Art Carden  

The Most Bourgeois Place on Earth?

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We're halfway through one of those most noble of life's rituals--helping a family member move, in this case, my sister to Minnesota--and we spent this morning at what I would argue is the most bourgeois place on Earth: the Mall of America.

Modernity's critics and hipsters dislike malls because they don't really like commerce. The Mall of America is, for lack of a better phrase, a temple of commerce. Virtually every square inch is devoted to bringing together willing buyers with willing sellers. It's also a microcosm of how services like sanitation and security can be provided privately.

As an undergrad, I took an interesting introductory American Studies course. During one lecture, the Professor lamented the fact that elderly men now gather at shopping malls where elderly men of previous generations would gather in front of the courthouse. I think this is a sign of progress. As symbolic spaces go, courthouses are emblems of conflict. Malls are emblems of cooperation. That modern life's dominant public space is a house of commerce rather than a house of conflict is something to be celebrated, not lamented.



COMMENTS (25 to date)
John writes:

I'm quite libertarian but really try to avoid going to malls. Most of what they sell is crap, and I'd rather support smaller mens stores if I need clothes. There are plenty of reasons to dislike large shopping malls, none of which have to do with a hostility towards commerce.

Dano755 writes:

It seems that the elderly men (& women) gather at McDonald's in my town.

Carl writes:

I'm not sure that "most of what they sell is crap". Depends on what you mean by "crap", I suppose. Presumably it has to mean something other than "stuff I don't happen to buy".

Andrew writes:

I welcome your sister to the land of 10,000 taxes. Just a warning. That whole Minnesota-Nice thing is really just passive-aggressive behavior. We don't take to kindly to outsiders. "Up North" doesn't literally mean going north. It means going away, usually to someones cabin. This isn't to say your sister won't be welcome in MN. At the beginning, she may find it more welcomming if she can bond with other "mover-inners".

As for the MOA, it's nice to be the house of commerce when you have so many politicians in your back pocket. We sometimes refer to it as the Subsidy Capital of Minnesota. As for private security, it's manned by the Bloomington police department. They even have their own station there. The BPD even had their own reality show regarding policing the MOA.

Foobarista writes:

Hipsters love commerce, but only if it is marketed in a way they approve of: free-range organic eco-whatever, or anything made by Apple. If a mall has a Trader Joes, a Whole Foods, an REI, and an Apple store, hipsters will be all over it, especially if it's a "pedestrian-friendly" mall in an approved area.

If you want to see how to market to hipsters, the "Stuff White People Like" website would be an excellent place to start.

MingoV writes:

Elderly men gather in malls during business hours. Elderly women gather in malls before business hours to power walk.

I hate shopping, so I rarely go to malls. (Amazon.com loves me.) What I find weird is that other than name or brand changes, the malls of today are nearly identical to those of forty years ago. The only innovation I've noticed is that some malls have play areas for young kids (a la MacDonald's).

Ted Levy writes:

Let me get this straight...your presumed Progressive professor LAMENTED the fact that in the past elderly men could get heat stroke in the summer meeting in front of court houses while now they have a safer and more comfortable alternative?

Jason writes:

Your opinion assumes that conflict is inherently bad, and not at times a driving force of creation and innovation. Furthermore malls do not function as a public place. I would love to see one of the old men at the mall grab a soap box and give a speech on a current topic, or a lively economic debate outside of the Cinnabon, but there are laws prohibiting loitering in most malls, so you have to pay to say.

Marc F Cheney writes:
I would love to see one of the old men at the mall grab a soap box and give a speech on a current topic, or a lively economic debate outside of the Cinnabon

Did that sort of thing used to happen outside the courthouse?

In any case, if you've got a craving for lectures by or debate amongst the woefully uninformed, there's always the Internet!

Eric Falkenstein writes:

The amusement park in the center is great for children under 11. I had the annual pass for a couple years so my kids could ride all they wanted the entire year for only $100 or so, and every Sunday would take my two boys, and they would run from one ride to the next without much wait, and we'd stay for just an hour or two. Then we'd get some soft serve ice cream and go home.

The rides are fancier now, so the everything costs at least double that.

RPLong writes:

The last time I went to West Edmonton Mall was I guess 2006; the last time I went to the Mall of America was 2009. MoA was nicer overall, but WEM was a lot more fun. I would give the title to WEM. I'm not sure how much either place has changed since 7 and 4 years ago, respectively. (My lord, time flies.)

Richard writes:

Did the courthouse have some kind of symbolic reason for being their meeting place or was that just the most convenient location?

Tom West writes:

I've never been to the MoA, but the one time I was in the West Edmonton mall as a tourist, I remember getting lost and at one point thinking to myself:

"I'm pretty certain I didn't come this way, because I don't remember seeing the life-size whale in that fountain over there."

A few minutes later, it crossed my mind that there aren't a lot of place on the planet that I could have had that first thought.

liberty writes:

I generally do not like shopping and generally do not like malls (tho that depends on my mood--sometimes I hate them!--and of course on the mall; i will admit that they are occasionally quite nice), however that is not what concerns me most about this post.

Shouldn't there be much better alternatives, public spaces and such, for the elderly (and others) to meet? If the weather is good, I should hope there would be parks. When the weather is bad, I would hope there would be a senior centre, or something o that sort.

In NY the old men would always hang out on the sidewalks (in summer) in their chairs, just like the kids would hang out on the stoops--they could people watch, catch everyone they know as they walk by, feel involved, etc; except of course those who hang out in Washington Square Park or Tompkin's Square playing chess... The old ladies would also hang out on the street, tho I think they also had somewhere else to go because they were there in less multitude...

In London there are senior centres in every neighborhood--which have activities like art classes etc, and the elderly seem to have very active lives and plenty of places to meet, and there are also a huge number of parks...

It is very sad to me that the elderly would meet in a mall, tho for all I know it is a great place to meet--but somehow I doubt it. It doesn't sound like it has a lot of character or a lot of potentially interesting activities...but I guess that is what car culture produces...

Daublin writes:

Well said.

To put it another way, commerce is a way for people to work together. We should be glad when we see massive numbers of people helping each other out.

Dave Anthony writes:

The internet is my commerce temple.

John Fembup writes:

"the Professor lamented the fact that elderly men now gather at shopping malls where elderly men of previous generations would gather in front of the courthouse."

Well, for one thing, courthouses stand in the center of [small] towns, thus were convenient.

And, in some earlier, perhaps more innocent age, the Courthouse was a symbol of justice so men were happy to be seen there. If this is no longer true, that's lamentable.

But perhaps the real reason is much simpler. What towns can we name where "in front of the courthouse" is air-conditioned?

Reardon writes:

Would you settle for a park, or a pancake house?

My aversion to malls is not a proxy for any aversion to commerce. Just because I fully endorse a free society, doesn't mean I don't think people are capable of making (on balance even) persistent and costly errors in judgment.

I fear the populations of America's malls take the short view of happiness and work too hard to get too little from the trinkets they buy. I think the market gives them every incentive to reconsider their values, but they may not be able, or the endowment effect of those values may be too strong.

If I'm right about the problem and it isn't intractable, I'd expect shifts in cultural attitudes to remedy it long before any acts of state (which may be doing more to fuel this behavior at the margin).

Ken P writes:

There's a mall on my way home from work that I stop at for the Food Court and so I can walk around in air conditioning after eating. I also like to get an intuitive feel for consumer sentiment by noticing how many people are there and what proportion of them are carrying shopping bags (actually bought something).

Ken P writes:
Modernity's critics and hipsters dislike malls because they don't really like commerce.

I think it has to do with a nonconformist aesthetic (are they misanthropic or ruggedly individualistic?). Hipsters will go to the mall to find $150 skinny jeans that go with the one-of-a-kind shirt they found at some thrift store.

Instead of anti-commerce, I would consider it a preference for a different pattern of commerce. They would rather spend their money on cover charges for some obscure band, a unique microbrew, or audio equipment.

In my city, they are the only ones that challenge local government, illegally raising chickens in residential neighborhoods, moving into industrial spaces that are not zoned residential to create badass lofts, creating businesses in buildings that the city would like to see torn down, starting art galleries without the all the necessary business permits.

They use this less-regulated, lower cost approach to transform run down areas into artist/business communities that eventually become too popular (expensive) for them to stay in. It's a kind of commerce we could use more of.

What would be nice is if more of them would understand that this low-overhead approach would be valuable to more than just their own little niche.

Alexandre Padilla writes:

The key question was the most bourgeois place on Earth. I highly doubt that many people outside US go to the Mall of America but I am pretty sure that far more people from Earth go to Las Vegas to do commerce of any type (and I mean any type) but you probably could say that places like Hong Kong or Singapore are also very commercial places that bring willing customers and sellers together.

Marc F Cheney writes:
I'm quite libertarian but really try to avoid going to malls. Most of what they sell is crap, and I'd rather support smaller mens stores if I need clothes.

You'd rather support smaller men's store because less of what they sell is crap, or because they're smaller? Is there some causal relationship between being smaller and selling less crap?

It's your money. That just struck me as an odd thing to say.

Chipotle writes:

Wow, Prof. Carden, I really enjoyed how used the word "bourgeois" as a synonym for "tacky."

Himanshu Sanguri writes:

Shopping malls have bridged the gap between buyers& sellers. They have also catered to the growing shopping needs of the increasing population. I think, noting is absolute good or bad, we need to do the relative analysis to evaluate the contribution of malls. Today, we have on line shopping, book stores; malls furnishing a gamut of opportunities like groceries, entertainment, food courts, clothes etc; small local markets and super stores to meet the demands of local suburb areas.

R Richard Schweitzer writes:

And --

as a teen hangout!!

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