Shopping Malls as Civic Center

by Al Hsu

"America has double the number of shopping malls as it does high schools."

~ Linda Kulman, US News & World Report

"Shopping malls are temples of trade, churches of consumption, synagogues of excess, or mosques of the market."

~ Jon Pahl in Shopping Malls and Other Sacred Spaces: Putting God in Place

NEW YORK - MARCH 9, 2015: People shopping in Chelsea Market, Manhattan, New York City - long exposure.  The Market is an enclosed urban food court, shopping mall, and television production facility.

photo by dnaveh /

Historians say that you can tell what a culture values by studying its architecture. Coliseums, pyramids, cathedrals, monuments and skyscrapers all reflect ideal visions of what is most treasured. It is telling that some of the largest and most valuable real-estate properties in modern society are shopping malls dedicated to the sale of commercial goods. As one commentator observes:

Suburbs are now being built around the mall, spatially defined by a symbolic and material dependence on what many have suggested are the cathedrals of our time. All the available variety and difference of late capitalism is displayed beneath dome and atrium, as fountains and fig trees, marble and glass, elevators and escalators, respectively contain, decorate and facilitate the endlessly effortless movement between nature and culture, heaven and hell. Shopping. Shopping.

Shopping malls are a commercialized, privatized version of what used to be the public square.* Civic spaces in downtown areas have been disappearing, and shopping centers and big-box stores have both contributed to the decline of locally owned retail and have consciously set themselves up as alternatives to public gathering places. Whereas town squares used to be a common ground for government, commerce, community and cultural events, and even religious gatherings, malls elevate the commercial above all else. Shopping centers, quite naturally, make shopping central. If malls are our cathedrals, then consumerism is our religion and consumption is our gospel.

Al Hsu is senior editor for IVP Books at InterVarsity Press, where he acquires and develops books in such areas as culture, discipleship, church, ministry and mission. He is the author of Singles at the Crossroads, Grieving a Suicide and The Suburban Christian. He and his wife, Ellen, have two sons and live in the western suburbs of Chicago.

This text is taken from chapter 5, "Status Check: How Consuming and Branding Shape Our Identity," of  The Suburban Christian: Finding Spiritual Vitality in the Land of Plenty by Al Hsu. Copyright 2006 by Al Hsu. Used by permission of InterVarsity Press, P.O. Box 1400, Downers Grove, IL 60515, USA.

* "Indeed, by default the mall has become downtown, the public space once occupied by Main Street, the Town Hall, or bustling retail city streets. Yet despite their convenience and glitzy appeal, malls have proven themselves a public space only in the most limited sense … [M]alls play the role of town center only so far as profits are concerned" (Rosalyn Baxandall and Elizabeth Ewen, Picture Windows [New York: Basic Books, 2000], p. 228). See also Rodney Clapp, Border Crossings (Grand Rapids: Brazos, 2000), pp. 164-68.



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