The ecology of the mallrat

A catch and release programme.

Like many others of my generation and geography, I spent a lot of time as a kid hanging around in shopping malls.

It was a ‘safe space’. Literally: it was pretty safe. My parents could drop me off, knowing that I’d be in a public, vaguely-guarded space, with a limited amount of criminal damage I could cause or be caused.

The mall was just the right size for me. Fundamentally, 85% of a mall was blah. Clothing stores for middle aged women. Sunglasses Hut. Thomas Kinkade. But amidst the blah would be enough Ginger: the arcade, the cinema, Waldenbooks, Software Etc., the food court. Enough to keep me entertained, but not overstimulated. Different places for different hobbies (or moods), but not so many options that I couldn’t find my friends.

Gary Larson-one of my all-time favorites! "Blah, blah, Ginger" | Far side cartoons, Gary larson cartoons, The far side

If I got bored of those staples, there was always a dollar store to explore, or a Sharper Image. Those were fun for about five minutes of remote control cars before the sales staff chuck you out for disrespecting the rotating tie racks. Adult spaces: good for a bit of window shopping, but you wouldn’t want to be stuck in one.

There’s obviously a certain amount of generational nostalgia at play here, exacerbated by the two hundredth month of lockdown. But… it was pretty fun.

Mallratting, at its worst, means petty crime (pocketing Penthouse, sneaking into cinema marathons), equally petty experimentation (cigarettes in the parking lot), and the perpetual waste of one’s allowance (the arcade). But these banal dangers are also part of the appeal of malls: you can test your boundaries in an environment where there are safety nets in place.

Malls are also the perfect environment for positive social mixing; contact theory done right. The mall, as a space, provides a cross-cutting social identity, allowing contact between people based on shared interests. Simply by being there, you have something in common. Hey, where’d you get the Orange Julius? and Are you seriously challenging me with E. Honda? As a pre-teen or young teenager - your world is small: you have social circles from school, organised extracurriculars, and maybe something like Sunday School or a sports team. Especially in a big Midwestern city with no public transport: your entire physical world is limited to where your mom drops you off.

A context like the mall provides the opportunity to interact with people from outside of those circles, but from a great starting point: a safe environment, common goals, shared interests. Malls expand and challenge your social horizons, but just enough.

Mall owners - and retailers - loathe the presence of teens and pre-teens. They’re a blight: the mosquitos attracted to your porch lights; the ants at your picnic. I have some empathy for this position. I’ve been a mallrat, of course. But I’ve also been mall staff. Teens hang out for hours. They have no money. They make you feel self-conscious about your uniform, they speak in a secret code, and they occasionally steal stuff.

But I have a hard time blaming the kids.

Malls are designed to attract - and keep - people. Windows and exits are hidden. One-way systems keep you boxed in. There are no windows, and a soft bath of forgettable music keeps you blissfully unaware of the passage of time. Food - and bathrooms - are provided and convenient. There’s entertainment and distraction on-demand. When it comes to architecture intended to keep you captive, shopping malls are behind only casinos and prisons. Ants are annoying at picnics, but if you spread sugar on your lawn, you can’t blame the bugs for showing up.

Nor do I blame parents.

Where else can kids go?

Even back in my mall-ratting hey-day, there weren’t that many options for places that were a) safe, b) social, c) free (or simply affordable), and d) entertaining. Malls are good for both me and my parents. Dropping me off at a mall meant I would be out of trouble and mingling with other human beings. It didn’t need to be scheduled in advance: it was a place I could go, and that I wanted to go.

Malls gave me space to be me (without breaking anything), and they gave my parents space without me. Which, as parents know, is incredibly, genuinely valuable. There aren’t a lot of spaces with this on offer, and Covid-19 has decimated most of them.

Decades later and an ocean away, my neighbourhood features:

Where do I see young teenagers hanging out?

Covid isn’t to blame (well, it is - fuck Covid), in this case, it has only accelerated an existing trend. Public, or communal, spaces for teens and pre-teens have been under-funded and de-prioritised for years.

People are working to correct this. Again, anecdotal evidence: this week I chucked some money at two different local, community-run fund-raising activities. One for an arts programme, one for a football team. There are also grants programmes intended to keep kids safe and occupied, coming from various Government departments and charitable bodies.

The problem is, the programmes that get support - either from crowd-funding or grants - are directed. They are sports teams or arts classes, tutoring or mentoring, MMA or online skills training, whatever - they’re specific projects with specific purposes, designed by adults to fit the specific objectives of their own programme.

That’s the nature of the beast, and it is far better than nothing. But it also doesn’t solve the underlying problem: kids need an environment to just be. I’ve written in the past about the privatisation (and therefore privilege) of quiet spaces. This is a parallel challenge: we’ve privatised our spaces for noise - environments for the self-directed, social activities that allow kids to be kids.

We’ve spent a generation shunting this responsibility on to the private sector. Malls and retail parks have been encouraged to provide these environments as their community obligation. If you want to sell me a rotating tie-rack, you need to take my kids on Saturday afternoons. Malls aren’t babysitting as a public service, they’re doing it because they turned the park into a parking lot, and this makes us all feel a little less culpable for agreeing to that exchange.

So what happens when malls close down?

Chart showing the bleak picture for bricks-and-mortar retail. Vacant stores as a % of all stores in the UK, showing shopping centres, retail parks and high street stores.

I’m just talking about the UK now, but as bad as things are for bricks and mortar retail, they’re even worse for the high street. And that’s looking very bad indeed. All over. The economic consequences are very well detailed, as well as the tragic loss of jobs. The vacancy rate for retail is at 13% and expected to rise (and twice as high in shopping centres as is retail parks).

Comparing October 2020 with 2019, footfall was down 40%. Throughout the prime shopping season of November, that was closer to a 60% decline. The Centre for Retail Research grimly tallies over 20,000 stores closing in 2020 alone.

It is hard to feel bad for shopping malls, and it is hard to argue that shopping malls are the ‘best’ space for young people. But we’ve spent years out-sourcing a key aspect of our children’s social development, and now the chickens are coming home to roost (to sulk their bedrooms and watch YouTube for 16 hours/day).

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