A signal that the mall culture is, like, ending

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

Years from now, when sociologists look at the legacy that the Sherman Oaks Galleria mall left to America, they will be able to sum it up in one word: "rad."

For most of the 1980s, the Galleria defined what was "like, totally awesome" and what was "grody to the max" - a Louvre for the lexicon of youth culture. Featured in films such as "Valley Girl" and "Fast Times at Ridgemont High," this monolithic building nestled in California's San Fernando Valley heralded the suburban mall as the decade's new-order, gathering space for teens to be seen and just be. It replaced that rite-of-passage function of the roadster cruising strips of the '50s and '60s.

Today, however, the mall stands silent. All but a few stores are empty and the rest are holding close-out sales. A victim of the 1994 earthquake and changing times, the Galleria will close April 1 and reopen two years from now in a different incarnation.

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Its demise, say sociologists, is a reminder of how much American youth culture has changed during the past decade. Today's teens are gathering in Internet "chat rooms" to sharpen the latest teenspeak and malls themselves are morphing into meccas for family entertainment that include theme parks, ice rinks, and zoos.

"For nearly two decades, the Sherman Oaks Galleria was the mythic locale for the archetype of the high school mall rat," says Andrew Herman, who teaches a course about malls at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa. "Now malls themselves are not dead, but instead are becoming multiplex family entertainment centers. Teens do their shopping and conversation on the Web."

One such mall is about an hour's drive West of Los Angeles. At the 200-store Ontario Mills Mall, a new concept called "interactive shoppertainment" specifically targets parents, dating couples, families, and kids. The lure: do everything from ogling bobcats and lizards at an on-site museum to skiing in virtual reality video game.

"Our industry has been stale for a long time," says manager Dennis McGregor. "We are seeking to optimize consumer buying and leisure all at once."

Tremors of change

For the Galleria, the 6.7 magnitude earthquake of Jan. 17, 1994 helped give this trend a nudge. Located only about three miles from the quake's epicenter, the mall and surrounding area suffered extensive damage, driving out residents and retailers.

"New management fixed the place up but it never quite recovered," says Ed Edmunds, who is moving his import gifts store to the Fashion Square Mall, just miles away.

Designers of newer malls are increasingly rejecting the Galleria model, which has no street-pedestrian access, is fully enclosed, and is accessible only through parking garages.

"Anytime the owners came up with anything fancy that would open the place up to the community, the homeowners shot it down," says Edmunds. The compromise: The Galleria will have one floor of restaurants, a second floor of offices, and 18 cinemas.

Despite these scheduled improvements, some in the surrounding community are already mourning the loss of the icon.

"I'm like totally shocked," says Steve Thomas from nearby Chatsworth, who frequently left behind his community's "low rent" malls for the upscale Galleria. "You come over here, it's supposed to be high budget but now it's closing out and like, 'Wow, we'll have to kick it over to Burbank or something, I guess.' "

Not just another mall

To some, the difference between Burbank shopping strips and the Galleria may only be a few more minutes' driving time. But others say the closing of the old Galleria represents, in some ways, the symbolic end to a chapter in American cultural history.

Kevin Starr, California's state historian, says the Valley Girl phenomenon incubated in the Galleria was a product of a softening reaction by women to the hard-edged political activism of the baby boom generation. The new Valleyspeak - from "freak me out" to "gag me with a spoon" - was milder than the antiwar rhetoric and free-love speech of the 1960s. And congregating at the mall was not about dropping out by using drugs or other abusive behaviors but rather more about escaping into a kind of benign, if selfish, consumerism.

"The teenagers who populated the Galleria were staking out a turf of styles, language and behavior that set a trend for a whole generation of Americans," says Mr. Starr. "It was that decade's way for peers to create a separate universe for themselves outside the home."

Broadcast through songs like Frank Zappa's "Valley Girl," the subculture was also female-dominant, says Starr. "The Valley girl dominated the Valley boy in terms of initiative, in terms of making decisions from what to wear and where to go," says Starr.

Though most of America disparaged the common coarseness of the Valley Girl image, Starr says they were models for the triumph of the middle class. "The country sneered at them, at the same time they flocked to copy them," says Starr. "Now they are principals, judges, attorneys."

Now that Galleria is gone, is Valleyspeak gone for good? Says Mr. Thomas: "That, like, totally ended in the '80s."

Fershure.

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