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Destination: Megamall

Late at night, the Mall of America is one exquisitely creepy place. In the center of its seven-acre atrium hulks a giant Snoopy. Across from Snoopy, an equally mammoth ax—part of a dormant amusement ride—stands bolt upright. The general aesthetic can best be described as slasher film meets airplane hangar, with hints of Pompidou. Above Camp Snoopy stretch miles of exposed piping. Below, the roving tweens and teens who buzzed through the mall during the day are gone, and an adult crowd, in search of nightlife, breaks an otherwise cavernous silence. They're heading to the so-called "Upper East Side" on the fourth and top floor of the shopping mecca in Bloomington, Minnesota, across from its massive multiplex. The Upper East Side is fully innocuous, if vaguely sinful. It's filled with arcades, a piano bar, a sports bar, a comedy club, and a Hooters. Bands of men and women, clad in what look like the spoils of a day shopping on the mezzanines below—Gap, J. Crew, and Guess—are heading toward the up escalator. Listen carefully, though, and you will hear more than Midwestern American English being spoken. Posh English accents mix in with Brooklynese and bursts of French, German, Hindi, and Korean.

I've always loved malls, because the contradictions of a place designed to be all things to all people are so manifestly absurd. At the Mall of America—or MOA, as it refers to itself—the contradictions are on vivid display these days. MOA is just the classic American mall on steroids. In industry parlance, it's a double dumbbell, four massive anchor stores connected by four equally massive pavilions. And there's more to come: a size-doubling expansion is currently under way. Aside from sheer scale, it does not look or feel substantially different from the concourses at the airport. And yet it now markets itself as an international tourist destination. Unless you're willing to believe that Cinnabon and Glamour Shots are to America what the Pantheon or Sistine Chapel are to Rome, this will no doubt strike you as slightly comical. But MOA is only falling in line with the paradigm shift now overtaking the entire mall industry. "As one of the most visited destinations in the United States," the promotional materials read, MOA "works hard to maintain its reputation as a unique shopping and entertainment destination." As a family vacation destination, MOA says it rates higher than New York City, Chicago, and Las Vegas. The magic word, in case you missed it, is destination.

The latest bit of industry jargon, destination crops up everywhere in the world of global malldom. Berjaya Times Square Kuala Lumpur, a 7.5 million-square-foot jumbo mall in Malaysia, is "set to propel Kuala Lumpur into a regional and international destination for shopping and entertainment." At the planned Dubai Mall, "the shopping will be without equal, [but] restaurants and movie theaters will make Dubai Mall an entertainment destination that has something for everyone." This signals a move away from community as the marketing buzzword of choice. Big-box retailers and their various architects and developers—no doubt sincerely, but also to help make something entirely private-spirited appear entirely public-spirited—once argued that malls were the new community spaces, modern equivalents of the piazza, town square, or village green. From this new community, however, customers were not supposed to notice anything missing—say, urban spontaneity, a devotion to pedestrian life and historical preservation, or any of the traditional rights associated with public spaces, such as the right to assemble or to protest. Accordingly, intellectuals and urban planners have disdained malls as scourges of the earth, as manufacturers of narcotized zombies. "One moves for a while in aqueous suspension, not only of light, but of judgment, not only of judgment, but of personality," Joan Didion wrote in the sixties about California's new shopping centers.

From the opening of the Northgate Mall outside Seattle in 1950, the communal ideal espoused by developers has conflicted with a basic economic reality: the closer you live to a mall, the less time and money you are likely to spend there. Conversely, the farther you travel to get to a mall, the more lucre you are likely to shed to justify the trip. Not surprisingly, malls love travelers. As malls have become ubiquitous and competition between them intense, the principal claim in their favor has shifted. No longer town squares providing comfort and belonging to those who live near them, malls are now sold to their prospective communities on their potential ability to draw visitors from far-flung places. No wonder "destination" now trumps "community." While malls have always been categorized by geographic reach—from neighborhood malls, drawing on a two-mile radius, to superregionalmalls, serving a 100-mile radius—the era of the global mall is dawning. Mammoth, sleek mega-emporia, designed in some instances as surrogate downtowns, are sprouting up across Asia and the Middle East: Villa Moda in Kuwait City, Three on the Bund in Shanghai. A new, transnational consumer, able to take advantage of cheap airfares and fluctuating currencies, is responding to their obvious allure.

All of this occurs to me as I gaze across the atrium upon Camp Snoopy. Next to its distant Asian and Middle Eastern cousins, MOA is a provincial American dinosaur, caught between identities. It would like to be both a cozy, surrogate downtown and an enticing global destination. In the struggle to brand itself in the new era, MOA resorts to three tactics: scale, variety, and novelty. MOA may be just a couple of dumbbells, but it is big—I mean big, the biggest shopping mall in the United States. It can therefore contain multitudes, well over 500 shops, from every brand known to man (Coach, Williams-Sonoma, Banana Republic, Victoria's Secret—you name it, it's here) to every oddity (the Endangered Species Store, Aquamassage) to every niche purveyor (Sox Appeal, the Garlic Shoppe) imaginable. It also features 50 or so restaurants, whose offerings range from food-court fare to the creations of the Napa Valley Grille, an upscale California bistro with $25 entrées and an impressive wine list. And finally, it has "attractions," or the stuff you probably won't find at home. I visited the aquarium—in its underwater acrylic tunnel you are surrounded by exotic fish and sharks—rode in the NASCAR simulator, and ate a gourmet pressed-panini sandwich.

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