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It would be really, really nice if malls were better integrated into "community" settings, with walkable streets, nearby housing, etc. There was actually a fair bit of housing next door to or across the street from the Galleria . . . low-rent apartment buildings. A friend of mine lived in one. We walked to the Galleria from his place a few times. The thing you come to understand by doing that even once is just how utterly and completely pedestrian hostile the entire built environment is today. Everything in the Valley was built with the car in mind. The streets are car-sized (2-4 lanes each direction), the stores are surrounded by parking (5 minute walk to cross from the sidewalk, usually), the crosswalks are a quarter to a half mile separated from each other, etc.
Yet the lights were rather long. I never had trouble getting around on foot in the Ventura Blvd area.
But you bring up something interesting. As much of a testament to consumerism as they were, malls like the Galleria, Northridge Fashion Center, and this big one out in Century City (can't remember the official name) were actually well-situated. All of them were surrounded by lots of housing and on major bus lines. There were often other shopping areas nearby, including "necessary" shopping such as grocery stores (Ventura, for example; it was ridiculously easy as a carless teenager for me to get from Tarzana to Studio City, either by foot or by bus [for those who've never been to LA, this is about 10 miles or 16 km]).
Compare that to the shopping centers built in newer developments, and you often can't just walk a few blocks to get to it (at least in SoCal) -- even if you live nearby, you have to walk out of the housing development (condo complex, planned community, whatever), onto a manicured street that holds nothing but views of the sides of housing and maybe a noise-reduction wall, stay on it for a loooong time, and then go around the housing development and into the massive parking lot. All to reach a grocery store that you could see two blocks from your small patio. The distance may still be manageable, but you feel completely cut off.
But to get back to Metavision's question, "fixing" the whole mall experience may involve a regression. Used to be that you could go into a store, chain or not (and I agree with you, chains are mostly where I shop too, for the same reasons), and the people who worked there knew their product. Not just as salespeople; as an example, I used to work in a bookstore that was part of a chain. Dress code was "nothing ripped," and we were considered by the managers to be co-workers there to earn money for rent or school (in other words, like people). It wasn't unusual for the district manager to come in and chat with everyone for a couple of hours about general stuff. When we were done stocking the shelves, we could sit behind the counter and read if there were no customers. This meant that we knew what books might suit which customers looking for recommendations, and our customers would freely tell us which books they had liked or disliked and we could pass that on to other customers.
A few years later, the chain changed its policies. We could no longer read behind the counter; we had to look busy, sweeping the floor, cleaning counters, straightening shelves. Conversations were more of a "stockroom" occurrence, and suddenly we were representatives of the company. Much more impersonal, and our fun place to work summer after summer became just another retail hell job. And it showed in how the customers treated us.
My point is that we were taken away from the "neighborhood store" concept and placed in this Muzak-drenched (yes, we had Muzak) "experience." This seems to have happened at most stores I go to. I think being a "regular" somewhere attracts a lot of people, and the relationship that forms between them and the workers can really change stores for the better. There's more communication about what works (in retail, you'll always have jackass customers and bored employees, but you can at least try to have less of both), and that in turn can improve the quality of the products. The customers are more wiling to speak up, and the stores more willing to listen.
And by the way, Land's End clothing is really good.
And if any of you need a book to read: The Eight, by Katharine Neville. We recommended this one so many times that after a few years, people would tell us we'd already recommended it to them and they needed another one. ^-^
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