You Can Love Cities without Hating the Suburban Shopping Mall

I am in Philadelphia for the annual conference of the Organization of American Historians. The meeting is being held at a hotel near the convention center and Reading Terminal Market, in the heart of downtown Philly. Here the buildings are tall, the sidewalks are crowded, and at 8 am this morning commuters poured out of the subway stations. 

My close friend Amanda and I are staying in a neighborhood about a mile away, at the home of my cousins-in-law. It’s on the border between Hawthorne and Queen Village, on a quiet street of row houses just off bustling 8th Street. Within walking distance are hundreds of bars and restaurants and unique local businesses. There is a park a block away, and on our way to the conference this morning we passed many neighbors on their morning rounds with their dogs.

This is the beauty of cities: the density, cosmopolitanism, and options. It’s why I love cities, and study cities, and travel to cities whenever I have a chance. Despite this, there are two suburban institutions that I (controversially) find superior to their urban counterparts: the grocery store, and the mall.

There is something to be said for the limited selection and convenience of a small neighborhood grocery, but suburban grocery stores are cheaper, offer more choices, and the aisles are three carts wide. You never get stuck behind someone trying to choose between pamplemousse or passion fruit La Croix. Yes, you have to drive there, but there is always ample parking. It’s a pleasant experience.

The mall is superior to the urban alternative of shopping at individual, non-contiguous retail locations. It is much more convenient to enter a single, climate-controlled edifice where all of your shopping needs are served. If you need an outfit for an event, or a new suit, you can walk around comparing options until you find stylish, well-fitting pieces in your price point. Then you can find shoes to go with it, eat deliciously shitty Chinese food for lunch, and walk out with a Cinnabon for dessert. It’s all right there! When it’s hot or cold or rainy, you’re protected from the elements. When you need to kill some time, you can window shop and exercise at the same time. If it’s your local mall, you’ll likely run into an acquaintance you haven’t seen in a while—though you could also run into your high school English teacher at Victoria’s Secret. Either way, it’s a quasi-civic space that brings people together. 

I hear your arguments that the mall is a soul-sucking, anonymous, conformist, local-business-killing capitalistic hell hole. But sometimes you need something, and that something needs to be acquired quickly, or you need to try it on first, or you don’t know which store will have it. And that’s when the suburban mall beats urban retail. 

Photo by author at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. March 2019.

Photo by author at the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, Washington, D.C. March 2019.

Although the topic of this newsletter is light, I have one new and one new-ish essay on the internet this week that tackle weightier subjects. 

The first is The Historian's Craft: Thoughts on Reading and Making History in the Wake of Tree of Life, part of a series on the blog of the Political and Legal Anthropology Review entitled Speaking Justice to Power: Local Pittsburgh Scholars Respond to the Tree of Life Shooting. This is the third of three essays I wrote about the tragedy. The first, on teaching after the shooting, can be found on The Metropole. (The second is currently unavailable).

I also re-published the first essay from my Brisket Patreon project, The Pundit vs. The Public Intellectual, on my personal blog. Throughout the coming year I will be making these essays available, without a paywall, on my blog. I hope you find them thought-provoking reading!