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City lite

Shopping centers are fulfilling their destiny, not as escapes from the city but as places to experience urban pleasures.

December 10, 2006|Virginia Postrel | Virginia Postrel ( is a columnist for the Atlantic and the author of "The Substance of Style."

I WAS SHOCKED the first time I went to Universal CityWalk, several months after it opened in 1993. I'd read all about the place beforehand. Social critics had proclaimed it the new white-flight fortress against the crime, disorder and diversity of real city life. It exemplified "a Victorian-style separation of classes in our public life," wrote Norman Klein. George Will called CityWalk "a melancholy comment on metropolitan America." Mike Davis said, "It fulfills our worst prophecies." At best, CityWalk was a fake city, built for customers who, in Lewis Lapham's words, "had no intention of going to see the original city four miles to the south."

After that buildup, I expected something at least as visionary and disturbing as Disneyland. What I found was a mall. Yes, it was outdoors and full of tourist traps. The store facades were more exuberant than the typical Banana Republic. But it was still just a shopping center. CityWalk seemed no more revolutionary -- and less fortress-like -- than the Beverly Center. What a letdown.

A decade later, I returned to see what had happened to the famous harbinger of Fortress Los Angeles. On a Sunday evening in July, the place was absolutely packed. Families and friends by the hundreds were out enjoying the bustle, the neon lights, the night air, the music blasting from the public stage. A few people carried shopping bags, but most seemed just to be hanging out. Contrary to the prophets of a decade earlier, they were generally locals, and I was about the only pale-faced blond in sight. CityWalk wasn't separate from the real Los Angeles. It was emphatically part of it. It seemed less like a mall this time and more like a city.

That, I now realize, was itself a false dichotomy -- a remnant of postwar suburban thinking. Real city living has always been about commerce and security, the two main reasons people gather in close proximity. (A third is finding sexual partners.) Those who condemn malls for offering havens might as well condemn hybrid cars for not burning enough gas; these critics mistake the side effects of urban density for its purposes. Like mall visitors all over the country, CityWalk patrons aren't looking to escape urban life but to experience its pleasures.

In fact, CityWalk says far more about the state of shopping centers than it does about the state of cities. Over the last decade and a half, the once-monolithic mall has become more diversified, more aesthetically appealing and more porous. Outdoor "lifestyle centers," often without department stores, are reinventing the city street, while traditional malls revamp to provide more entertainment, more restaurants, more appealing public spaces and more reasons to linger. After five decades of experiment and evolution, the American shopping center is finally beginning to fulfill its inventor's dream: to re-create the human-scale European city "filled, morning and evening, day and night, weekdays and Sundays, with urban dynamism."

That dreamer's name was Victor Gruen, an architect in exile. In the mid-20th century, he lived in Beverly Hills but longed for Vienna, the city he'd been driven from by the Nazis. Like many emigres, he missed the cafes and conversation that defined Central European cities before the war. "I haven't seen people sit at sidewalk tables on Ventura Boulevard because there is nothing to look at," he lamented. To recover that lost urbanity, Gruen invented the shopping mall, imagining it as a human-scale alternative to the impersonal canyons of industrial downtowns and the drive-by anomie of postwar suburbia. The shopping center of his imagination would include not only stores but "a community center, an auditorium, a children's play area, a large number of public eating places and, in the courts and malls, opportunities for relaxation, exhibits and public events." It would be, as we say now, a "third place," a congenial gathering spot separate from home and work.

Gruen sold his designs to retailers and succeeded as a commercial architect. But the economics of the time left his dreams severely compromised. Instead of centers of sociability, developers built "machines for shopping," designed to move customers efficiently from store to store, stopping only for essential fuel. In their day, malls were pretty exciting. Those of us who grew up in the 1960s and '70s can recall the thrill of having big, climate-controlled spaces where you could walk without fearing the elements (a major selling point in most of the country) or dodging cars. Unfortunately, there was no place to sit comfortably -- surely a reason that most of the people socializing at the mall were teenagers walking in groups. Architecturally, malls were monolithic buildings, physically and psychologically separated from their environment. To the road, they presented nothing more inviting than a department store sign. The action was on the inside.

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