Response to "Dream Worlds and Malls"

Response by David.

Spending the last five days visiting with friends in Brooklyn Heights, I’m struck by how different their neighborhood is from a mall, and how much more closely it approximates the community of my dream world. My dream world would be a neighborhood, and I’m not convinced that can exist in a shopping mall.

Our friend likes to eat meat, and so getting ready to leave his studio in Tribeca he calls his butcher- to arrange a certain cut of meat for our dinner. We stop at the butcher’s first, after getting off the 3 train from Manhattan. He is greeted when he arrives, he know everyone by first name- he’s there several times a week, and they have an animated conversation about a particular cut of pork. Next, we go several doors down Smith Street to a cheese store, which also has fresh baguettes, and we ask their advice as to where we can get fresh anchovies. We’re running late but we have time to stop into the wine store to buy a couple of bottles of a particular French red from Cahors. The woman running the shop immediately knows the best choice from the region.

As we walk down Court Street the next day I’m reminded of a wonderful few days I spent in Hampstead many years ago. As a neighborhood it was similar, though much older, it had evolved in recent years to become a hip part of North London, but it still had all the qualities of community that have been lost in many parts of Vancouver-where we drive across big parts of the city to get to a Superstore or a Costco. Hamstead had a butcher, a fishmonger’s, several bakeries- including one that specialized in cakes and pastries as well as two excellent bookstores, and several clothing stores for men and women, as well as an assortment of other specialized family run shops that characterize any older shopping neighborhood.

That would be what I’d want my dream mall to be- a place in my neighborhood- that I could get to without a car, where I’d choose to shop on my way home with friends. Where I could become familiar enough with the proprietors of the various favorite shops I chose, that I would greet them- ask for recommendations regarding the best of the day’s has to offer, and know I could trust their opinion. In short I want a community.

In Aaron Betsky’s book “Architecture Must Burn��? he refers to the Gruen Transfer, the moment at which a mall shopper who has come to buy one thing in one store, “becomes so overwhelmed by the wondrous labyrinth of the place that she or he starts wandering aimlessly, consuming all along the way,��? Betsky goes on to note “that the goal of the mall is to turn us from directed human beings into consuming wanderers.��?

Our covered North American “destination��? malls may be a vulgar, bastardized modern versions of earlier arcades and galleries which evolved first into large department stores and then morphed further into the even larger indoor malls that are found throughout Canada and the United States- what is lost is that sense of neighbourhood and community. The malls found adjacent to every big city remain aloof and removed from the city- a destination one drives to for a shopping experience. They may be places to meet others and entertain ourselves, but they remain removed from realities of the day. Artificial florescent lighting isolates us, suspended in time and space within a floor to ceiling glass environment designed to maximize the display of products, shopping at the same stored, with a few regional variants, from one mall to the next.

I still remember my first mall experiences in the early 1960s, as a teenager growing up in Victoria. We would take the ferry off Vancouver Island and drive to Seattle to visit family friends and head to the Northgate Mall to buy clothes. I can vividly recall the excitement of trying on a new pair of indigo “shrink to fit��? Levis at the “Squire Shop��? and buying a pair of two-tone brown saddle shoes at Tom McCann’s.

On Tuesday, I was in the 5th Avenue flagship Abercrombie and Fitch store in New York City. This store echoes the same design of the Place Montreal Trust store. It’s built around a wide central glass staircase revealing clothing galleries up and down. Walking in, I was greeted by loud dance music and beautiful young sales representatives stationed ready to help me at every gallery. Everything seems designed to collapse my shopping experience with that of the dance club where I am as beautiful and hip as the people who work here. They may be trying to sell a sense of community, but it quickly felt artificial. I left the store and was flooded with the daylight of a sunny winter day on 5th Avenue in Manhattan.

I don’t want to create a dream world, but what I’ve come to realize is that what’s missing for me in big parts of Vancouver are shopping neighborhoods where people get to know each other- as part of a community. I felt that sense of community for many years when I lived off Commercial Drive. For the past two years we have been living a block off south Granville and some of the many things I appreciate about our neighborhood along with being able to walk to work, included eating Friday breakfasts at the now closed, Normandy Restaurant (we’ve had to switch to Paul’s) and stopping in at Meinharts to pick up something for dinner on my way home. Perhaps we haven’t been living here long enough for it to feel like a community yet, but as my neighborhood it’s a start.