The Ultimate Mall

THE Mall of America opened in Bloomington, Minn., last week to a drumroll of statistics, as befits the biggest of the 38,000 malls in America. Would you believe 350 stores and more than 30 restaurants on 4.2 million square feet of land? Don't forget the multiple movie theaters, the miniature golf course, and the sporting goods store where you can try out skates on a plastic pond. Then there's the seven-acre amusement park, Camp Snoopy, presided over by Charles Schulz himself on opening day, when an estim ated 75,000 customers filled - and then some - the 13,000 parking spaces.

The arrival of the ultimate mall 10 years ago might have inspired an ironic editorial on "consumer culture," with a pious little tag from Wordsworth on how "getting and spending we lay waste our powers." All true - and still true. In the greed-and-glitz '80s, the mall became a symbol for American materialism, where bored teenagers hung out and bored adults purchased a lot of goodies they really didn't need, and often couldn't afford.

But that was another world, economically speaking. This new playground of prosperity, which might have been assailed as vulgar excess a decade ago, now seems bizarrely reassuring as it springs up hopefully in a time of failed businesses, unemployment lines, and California IOUs.

Good grief, Charlie Brown! Is the Mall of America a mirage in the desert - a fantasy Neverland like its Snoopy park? Or is it a wacky new economic index - an early promise of a turnaround?

Even the question is heartening. And there are other, more serious signs that the country is getting back on track. Detroit has again begun to produce automobiles of top quality. Supercomputer manufacturers are staying on the cutting edge, refusing to let the leadership slip to Japan this time. Bankers are again behaving like bankers rather than riverboat gamblers. A once-complacent economy specializing in takeover artists is reverting to those who roll up their sleeves and buckle down to work.

The real fantasy park was the something-for-nothing America of financial manipulators like Ivan Boesky and Michael Milkin. As for just plain fantasy parks, if it takes a Snoopy mall to get the economy out of the doghouse, so be it.

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