Scenes from a Mall

The Mall of America turns 15.

“I bring you the moon and you don’t want it?” asked Nader Ghermezian, the Iranian rug merchant turned megamall mastermind in the mid-1980s. Oh, but we did, all 78 acres. And now, as the Mall of America turns 15, the moon is thoroughly colonized, more popular than ever, and aiming to grow in order to reclaim its crown as king of all malls. But can it really be, as one philosopher ventured, a postmodern plaza, a “dreamhouse of the collectivity”? What does it mean to be America’s mall?

Montgomery Booth
Photo by Mike McGregor

Ghermezian’s original megamall proposal included plans for the world’s largest indoor lake, with waves suitable for surfing. This and other ideas never materialized, but the material girls (and boys) did, some 40 million shoppers a year, making this pleasure dome the nation’s most popular attraction. Part of the pull might be the so-called “Gruen Effect.” Named for the developer of Southdale Center in Edina, it’s the theory that a strategic mall layout can inspire visitors to forget the purpose of their trip and shop aimlessly. Or, as one of the megamall’s designers revealed shortly after its opening, “We want people to get lost in the mall.”

T.C. Cooper
Photo by Mike McGregor

For the megamall’s opening, Ray Charles sang “America the Beautiful.” In a promotional video, the mall’s general manager proclaimed, “I believe we can make Mall of America stand for all of America.” Indeed, its 520 stores cut across demographics, from the upscale Coach boutique to the Dollar Tree. But some of our nation’s problems quickly emerged as well: guns, gangs, violence. And so the mall instituted one of the country’s first shopping curfews for teenagers, which, along with 160 closed-circuit cameras and 100 security officers, has helped keep the mall safe for that most American of pastimes: shopping.

Alyson and Zander Truong
Photo by Mike McGregor

The mall was part of Governor Rudy Perpich’s plan to make Minnesota more international, an initiative no less important than hosting the Super Bowl or the former Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev. “You will have all the shoppers from New York, Rome, Los Angeles, and Paris coming here,” Ghermezian told skeptics in Minnesota. In fact, tourists do comprise about 40 percent of megamall visitors, but they’re mostly from Wisconsin, Iowa, Canada, and Japan.


Imsun Park
Photo by Mike McGregor

The megamall has hosted the world’s largest sleepover and the largest gingerbread house, tryouts for America’s Next Top Model, and 10,000 fans of David Hasselhoff. In its bid to expand (with state funding, a proposal that died in this year’s tax-bill veto), the mall has assembled a similarly eclectic group of supporters, from the Salvation Army to the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation, all of whom believe in the complex’s role as an event center, a common ground, perhaps even a place, as geography professor John Goss once wrote, that “keeps alive dreams of utopian possibility.” MM