What is America’s most visited tourist attraction?
Immediately I think of the Grand Canyon, the Golden Gate Bridge in San Francisco, New York’s Empire State Building, or Disney World. All of the above answers are wrong. The Mall of America, outside Minneapolis, Minnesota, is visited by around 100,000 people every day, making it the nation’s most popular tourist destination.
Americans love shopping malls. As the current recession continues we continually hear how consumerism supports over 70% of the economy. So are malls an inherent part of the American Dream?
On my very first day in America in 1988 I quickly learned how malls occupy a special place in American life. I flew from Ireland with my best friend in the world to Elmira, New York on a cold January day. Our work visas were sponsored by the local hospital. One of the physical therapists graciously met us at the airport to take us to our accommodation. We traveled through an icy wonderland. The snowy landscape intrigued me. Suddenly as we drove across an overpass our new friend exclaimed triumphantly:
“Look left. It’s the new mall. We love the Arnot Mall.”
I dutifully looked out the window, only to see a large, warehouse-like building. It was late. Empty, sprawling parking lots outside this massive construction, did not look like anything I had ever seen before. (I left Ireland before the boom times).
I must make a confession. I had no idea what on earth I was looking at, what a mall was and why this lady was so proud of, what seemed to me, a boring-looking building. My friend and I just smiled. We did not want to ask any questions, for fear we might sound like we just ‘got off the boat’, or the plane in our case.
Even the word ‘mall’ meant very little to me back then. I had heard the word, pronounced differently, as in Pall Mall in London or the South Mall in Cork. My understanding of the word was a street. The concept of an American shopping mall was completely new to me.
I am sure young Irish people today would laugh at how ‘green’ I was. Malls or shopping centers now feature significantly in Irish society too. I look back and can’t believe how naive I was. But rest assured, it did not take long to figure out exactly what this famous Arnot Mall was, and it’s significance in Elmiran society.
The very next day my friend and I decided to take a stroll downtown in frigid temperatures to discover our adopted hometown. To our great dismay, only a few stores survived in this beautiful, old city. When we got back to the nursing school where we were staying, we asked where all the stores were. The young students looked at us strangely, before declaring:
“They’re at the mall, of course!”
And so, that is how I learned what a mall is. Over the years I quickly realized how malls are temples of American consumerism. To this day, I really do not know whether I love them, or hate them. Whichever emotion a shopping mall evokes, there is one undeniable fact. They are everywhere, and distinctly similar no matter where you wander.
Some Americans visit frequently for entertainment and shopping, but like many others, I try to avoid them. Before I had kids, I visited only when I had a specific purchase to make.
Tiled promenades, water features, fountains, fake plants, and mirrors dupe us into an accepted familiarity, relaxing and beguiling us to part with our hard earned cash, to purchase things we probably don’t even need in the first place.
Somehow, every time I visit a mall I feel a sense of control and manipulation surrounding the whole experience. I always get a little frustrated when I nip upstairs to visit a specific store and then have to walk half the mall to find the escalator down. Nothing is unplanned from the location of the food court, and elevators, to the specific ambient glow of the lights, to help turn us into mindless, efficient consumers.
My little girl loves the mall. She frequently whispers to her Dad, requesting he watch her brothers so “Mom and I can have a girls’ day out.” Her idea of fun with Mom is a day at the mall. Exploring the stores, taking a ride on a carousel, and a treat at the food court is her perfect day.
I recall how I loved to “go to town” with my Mom. We would stroll along Henry Street in Dublin, window shop, have a cup of coffee in Arnotts, and listen to the buskers as we walked along together.
After twenty-three years in America, I now understand the mall is my little girl’s city. So whenever she needs a Mommy Day Out, I willingly bring her, and hold her hand as we explore the delights together. Now, convincing her Mom to buy everything she wants, is a trick she has not yet mastered.
I understand how malls are a crucial part of the American Dream. Yet I hope I can teach my little ones never to fall for their false promise of happiness through consumption.
Slán agus beannacht,
(Goodbye and blessings)
Irish American Mom