To paraphrase Sigmund Freud, sometimes a mall is just a mall. Except that this is almost never true. For Americans who grew up in any city large enough to have its own shopping mall (or who grew up next to a city that was large enough to have its own shopping mall), the mall was a place where many of them learned to be grown-ups. Or at least how grown-ups would be if they had a more-than-usual amount of disposable income and no job to get to. And a lot of hormones to work off.
This paper examines the Glendale as a site in which the commerce that is enacted is far less important that the growing-up that occurs there. The fact that teenagers use malls as a sounding board for their adult lives is never an explicit aspect of the identity of the Glendale Galleria, but an ethnographic investigation of the mall exposes such a function as lying only a very little bit under the surface. This paper analyses Glendale Galleria as a themed space, although one that is "themed" in ways that are ambiguous, multivalent, and contradictory -- and no doubt for the most part unintentional.
The Galleria was opened in 1976, a generation after the first malls began springing up around the country and a generation before malls began to change to more open-air designs and a more destination-like philosophy in which shopping was combined with various forms of services and entertainments as well as convenience like on-site daycare, although some of these could easily be described as feeble. The mall lists under its "services and amenities" such things as a lost and found, a notary public, and the sale of lottery tickets. These offerings might well be those of a poorer bodega in the kind of neighborhood that few of the inhabitants of this mall would ever go.
Also on its website, it advertises itself as offering "a complete entertainment experience." It has remained vibrant, or nearly so, in the years since the nation celebrated its bicentennial, outlasting many of the malls built in that era. It is the place to go in Glendale to buy clothes for most people, people who could go to Los Angeles but who (in most cases and entirely wisely) simply do not want to get on the freeway, especially if they have just spent the entire working week in their cars. Parents will drive teenagers as far as this mall, but then they are on their own.
Any mall, at least one that has lasted as long as has the one in Glendale, reflects the city in which it resides, although in a somewhat ambiguous way. One of the selling points of malls, as it were, is that one knows what to expect from them. Shopping malls exemplify both the good and the ills of a mass-market society: You are unlikely to get any surprises when you go there, and you are unlikely to get any surprises when you go there. The expected is safe and reassuring, and this a large element of the theme of the Galleria: You will feel safe here. Nothing will threaten your life or challenge your intellect or view of the world. And this is not unlike the city itself, a fact that is tacitly acknowledged by the adults, and scornfully so by the teenagers.
Bean & Moni (2003) describe this aspect of mall theme and culture in the following passage, although their dismissal of the importance of malls in shaping teen identity suggests that they themselves did not grow up in malls and so have no experience of how much identity can be created and sustained in the reflection of a store-front window.
Urban teens navigate through shopping malls, train stations, airports, freeways, and the Internet. These fluid spaces are disorienting, disrupting a fixed sense of place, and this spills over into teens' interior worlds. Instead of clear anchors in family, community, and institutions like schools to forge a coherent identity, these fluid spaces engender feelings of disconnection and alienation & #8230;.
Identity in a mall culture is constructed through consumption of goods, with selfhood vested in things. Because this is ephemeral, feelings of panic and anxiety flow (p. 640).
Well yes, but no also. The mall is certainly a place in which the consumption and display goods is a large part of the identity-making process of visitors, and especially of teens, to that marketplace. But this fails to explain the reason why so many teenagers simply hang out at malls, spending hours without buying anything.
Selling, and Buying, Self-Identity
It is true that during these periods of wandering from shoe shop to anchor store to Starbucks that teenagers do stop to look at the goods that are being sold, and much of their conversation can revolve around who would wear such-and-such a dress (and what such a dress would say about their moral character and status), but these interactions between teens and objects should be read not only in terms of consumerist culture, or even primarily in terms of consumerist culture. Teenagers hanging out in malls are using the world around them to locate themselves culturally and socially. This is a universal function of young adulthood: Only the props vary. And simply because the "props" of adolescence in the Galleria are cheaply made does not mean that they have no value in the eyes of those who linger.
When Langhorne (2001) laments the disconnectedness of the mall and similar spaces, he does so (again, as in the above passage) as a way of downplaying and even dismissing the ways in which young people are able to make meaning of their lives in places that would seem to offer any real possibility of real and authentic identity creation.
Global markets, global manufacturers and purveyors of knowledge, and global consumers, already either horizontal in shape or lacking any physical shape at all, have arrived as new participants, stirring like a rising mist on a summer's morning round the soaring trunks of the trees in an old wood. They move inexorably across global space and time without respect to physical geography, political frontiers, or night and day. (Langhorne, 2001, p. 39)
Finding the Specific in the Generic
The mall is a generic place, so much so that if you were to be kidnapped by aliens and dropped into the food court of any mall in the United States you would probably not be able to identify which mall you were in -- at least not until you heard the accents and languages around you. People speak in a mall as if they were in private, and this is true even when they are not using a Bluetooth. They incorporate the mall into an arena in which they can speak as if they were at home, which can be seen as problematic for what it says about domestic life in the United States but which is very useful for an ethnographer.
This is a key point, that malls are defined both as places where people can blend in and where people can find themselves. Malls are only as different as are the people who come to them, albeit this population is homogenized by the fact that they have all come to have the mall experience. When one walks around the Glendale Galleria, one is indeed reminded of the city outside -- a city that could itself be an alien spaceship that landed between the San Fernando and San Gabriel Valleys, a place once inhabited by a people that called themselves the Tongva, and whom missionaries called Gabrielenos after the Mission of St. Gabriel that they built nearby. These architectural bones of the city are far less significant than is the mall.
None of this is referenced within the mall itself, for the mall (like nearly every American mall) has pegged its success to the fact that it is up-to-date, a concept that is somewhat fuzzy but that clearly represents an idea that people will not buy something that is clearly from the current season, although something that it obviously retro will do as well. Rather than architectural references to the city's native or mission past or its suburban near-past, the Galleria references these layers of the city history with the people who wander past windows and sometimes go into stores to buy things. The mission is certainly something of which most Glendale-ites are aware, but it is so not-up-to-date.
Many of this people are Latino/a, speaking the Spanish that was once the common language of the area, and if one looks closely some of the mall's visitors can be seen to have something of the older people, the "people of the earth" in their bone structure. This is true in different parts of California, although diluted in Glendale: The past does not exist in its buildings, those aspects of society that one would imagine are the enduring aspects of a society. Rather,…