Lange at City Point’s McNally Jackson store, sizing up the (great) location for her new book.
Photo: Christopher Bonanos
I had asked Alexandra Lange if we could meet at the Manhattan Mall, the bankrupt 1980s vertical mall at the southern end of Herald Square. I suggested that it would nicely frame a conversation about his book Meet Me by the Fountain: An Inside History of the Mall, which includes a lot about the problems of retail and especially the ways that malls interact with cities. However, her response was way ahead of me: “Have you been to the Manhattan Mall recently?” He hadn’t, and I soon found out that he had gone from fail to fail without so much as a saxophone solo from “Careless Whisper” to mark his demise. There is only one LensCrafters store inside, open by appointment only, and the atrium entrance is remodeled as it is converted to office space. “Shopping malls have been dying for the last forty years,” Lange writes in his book. “Each decade rewrites the obituary on its own terms.” This was a long, slow slide capped off by the pandemic.
So instead, we caught up at City Point, at the base of a trio of new black glass towers in downtown Brooklyn. (Among the following sentences from his book: “And yet people keep buying. The urban and suburban landscapes people live in don’t change that quickly. Neither does human nature.”) We’re not actually by the fountain, despite its title, because there isn’t one (that central atrium was more popular with architects a generation earlier), but there is an outdoor seating area with a few benches. stone where we started talking. Before City Point was built, there was a mall on the site called Albee Square, “made famous in the song Biz Markie,” he reminds me, and is still the name of the square. We’re also right off Fulton Street, itself a pedestrian shopping strip where Macy’s occupies the store opened by Abraham & Strauss in 1885.
“I feel like they’ve tried to turn this into the upstairs food court of the mall,” Lange says, gesturing to the small cafe tables. “It is not a very limited space. In fact, it would be better if there was more of a focal point, like a sculpture, instead of just these tables.” (A source would have done the same.) The benches, he says, have stainless steel dividers, making them difficult to sleep on (one of those moves planners refer to as “hostile architecture”), though there are some continuous areas where you could theoretically stretch. “Semi-hostile architecture”, he says with irony.
We head into the shopping complex itself, and it’s obvious that one of the big tenants is gone. “What we see here that has also happened in hundreds of malls across the United States is that the anchor department store, which was a branch of Century 21, closed.” Most malls have more traditional department stores in those spaces, but that would probably never happen here because Macy’s is right around the corner. “And Century 21 is local and highly regarded and while it’s discounted, it also has a kind of luxury reputation. So I think it was a good match with Macy’s for having a distinctly different perspective.” Unlike traditional department stores, the discount stores are mostly fine, but Century 21 was already in trouble when the pandemic hit, and now it’s coming out of its 2020 bankruptcy with plans to reopen its flagship store on the ground floor. Manhattan. The other anchor store in City Point is Target, and it’s doing comparatively well because, well, it’s Target.
Photo: Courtesy of the publisher.
Inside City Point, the atmosphere is just as uneven. A shop called Kimberly House Ltd. sells expensive bath balms by the spoonful, as well as some white paint and seagrass coastal trim. It looks nice, but it’s in the middle of a clearance sale. Across the hall, another small-chain outpost called Rumi is geared toward tweens — it’s full of pastel gimmicks, things like sparkly sunglasses and cute teddy bears. Lange points to a keychain shaped like a small cup of bubble tea: “It matches my grand unified theory that boba is the driving force behind a lot of teen and tween purchases.” (From the book: “Bubble tea also combines a number of earlier mall food traits: colorful like Orange Julius, sugary like a cookie, portable like Cinnabon, snack-sized like all of the above.”) Rumi’s is a fairly large store, and even though it’s after school time, there are only two or three kids in the place. A couple of stores down, a large empty spot has pulled double duty as a vaccine showcase, just as many dead malls have now been turned into things like urgent care centers and outpatient facilities.
But other stores seem to have more future. We stop in front of Camp: “It’s a children’s toy store but also a playground. And that’s another thing I see replacing many anchors in suburban malls: family-friendly play settings like trampoline parks, road parks, racetracks, fitness studios. The camp is kind of a New York version of that.” (She doesn’t mention it, but Lange’s earlier book, The Design of Childhood, was a study of the aesthetics of toys and playgrounds.)
To be clear, she likes shopping malls; this book is largely an appreciation. The reading experience is a bit like a mall itself: generally linear with a few side walks and designed breaks. The technical term for the fundamental appeal of a mall visit is “the Gruen transfer,” named after architect Victor Gruen: it refers to a point where useful purchases are replaced by the pleasurable experience itself. Sometimes you go to the mall because you want to go to the mall, not because you need socks or pens.
Lange’s mall pleasure centers, he says, may have been further activated by NorthPark Center, the 1960s Dallas complex centered on a Neiman Marcus. There, he explains, the owners’ architectural ambition and art collecting augmented the experience from the start, setting the tone (if not creating a replicable business model) for virtually every high-end suburban mall built since then. She also has very kind words for the Winter Garden in lower Manhattan and its little grove of palm trees. (By coincidence, he had lunch there about an hour before we met.) Much of Meet Me by the Fountain is about the ongoing collision between online and real-world shopping and what it means for the latter. Malls sometimes feel like an endangered species. Direct-to-consumer companies have skimmed a lot of dollars, and many of those companies, when they open their first physical outlets, mess them up, with “too little in store, or too little variety from shelf to shelf.” ”, explains Lange in his book. But a moment after we started talking about that problem, we passed a Casper mattress showroom. “It makes me laugh out loud,” says Lange. “You know, everyone said that the DTC trade was going to kill off all retail, but it turned out that people still wanted to go to the mattress store and lay on the mattresses.” Similarly, McNally Jackson, New York’s great mini-chain of independent bookstores: A few years ago, the bookstores were on the ropes, having been shut down by Amazon first and pretty completely, but in City Point, it’s bustling. (He also has Lange’s book visibly placed on a front table. We pause for to share a photo). And there’s a sneaker store, not Foot Locker but Laced Up, a much cooler local spot where customers and staff are tuned in to the chronology of new product launches. It is a relative of the Brooklyn businesses that once populated Albee Square and continue to do so in Fulton Mall.
In fact, Fulton Mall became a success almost by chance, as Lange’s book explains. In the 1970s, after the first big suburban malls scared people away from spending money in urban centers, planners scrambled to fix up those deserted malls. Redesigns often blighted them further, demolishing historic blocks to build parking lots and then pedestrianizing the areas near them. Usually they only managed to make sad retail deserts. But among the exceptions is Fulton Mall, which continues to function fairly well as a middle-class shopping district, probably because it’s served by many subway and bus lines. It worked because it leaned toward the habits and preferences of city dwellers rather than trying to force them into uncomfortable habits. Today it’s diverse and mixed-use, both high-end and low-end, and while it may need a bit of an upgrade, it’s not fundamentally broken and sad, which is more than can be said for the Manhattan Mall in its last few years. years.
City Point is undoubtedly a better place to visit than the Manhattan Mall. But is it the future of urban retail or its past? Lange offers that it depends on what else we build. “A place like City Point,” he says, “is really trying to be more of a vertical mall, more of the order of some of the things that they build in Asia, where people live in these super-dense environments… Sidewalks are very densely populated, so you can’t walk around, and there’s a lot of air pollution. You need an intermediate space for pedestrians that is a bit cleaner and you can have some space to talk with your friend. And if you’re going to build 20,000 apartments in downtown Brooklyn, where there’s already a lot of traffic on the streets, this could be, if it were better designed, an alternative.”
But, he adds as we descend to the lower level food court, the semi-hostile architecture we saw earlier belies that idea. On the main level, a bench is barely visible. “They haven’t really gravitated toward the idea of a nice circulation and interior space that you want to stay in, probably in part because they don’t want people hanging out. And I think that condemns it as a nice indoor environment, even if I and a lot of other people will run in and run out and go to Target.” They’ll also likely use the Trader Joe’s that anchors the ground floor, facing a variety of good food options, mostly local, rather than the usual Panda Express and Auntie Anne lineup. And that food hall, at least, which, not insignificantly, has places to sit, is lively. The crowds seem to imply, as Lange writes, that “going to the mall still provides entertainment, but now the entertainment is food.” We inevitably end our walk with boba tea.