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It's All In the Mall


In a painting, there's a spot at which the parallel lines—a river or a ribbon of road—appear to converge. Artists call this the vanishing point, that place in a drawing where things seem to disappear into the distance, often creating the illusion of a horizon. And so I find myself at the vanishing point of this story: I am standing, atremble, before the largest shopping mall in America. This is the horizon. All lines converge here.

So vast is the Mall of America in Bloomington, Minn., that the area in which I've parked is labeled P5-WEST-BLUE-NEVADA-D-6, a mantra I have desperately repeated since abandoning my rental car in the world's largest parking complex. Even by itself this would be the consummate postwar American dream: the 13,000-car garage. But the aptly named Mall of America says so much more than that about the desires of modern society.

The Megamall, as it is known locally, is built on 78 acres and occupies 4.2 million square feet, but publicists prefer more grandiose international imagery to convey its knee-weakening scope. The Mall, therefore, could comfortably contain all the gardens of Buckingham Palace, is five limes larger than Red Square and. contains twice the steel of the Eiffel Tower. Most telling of all, it is 20 times larger than St. Peter's Basilica in Rome. For its visitors, who have come from virtually every country in the world and number 100,000 a day on average, the Mall of America is indeed the One True Church.

Mind-boggling sports analogies have also been employed to describe this edifice. "Seven times the size of Yankee Stadium," said The New York Times, adding that it has "88 football fields worth of [floor] space." Such comparisons are especially apt at the Mall of America, which was built on the site of the former Metropolitan Stadium, longtime home of the Minnesota Twins and the Minnesota Vikings. In 1982 the teams moved from the Met to the Metrodome in downtown Minneapolis. Ten summers later the Mall opened, constructed as a square donut, at the center of which is an indoor, seven-acre amusement park called Knott's Camp Snoopy.

In the northwest corner of Camp Snoopy embedded in the faux-stone floor, is a five-sided plaque that evokes home plate at the Met. In fact, it more closely resembles a tombstone, bearing as it does the legend METROPOLITAN STADIUM HOME PLATE 1956-1981. five hundred and twenty feet away, in the .southeast corner of the amusement park, affixed to a wall three stories above the floor, is a fold-down seat, looking down like a lifeguard's chair. The seat is in the approximate spot where Harmon Killebrew deposited the Met's most prodigious dinger, on June 3, 1967. If Killebrew were to hit the home run today, it would carom off Hooters.

Next to the Mall lies the derelict rust-hulk of Met Center, erstwhile home of the Minnesota North Stars, who now play in Dallas—a hockey team in the buckle of the Sun Belt. Minneapolis officials, in the wake of the Stars' departure, are trying to lure another NHI, team to the gleaming downtown arena in which the NBA Timber-wolves now play In June the NBA denied the Wolves permission to move to New Orleans, where they would have been owned, in part, by a Houston attorney named fred Hofheinz. You will recall that he is the son of the Judge, who built the Astrodome, which spawned the Metrodome, to which the Twins and Vikings moved, thus clearing property for...the Mall of America.

Of course, before building the Astrodome, the Judge had planned to Wild an air-conditioned shopping mall on Westheimer Road in Houston. Instead he sold that property, which was developed in 1970 as the Galleria, a mall that thrives to this day with what once seemed a wonderful novelty: an indoor ice-skating rink at its center. The Mall of America, meanwhile, was developed in part by brothers Mel and Herb Simon, owners of the Indiana Pacers, late of the American Basketball Association, the first rebel league of Gary Davidson.

In America's Original Sports Bar, on the Megamall's fourth level, patrons watch games on the 55 televisions that pull in action from around the planet. But the most telling snapshots of sports and society today are to be seen in the Mall's more than 400 stores: in Kids Foot Locker and Lady Loot Locker and World Loot Locker, in Footaction USA and The Athlete's Loot and Athletic X-Press, in Sports Tyme and Team Spirit and The Sportsman's Wife, in No Contest and Golf for Her and Mac Birdie Golf Gifts, in Big Leagues and Going to the Game and Wild Pitch. A friend once counted nearly two dozen Megamall stores in which one can purchase a Starter jacket. There are, meanwhile, two bookstores in the place.

In sports-addled ancient Greece, citizens created the agora, the marketplace as a center for social exchange. Socrates said, "Having the fewest wants, I am nearest to the gods." In sports-addled postwar America, citizens created the shopping mall, the marketplace as a center for naked commerce. Social exchange? An official Mall of America T-shirt says SHUT UP & SHOP.

It is fitting, and perhaps inevitable, that last winter's most unrelenting sports story unfolded each day from a shopping mall in America. For what are big-time sports today if not a boundless marketplace? And so there was Tonya I larding, week after stupefying week, blithely turning triple Axels for the television cameras on skating rink at the Clackamas Town Center mall in Portland. She was preparing for the Olympic Games, another invention of the ancient Greeks, suitably adapted for our times.

"Who told you you can't have it all?" So goes a lyric from the Mall of America theme song, voicing a notion as unmistakably American as the mall itself. "In our collective discourse," writes David Guterson in Harper's, "the shopping mall appears with the tract house, the freeway, and the backyard barbecue as a product of the American postwar years, a testament to contemporary necessities and desires and an invention not only peculiarly American but peculiarly of our own era too."

It was, fittingly, a man named Victor who developed America's first fully enclosed shopping complex, vanquishing the suburban landscape of Edina, Minn., in 1956. Southdale, as it is named, remains a staggering success four decades later, apparently unfazed by the Mall of America, a mere 10-minute drive to the east. Victor Gruen's creation was quickly loosed on other inclement cities: The modest Gulfgate soon went up in Houston, and Judge Roy Hofheinz was thus inspired to explore the limits of air-conditioning for his own gargantuan mall.

Come 1960, when the Judge was newly smitten by sports and Roone Arledge was arriving at ABC, Melvin Simon & Associates, Inc. built its first shopping center, Southgate Plaza, in Bloomington, Ind. Today the firm's $625 million Megamall is the third-largest tourist attraction in America—at least according to the mall's own press kit, which claims that only Disney World and the country-music capital of Branson, Mo., are more visited.

And yet, far more than Mickey Mouse or Mickey Gilley, it is the Mall that is emblematic of our age: from the 13-year-old girl who went into labor here to the trailer-park marriages performed at the Chapel of Love on Level 2 to this now familiar little postwar irony: The Mall of America was financed by the Mitsubishi Bank of Japan.

Distinctly of our time and place, the Mall is also entirely otherworldly. While strolling about the Mall's four levels, I fall in behind two businessmen, one of whom produces a bleating cellular phone from his jacket. "If it's for me," says the other guy, "tell them I'm not here." In fact, no one is here, because here is...Nowhere, a place of perpetual 70° days and hospital cleanliness, a sell-contained city that serves all needs, but one in which only Willis H. Carrier could feel comfortable.

At the same time the Mall is...Everywhere, with its 14-plex of movie theaters and its Cholest-o-Plex of fast-food counters. In the Mall of America, as in the United States of America, there is the ubiquitous Raider cap on every head, a pair of Nikes in every store window and the presence of professional athletes everywhere—in person, on packages, in electronic pictures. They wink as we walk past, and whisper, "Who told you you can't have it all?"

It is National Fragrance Week at the Megamall, and promotional literature promises six days "filled with activities designed to stimulate your nose." There is, for example, a Smelling Bee for children. And at Bloomingdale's, "Michelle McGann, top-ranked LPGA player, will host a breakfast and speak about what fragrance means to her."

I follow my nose to Oshman's Super Sports USA, a sporting-goods concern so breathtakingly vast that one hardly notices the basketball court, the racquetball court, the batting cage or the archery range on its premises. Not far away, the 11,000-square-foot World boot Locker is tiny by comparison. Every NLL, NBA, NHL and major league baseball jersey is available here. World Cup jerseys are on display. Every icon of international sports appears to be represented. "We sold a lot of Astros caps this spring," general manager Dan Peterson tells me. "The Brewers, the Tigers—just about any team with a new logo sells pretty well." Which is why teams now change logos like they're changing pitchers? "Yes," agrees the affable Peterson, who is attired in a referee's shirt.

On display at Field of Dreams, a sports-memorabilia store, is the cover of SI's 35th-anniversary issue. Framed—and autographed in the enfeebled hand of Muhammad Ali—the cover can be yours for $149. A 1954 Topps Hank Aaron baseball card from his (and our) rookie year goes for $900. This same week, on a home-shopping channel, I have seen Stan Musial peddling his signature for $299.95, "or three monthly payments of $99.98." Children once got Musial's signature on a game program. Now they get it on the installment plan.

An Orlando Magic jersey signed by Shaquille O'Neal is available for $595 at Field of Dreams. I want to ask the manager how many of those the store sells, but I am reminded of the advice proffered by the Mall's T-shirt: SHUT UP & SHOP. The shirt sells, if you're interested, for $14.95.

Beneath the fronds of a potted palm, a doleful black man waits on a bench. His is the hundred-yard stare of the Mall Widower, a man whose wife was swallowed by Macy's much as sailors are claimed by the sea. The Mall has a two-story miniature golf course to alleviate the Widower's ennui, but this potbellied man is a good mile away from Golf Mountain. And so he waits, in his replica NIT. jersey, a three-quarters-sleeve Cleveland Brown shirt of a 1960s vintage. The number on his chest, naturally, is 32.

This corpulent Jim Brown reminds me of the corporeal Jim Brown, who would probably not be surprised to learn that six months after the Megamall opened, gunplay crackled in Camp Snoopy and three people were wounded in a struggle for a San Jose Shark jacket. This was an address on the appalling state of society, to be sure, but the shots were more than that: They were literally a ringing endorsement, a one-gun salute to the San Jose Sharks and the wild, worldwide popularity of their logo.

I am reminded of the fact that this hockey team in San Jose is a direct descendant of Gary Davidson. So is the hockey team in Orange County, Calif.: The Anaheim Mighty Ducks are the first postmodern pro sports franchise, a mere merchandising venture owned by Disney, a logical line extension derived from a film. And as the Pepsi Ripsaw roller coaster ratchets up a hill overhead, I am further reminded that The Mighty Ducks sequel was filmed, in part, here, in Camp Snoopy.

A columnist once described Davidson as "always eager to meet the demand for something nobody asked for," and it occurs to me now that the same might be said for the Megamall: You can buy a synthetic human skeleton here or a sign that reads PARKING FOR LITHUANIANS ONLY or the children's book Everyone Poops. In this state of reverie I find my reflection in a beer at America's Original Sports Bar, 20,000 square feet of tavern, 55 televisions flickering like lightning through windows at night. As KSPN parcels out the evening's highlights, I recall something Roone Arledge said as we sat in his network office. "It used to be common practice in tennis that if a tough call went against your opponent, you hit the ball into the net on the next point if you were a gentleman," he had said. "You didn't want to win because of a bad call. I can't conceive of a top tennis player doing that today. Could you see McEnroe? Connors? Andre Agassi?"

And while watching SportsCenter, I cannot conceive of a player today hitting a home run and running the bases with his head down. Or imagine a halfback simply handing the ball to an official after a touchdown. Why would a man merely lay the ball off the glass when he could dunk on some tool and then bark into the baseline camera, sure, like Narcissus, to see his own reflection on the cable network that night?

Only a few weeks have passed since Chicago Hull captain Scottie Pippen refused to enter a playoff game when his coach designed a play giving someone else the last-second shot. Pride and insecurity, the prospect of embarrassment and the perception of disrespect: It is why children shoot children for their Shark jackets; it is why Derrick Coleman turns down a $69 million contract offer from the New Jersey Nets; it is why Barry Bonds demands the same obsequious deference given to the supernovas of the movie and music industries. As Agassi says in a famous TV commercial, "Image is everything."

All of which makes it devilishly tempting in 1994 to look beyond the beauty of athletic competition and see only the off-putting backdrop of marketing and money, money in amounts unimagined in 1954. "Everyone is more interested in money in most cases than they are in sport," Arledge said. "And a lot of fun has gone out of it. The original motivation a lot of us had for wanting to be a part of sports—that no longer exists." Pause. Sigh. "On the other hand, the level of performance is so high today, who could have ever imagined that•" And it became clear as he talked enthusiastically about the Stanley Cup playoffs that the harried Arledge hadn't shaken sports at all, and couldn't if he wanted to. "I'm so happy to see him talking about sports again," his assistant said while ushering me out. "I really think he misses it."

Cynicism is a sine qua non of modern citizenship, and as I continue pacing the Mall's terrazzo floors, past the Carolina Panther beach towel beckoning from the window of Linens 'n Things, I am given to seeing sports only as the multinational business that it is. Hut then I think of the unfailingly upbeat baseball writer I know. He checked into a drafty old hotel in Cleveland at three o'clock in the morning a few years ago, preparing to cover the miserable Indians that afternoon. "Business or pleasure?" the desk clerk asked him, and the scribe was forced point-blank to describe the sports industry. "Business," the writer finally said, smiling, "but it's a pleasure."

Sports are a swirl-cone mix of capitalism and entertainment (it occurs to me at Freshens Yogurt), and 40 years after the Army-McCarthy hearings, 14 years after Lake Placid, four years into the post-Soviet '90s, America remains the world's leading exporter of both commodities. Ray Charles opened the Mall of America by singing a single song: America, the Beautiful. His rendition raised gooseflesh. His reported fee for doing so was $50,000.

America, the Beautiful, indeed.

They stand as twin towers of postwar American ingenuity—the fast-food emporium and the suburban shopping mall—and the two concepts are conjoined in connubial bliss in a Mall of America food court, where I am ingesting a Pepsi-Cola: "The Official Soft Drink of the Mall of America," the press kit reads. "2.6 million cups served in 1993." My "cup" is roughly the size of a nuclear-waste drum.

Pensively sipping, I cannot help but recall the two Pepsi spokespeople I had seen a day earlier, two tall-drink celebrities conversing on MTV. Orlando Magic center Shaquille O'Neal was sitting for an interview with supermodel-journalist Cindy Crawford. Shaq was demonstrating the different smiles he will rent to interested advertisers. "This is the 2.9," he began. And though a small fissure appeared across his face, Shaq was speaking not in Richter-scale figures but in millions of dollars. "This is the 5.3," he continued, grinning amiably. "And this is the 8.9." O'Neal beamed enthusiastically.

"And if somebody offered you $20 million?" asked Crawford.

A ridiculous smile-for-hire engulfed O'Neal's head; he held the pose, a ghoulish grinning Shaq-o-Lantern.

You can't spell Shaquille without the letters S-H-I-L.-L. Stoked by this realization, I take a stroll, attempting to count the stores in which one can purchase an item bearing the euphonious name of the seven-foot spokescenter. When the toll hits 19 (stores, not items), I realize the laughable inadequacy of my count: I have not looked in video-game stores or in department stores. A pasty fat boy wearing an O'Neal road jersey pads past me in Shaq Attaq shoes by Reebok. I have even neglected, somehow, to count the shoe stores.

How could I have forgotten? An unmistakable size-20 Shaq shoe stands sentry in front of World Foot Locker. One cannot handle the autographed shoe, for it reposes under glass like the Star of India. What the shoe really is, is the star of Bethlehem, drawing Mall-walking magi into the store. "Shaq," the manager needlessly informs me, "is quite popular."

In Babbage's, an electronics store, I ask the manager, "Is there a video game that Shaquille O'Neal...."

"The rumor is they're working on one," the guys says, anticipating my question. "Look for it the beginning of next season." I am given to understand that the much-awaited game will have a martial-arts mise-en-scène and that it will be called...Shaq-Fu!

Fu, Fi, Fo, Fum: Sam Goody stocks the rap album. Shaq Diesel, while allegedly unlistenable, is nevertheless available on cassette and compact disc. At Toy Works, I adore the Shaq action figures by Kenner. Shaq's film debut, Blue Chips, has come and gone at the movieplex. Shaq Attaq! and Shaq Impaq beckon from bookstores. Shaq-signature basketballs line the shelves at Oshman's. Field of Dreams stocks wood-mounted photos of O'Neal: Shaq-on-a-Plaque. I stagger to The Coffee Beanery, Ltd., looking for Swiss Shaqolate Mocha, vacuum-Shaq-Packed in a foil Shaq-Sack. The Mall's walls are closing in. T-shirts seem to be telling me to SI IUT UP & SHAQ.

In addition to harvesting these golden eggs, Shaquille O'Neal is paid $48,000 per game to play a fearsome brand of basketball in Orlando. Fifteen thousand fans happily pay to watch him do so 41 nights a year. He may yet revolutionize the game. Who told you you can't have it all?

"You can't have everything," comedian George Carlin likes to say. "Where would you put it?" It appears they've put everything here, in Champs Sports. Surrounded by officially licensed merchandise, seated in a director's chair embossed with a Mighty Duck, 32 televisions arrayed before me and each one of them playing NBA highlights, I rest my Niked feet at last.

For weeks I've been wondering how we got here in sports—from primitive to prime time, from the invention of the wheel to the invention of Shaquille—without ever pausing to ask, "Where are we, anyway?" But the information kiosks at the Mall of America make it perfectly clear. "You Are Here," all the map arrows say. "You Are Here."








The prospect of embarrassment and the perception of disrespect—that's why children shoot children for Shark jackets. As Agassi says in the ad, "Image is everything."

Shaq demonstrated the different smiles he will rent to advertisers. "This is the 2.9," he began, speaking not in Richter-scale figures but in millions of dollars.