Photo by Eliesa Johnson
A child runs to her parents at the Como Zoo
When I was a brash young reporter, I went on the press tour for a monstrous shopping mall developers were building in Bloomington—reputed to be the largest in the world at the time and soon to be known as the Mall of America. It was a big deal—the biggest, they claimed—with some umpteen-million square feet of retail space, dozens of upscale restaurants, and, at its beating commercial heart, an amusement park complete with a log ride, carousel, and rollercoaster.
Once it was open, the presenters claimed, 40 million people a year were going to stroll through the doors and inject money into Minnesota’s economy like a shot of fiscal heroin, spreading the narcotic bliss of economic growth throughout the metro. People love massive shopping complexes so much, the pitch went, that they would fly here from faraway lands and spend gargantuan sums and stay in nearby hotels just to be near the Mall of America’s singing cash registers, whose inspiring hymn would ring throughout the land like a chorus of capitalist angels. The people would, of course, rejoice. Because the Mall of America was just that, they said: a monument to the American way of life; nay, a beacon of hope to all the unfortunate souls in the world who don’t have the opportunity to spend their days roaming around a box full of retail stores and idle amusements. In that sense, they said, it wasn’t just America’s mall—it was the world’s mall. And the world was waiting.
I didn’t believe a word of it. I predicted that the Mall of America would be a colossal failure. I envisioned its inevitable doom with piercing clarity, noting, for example, the insanity of building a log ride designed to soak people to the skin in a building where the ambient temperature was 72 degrees. The rollercoaster was so small and slow, I reasoned, that every kid in Minnesota would outgrow it by the time they were 8. And what madness was it to build an amusement park in the middle of a shopping mall, pitting the base desires of bored children against the will of their defenseless parents? The tantrums would be epic, I reasoned. Children would scream, parents would cry, and the rate of infanticide would be alarmingly high. In five years, I predicted, the empty shell of this once-promising pipe dream would be ready for the bulldozer, and hoodlums would be raiding its hollow carcass for scrap metal.
Then I became a parent, and I was forced to re-evaluate the Mall of America’s place in Twin Cities culture. You see, my son grew up in the dark, pitiless days of the late 1990s and early 2000s. It was one of those eras in human history when the apocalypse was supposed to happen but didn’t. And, since the world refused to end, that meant Daddy had to find ways to entertain The Boy every weekend. People forget, but these were bleak years when the snows never came because it was always way too cold for normal atmospheric physics to work its wintry magic. Anyone who spent more than five minutes outside was doing a delicate dance with death, and the advent of the Playstation video-game system meant that staying indoors was no longer the bottomless abyss of boredom it once was. In fact, staying inside, literally twiddling one’s thumbs, was infinitely preferable to stepping outside and losing one’s thumbs to frostbite.
Concerned that I was spending too much time playing violent and addictive video games, however, my wife began insisting that I leave the comfort of our home and take The Boy . . . somewhere. She didn’t care where. But where, indeed?
When it is as cold outside as the devil’s heart, and you are a father who must not only find ways to entertain your young son, but ways that score all-important Good Dad points—that’s when the visionary greatness of the Mall of America becomes impossible to refute.
I remember my epiphany well: I was sitting on a bench in the middle of what was then Camp Snoopy, watching my son drown in a psychedelic sea of colored plastic balls. One second I would see his head, then he’d disappear for a few harrowing moments and reappear a few feet away, ecstatic that he had survived yet another plunge into the orb pit. Afterward, we were going to get an ice cream cone, then try the carousel, and then maybe go on the stupid balloon ride that I hated but he loved. Then maybe we’d spend an hour or two in Legoland. And as I sat there, listening to the brain-stabbing screams of happy children, I remember thinking: “Whoever thought of building an indoor amusement park in the middle of a Minnesota shopping mall was a friggin’ genius.
Recently, the Mall of America got a $250 million tax break from the state government to begin building Phase II of the MOA, a 10-year construction binge that will double the size of the mall and add 300 or so more retailers and several new entertainment attractions, all of which is projected to bring 20 million more people to Bloomington, jacking the yearly attendance up to about 62 million bodies a year.
It all sounds ridiculous to me. Does the Mall of America really need to be twice as large? And will its mega-fantastic hugeness really coax millions of people around the world to hop on a plane and spend a week trying to remember where they parked their rental car? I doubt it. But I certainly look forward to taking my grandchildren there in the dead of winter.