malls are being demolished, redeveloped, and converted for new uses. A 2017 survey by Credit Suisse estimates that 25 percent of shopping malls will be gone within five years.

As she talked with managers at the King of Prussia Mall, Lessard said there were tensions, large and small, beneath the “serene atmosphere of the mall . . . : the spilled soda that must be cleaned up immediately, the danger of a more up-to-date mall nearby or of people abandoning malls altogether because they are sick of Cinnabons. The global economy reinforces this kind of tension.”

Malls as “IRL” places

As times change, some malls are adapting to a new era. The Mall of America, in suburban Minneapolis, Minnesota, is the largest mall in the country and boasts over 520 stores and an amusement park in its center. The mall has been on the cutting edge of the movement to transform shopping from a transaction into an experience.

Other malls are putting their focus on an age group that might seem difficult to reach because of their assumed immersion in the digital world — Generation Z. A 2018 study by the International Council of Shopping Centers tells us that youth and young adults in this cohort were actually more likely than their millennial and Generation X counterparts to have visited a physical shopping center over a three-month period last year. A recent article in Bloomberg Businessweek describes retailers offering discounts to customers who participate in Instagram promotions and doing radical makeovers of stores on a frequent basis to make the stores themselves more attractive for photos that can be shared on social media.

Fundamentally, the mall, like the church, is still important because of its ability to bring us out and bring us together IRL (in real life), as it’s said in online parlance.

The mall as cathedral

In his 2009 book Desiring the Kingdom, James K. A. Smith draws out the formative power of spaces and liturgies by describing a shopping mall in uniquely religious terms. “The layout of this temple has architectural echoes that hark back to medieval cathedrals — mammoth religious spaces that can absorb all kinds of different religious activities all at one time,” he writes. Lessard sees these similarities as well, calling the King of Prussia Mall a “cathedral.” Inside the mall itself, she finds herself “in a serene interior that [does] indeed seem churchlike.”

Perhaps it’s not so surprising then that some churches are moving into the abandoned malls dotting our landscape. As reported in a 2017 Business Insider article, the Mars Hill congregation moved into the deserted Grand Village Mall in Granville, Michigan, after it was donated to them in 2000. The church converted one of the anchor stores into “a huge, open chapel,” which they nicknamed “The Hangar.” The same article reports that although the Euclid Square Mall in Euclid, Ohio, closed up its shops in 2000, soon some of those storefronts were filled by 24 different Christian congregations.

The architecture of these old malls may provide a hint of medieval cathedrals, but it also provides a familiar and nonthreatening environment for Americans who grew up among the food courts and ice rinks. In the same way that malls have been perfecting an atmosphere of welcome and space for connection, many churches have been reclaiming their own ministries of hospitality and community-building.

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