Our Own Wall to Scale

COMMENTARY

OUTSIDE, the sidewalks were icy, and shoulders hunched against the numbing wind. But in the mall, the climate was as tastefully moderate as the Christmas d'ecor. This mall happened to be in Montreal, but it could have been just about anywhere. A motorized sleigh-train puttered about with children, as shoppers browsed under a sky-lit atrium. The scene was upbeat, but somehow not quite alive. Without runny noses or derelicts or sidewalk bustle - without discordant notes of any kind - people went about their shopping in a muted and almost perfunctory haze.

Christmas means shopping, and shopping today means malls. Over half the purchases in America (autos aside) take place in them; 94 percent of people older than 18 visit a shopping center in a typical month.

If Christmas seems different these days, it is not just the product worship, which is regrettably a given. The difference is where our celebration of consumption now occurs.

``A department store is a theater,'' says Bernard Chaus, chairman of Bernard Chaus Inc., a leading manufacturer of women's clothing. Most Americans need very little. But what we call ``the economy'' requires that they shop much. To prompt them to do so, two things must happen.

First, states and stages of experience must be constantly redefined as something to buy - the desire for freedom, for example, incarnated as an all-terrain vehicle. And second, the process of buying must itself become a form of entertainment.

These are the functions of television and shopping malls, respectively. The mall is the delivery dock for the cravings that television arouses, an extension of the mental world that the screen projects upon the home. One could call it television in space.

Where television is centrally produced and controlled, so is a shopping mall. Where television blocks out conflicting voices or impressions, so does the mall.

Neither permits a bad word about the sponsor; seldom a message that buying and having are not the most important ends in life. The people who design stores and malls these days sound less like merchants than behavioral engineers.

``We have to define customers' movements very carefully to keep them oriented,'' said Steve Bergquist, design chief at Federated/Allied Stores (Jordan Marsh, Bloomingdale's, etc.) at a recent conference in New York. Lighting is crucial, he said, to ``help set that stage and manipulate the consumer through the environment.'' One store planner in the audience added that ``we will see more echoing of [TV] advertising imagery in the store.''

This turning of Main Street into a theater of consumption brings a loss that is not often discussed. As Jane Jacobs pointed out in ``Death and Life of Great American Cities,'' the traditional Main Street was much more than just a place for shopping. It was also a social crossroads and political forum, a place for gathering petitions, chatting with shop owners, picking up the news around town.

The mall, by contrast, uproots shopping from any social context, sets it adrift in a world in which there are no neighbors, no problems, just things to buy. In a few states, such as Washington and Massachusetts, courts have required mall owners to permit political and cause-related activities to a limited degree; in other states, the owner has the power to exclude them entirely.

Which makes for an odd contrast this Christmas season. Just as the newspapers are heralding the outburst of freedom in the East, hordes of Americans are submitting without a peep to incursions on their basic liberties. A pedestrian on the streets of Prague may have more freedom of political expression today than a shopper in an American mall.

Soviet hardliners will no doubt take heart; perhaps capitalism holds possibilities they hadn't before considered. But there's good news for the West as well. Just when it seemed the torch of history had passed to the Soviet bloc, it's comforting to remember that we have a wall of our own to scale. Perhaps one year, newspaper headlines will proclaim, with echos of those of late, ``Joyous Americans Pour Out of Malls; Declare Freedom from Commercial Christmas.''

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