Meet me by the Fountain

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South Coast Plaza, Costa Mesa, California, December 2013. By Nandaro – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0,

My family moved to Southern California (Inland Empire, represent) in 1982. The Frank Zappa tune “Valley Girl” (featuring his daughter Moon Unit) came out in 1982. “Valley Girl” the movie came out in 1983.   I was in high school from 1984 until 1988. 

The San Bernardino-Riverside-Redlands-Highland area of California is notoriously hot in the summer (June through October…).  When we were living there it had such polluted air that you could not see across the valley except in the height of our winter, when the December-March rains would wash the air and reveal the snow-capped mountains around us (my high school was named after one of those peaks).  Deep breaths (while swimming, while running, while being outside at all) were rewarded with knife-like sensations in my lungs.  

My birthday is in August, and I would usually celebrate my birthday by getting to spend the money my grandparents gave me at a special mall.  My mother would drive me and one or two friends to South Coast Plaza, and we’d spend the day shopping and in the food court.  During the school year, if I wanted to hang out with my friends, the best place was the local malls:  Central City Mall, the Inland Center, and in a pinch, the Redlands Mall (which wasn’t nearly as big as the other two).  My mom would drop me off, and I’d have to meet her back where she dropped me off at a specific time.  I would meet my friends at an agreed upon landmark, sometimes the Orange Julius, sometimes Sam Goody’s, sometimes the Wet Seal (where my best friend worked).  

Why didn’t we meet at a park?  Well, the local government was working on not supporting parks, because they thought that public spaces encouraged homelessness and crime (they are apparently doing better around that now).  Also did I mention it got really hot?  And the air pollution?  

I have just finished reading (and enjoying) a book called Meet Me By the Fountain:  An Inside History of the Mall, by Alexandra Lange.  It’s a history of the mall, as an architectural phenomenon, but more importantly, as a social one.  Lange traces the history of malls from the moment in the 1950s when (mostly white) people were moving to suburbs, away from city centers, and were ripe for a new (climate controlled, also privately owned) shopping location and experience.  These “temples of commerce” were of course far more than places for people to buy things.  They were designed to get people to linger (and also buy more things) and so became places for social interactions, not just transactional commerce.  

It will not surprise anyone to read that malls were also shot through with all of the inequalities of our society;  certain people were welcome there, others were not.  The experiences of Black people in privately owned shopping malls was distinctly different (in a bad way) from those of white shoppers.  The implications of private spaces providing “public square” experiences, but only for some, reflected the lack of concern for the need for people who were not white middle class people with a lot of disposable income to also have places to gather safely and comfortably (and yes, to shop).  

So, I recommend the book.  It’s a fantastic discussion of malls, and also about what happens when people’s need to meet up and be together in spaces that are not their homes are met primarily by the private sector.

I am most personally familiar with the California phenomenon, as I lived that, but those of you who were also American teens in the 80s might remember the Mall as a place not just in pop culture but in your own life where you could meet with friends, hang out without your parents around (ideally), and maybe spend a few dollars if you had them.  The latter point is part of what made teens less welcome than adults in the Mall.  We might have been there to shop, but rarely to buy.  Mostly we were there to see and be seen, flirt when we could, and generally try out being a person in the world.

Lange also documents the hollowing out of Malls, the fall of big department stores with the rise of Big Box and discount stores, and, e-commerce.  Malls fought back by building in Experiences, and that might have been a long-term solution except in March 2020 the pandemic emergency came and sent everyone home.  At least, home from the Mall.

I am writing this in November of 2022 and those of us who have been using Twitter as a kind of public space might recognize the processes that Lange describes happening in and across Malls.  How they promised (and actually provided) access to goods, services, and an environment for meeting up more readily than some publicly held spaces.  How, once more than just white middle class adults claimed space at the mall, increased surveillance, rules about who could congregate, and how (age limits, insistence on parental supervision, curfews) swiftly followed.  Malls, as privately held spaces, were fragile locations for the public sphere. 

Privately held social media spaces have provided a space for the development of multiple public spheres, places and networks that are present not because of the priorities of the private company, but because of the people who constitute those networks.  The genuine and justified upset that people in #DisabilityTwitter, and #BlackTwitter (among others) are experiencing while facing the gutting of Twitter by its new owner was in part made possible by the vacuum of publicly-held options that gave the same reach, the same possibility for connection and communication, that Twitter has provided (at a price!  We were always the product being sold..).

“Be less online” isn’t the answer for people for whom online experiences are truly transformative, without which they would not have the community to support them, without which some would not have their current livelihoods.  The internet as a whole is still not a public utility, which is also part of the problem–how can we build publicly held spaces on a private infrastructure?  We can try (and I think we did within Twitter) but we see how precarious it is (many had seen the precarity a long way off…).  

It’s been interesting to see journalists and disaster communication specialists talk about the speed with which Twitter allowed them to find information and do their job.  Twitter providing that kind of space also happened concurrently with the decimation of local news networks, and a lack of robust and consistent government spending on disaster preparedness (choosing instead to be reactive once a disaster is underway).  Twitter was important, and became ever more so, because public infrastructure has been neglected for a very very long time.

I started this particular story of me in the 1980s.  In California.  I think the success of Twitter is in part a story of the rise of government austerity, and what the private sector did to take advantage of that situation.  And I am reminded that the governor of California when I was in elementary school was Ronald Reagan.  And that while I was in high school, Reagan was President.

We had malls instead of parks.  We had tuition instead of free university,  We had low property taxes instead of funding for education and other public services.  We had increasing numbers of homeless people instead of mental health care and affordable housing.  We had “welfare reform” instead of universal basic income.

And eventually, we had Twitter.  For a while anyway.

2 thoughts on “Meet me by the Fountain

  1. Autumm

    I love this Donna. Thank you. Yes in Metro Detroit in the 80’s malls were also a primary space for gathering. One of the biggest and most well known is still going and it is right across from the university. They just announced that the movie theater has shut down about a week ago though and I have to wonder what will come of it. Isn’t that how it starts with mall collapse – the big cornerstones go first.

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