Q: When is a Mall Not Really a Mall? A: When It's Block E

I know a mall when I see one. Despite the street-y connotation of "Block" and the multi-use corporate-speak about it being an "entertainment complex," and all the hand-wringing in the papers over the precedent the structure sets for "urban architecture," Block E is a downtown mall. And no, to all you fuddy-duddy 17th-century history buffs out there, a "mall" doesn't mean a shaded, pedestrian-only street. This is Minnesota, dammit. We've been at the vanguard of mall culture: Southdale was the world's first enclosed shopping mall, and if I sing, "There's a place for fun in your life...," you'll know exactly where that place is. Okay, it's true that you can't buy much of anything that you can take home at Block E, which has traditionally been one of the criteria for mall status--the Snyder drug store closed in February, leaving EB Games, Borders, and the Hard Rock gift shop as the only retail outlets in the place (and after spending a couple of weeks at Block E, I noticed nobody buys anything at those outlets either). But Block E is a mall. Trust me.

So, how does this mall function, about a year and a half after it opened? I mean, it is a mall, but how does a $134 million downtown mall without any shopping work? What do teenagers do without anything to shoplift? Do people from the suburbs come out to this mall? Have black people migrated across Hennepin from the City Center to this mall? Do hipsters from Uptown have anything to sneer at without a Thomas Kinkade in this mall? Like I said, I spent some time trying to figure all this out by simply hanging around; at GameWorks, in the Meridien Hotel's club Infiniti and its restaurant Cosmos, Crown Theatres, Escape Ultra Lounge, Bellanotte, Jimmy John's, Panchero's, and Applebee's. I spent my time sitting on park benches on the second-level rotunda, bugging middle-aged women when they got out of movies, sitting in Borders drinking tea and talking about the war with Somalis, butting into people's double dates at GameWorks, and standing in lines for Escape that started in the underground parking ramp.

First of all, a little more history, both about Block E and myself. Now, evidently, Block E used to be something other than a parking lot for First Avenue--it used to be a hardtack, boozy block filled with smut shops, all built around the now-infamous Moby Dick's Bar, home of the "whale of a drink." There were homeless people, and gutter punks, and crime--muggings and prostitution. I imagine it to have been like pre-Disney New York City. This was before it was razed in the late '80s and stood vacant for years while the city government deliberated over what to build there. Now a little bit about myself, because I meant it when I said that they built Block E for me. I grew up in the suburbs, cordoned off from the city by the 394-494-694 moat. I live in Uptown now, and I don't get to the mall much anymore (although my sister works at Brookdale and keeps me posted on the Wetseal/Forever 21 $11 miniskirt wars going on as we speak). But like most suburban kids, I was raised by the mall. It clothed me, it fed me, and it entertained me. The only reason I'm telling you this is to point out, to either your relief or your disappointment, that I'm not one of those Rem Koolhaas urban critics who decries the disposable commercial culture brought on by the modern American mall. Rem didn't cut class to shoplift Oakleys and see Terminator II at Maplewood II. So, basically, in the spirit of full disclosure, I'm okay with malls.

 

To sum up what Block E planners must've been thinking by the time they figured out that everybody who worked downtown was commuting from the suburbs and then taking their money home with them: If you can't beat 'em, join 'em. But this isn't really the first time downtown has tried this strategy--malls have been developed downtown, and have ultimately failed, before. While other communities, like Denver and San Diego, have revitalized downtown shopping districts by going the "upscale" route, that strategy has been difficult to implement here. Both the Conservatory and Gaviidae Commons attempted to attract a cosmopolitan, moneyed clientele only to discover that, for the most part, Minnesotans are very modest shoppers. Most of us are still one or two generations off the farm, and our conspicuous consumption is done in exclusive, out-of-the-way pockets...like Edina. So upscale downtown malls fail, like the Conservatory (which was torn down several years ago and replaced with the headquarters for Target), or are scaled way back and forced to rent out their retail space to a bank, like Gaviidae. On the other hand, Minnesotans aren't too populist--rich people make them nervous, but so do poor people. As a retail spot with a food court and stores like Marshall's that appeal to a broad social demographic (read: black people), City Center lost its luster because white people who work downtown don't shop there--it never figured out how to completely displace all the cityness that comes with the city.

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