The End of Public Space: Israel's New Shopping Malls

http://www.tikkun.org/article.php/Odenheimer-the-end-of-public-space


Shopping malls, I've always found, are difficult places to think—even to think about shopping malls. Is it the buzz in your ears coming from the "mall radio" and PA system? Or the windowless symmetry of the malls, designed so that there is no easy way to know what city you are in or even where the gate you need to find in order to reach your car is located? "What we are trying to do in malls," says Gila, director of marketing for the Bus Station Mall in Jerusalem, "is to create a disconnection, to make a bubble into which people can escape and detach from everything else."


From everything, that is, except shopping. "Actually, it is forbidden to do anything in here that is not connected with buying—looking at the merchandise, paying, having the experience of receiving your goods," Gila continues. "The funny thing is that the public doesn't grasp that the mall is not a public place. For example, if you are tired, it is forbidden to sit down. Soldiers on their way to or from their base sometimes sit down here on the floor. We don't allow them to—we get them up. And if someone is passing out fliers or soliciting donations without our explicit permission, we throw them out."


Witnessing just such an incident several years ago is what started me thinking about the meaning of shopping malls. I was having coffee in Kanyon Hadar, a relatively modest and pleasant Jerusalem shopping mall, when two polite and well-scrubbed high-school students collecting money for a well-known Israeli organization that helps autistic children approached me. It was National Autism Day, they told me. But before I could reach into my pocket, a security guard had appeared, seemingly out of nowhere, and was ordering the teenagers to leave. "But why?" I wanted to know. "This mall is a privately owned area," I was told. "You can't have it both ways," I argued, waving my hand to indicate the hundreds of people meandering through the mall. "You can't buy an area, open it up to the public, move the life that used to be on the street inside, and then call it private when it suits your purposes."


My somewhat clumsy argument made little impression on the security guard, but I later learned that the United States Supreme Court, in 1946, had more eloquently expressed the idea I was struggling to articulate. The case involved the right of free speech and expression in the business district of a "company town" where workers were housed by their bosses. "The more an owner, for his advantage, opens up his property for use by the public in general," the U.S. Supreme Court ruled, "the more do his rights become circumscribed by the statutory and constitutional rights of those who use it." In 1968, the Supreme Court ruled that a privately owned shopping mall was the "functional equivalent" of the business district in a company town, and that malls too should be considered public places when considering questions of free speech.


Later U.S. Supreme Court decisions, made after the composition of the court had become more conservative, diminished the impact of the earlier decisions. In 1980, a group of university students sued a California shopping mall for preventing them from handing out pamphlets and signing people on to a petition. The Court ruled that the federal Constitution did not protect the right of free speech in private malls—but that the California Constitution, whose free speech clause is more broadly worded, did. The students were allowed to continue their petition drive within the mall. In California, and five other states, free speech is thus guaranteed within shopping malls. New York is not one of these states. In March 2003, during the weeks before the Iraq war began, Stephen Downs and his son were arrested in a shopping mall in Albany, New York, after they refused to take off tee shirts that had anti-war slogans printed on them.


And what about Israel? The directors of shopping centers I spoke to were uniformly convinced that citizens had no rights—other than the right to shop—within the mall. In fact, I was told, within the bubble of the mall, where surveillance cameras and security guards abound, rights usually monopolized by the government and its police force have somehow been transmitted, as if by a special laying on of hands, to the mall's management. "We have the right to detain people until the police come, if they cause trouble." said Moshe Rosenblum, who is director general of Herzliya's sparkling Kanyon Sheva Kochavim, as well as of two malls in Canada, and a leading advocate for malls in negotiations with the government. "And we have the right to search people, not just when they enter, but at any time. We have two people on our security staff who have been trained and given authorization by the police to execute searches. And of course, people do not have the right to strike, to give out pamphlets, or to use a megaphone. In general, in the mall, enforcement of the law is more immediate and more ubiquitous than on the street." Lawyers from the Aguda Le' Zechuyot HaEzrach (Association for the Rights of Citizens) said they were unaware of any cases in which citizens had challenged the restriction of their rights within shopping malls.


But why does all of this matter? After all, no one is forcing people to walk into a mall, and they can leave anytime they please—as long, of course, as they have not been detained.


And yet it matters a great deal. The midrash in Bamidbar Rabbah tells us that the Torah could only have been given in the wilderness, because the wilderness, like the Torah, is "hefker," and belongs to no one. By the same token, democracy, whether Ancient Athenian, French, or American, as well as virtually every modern struggle for the expansion of human rights, could only have been conceived in cities, where there are crowded streets and public spaces in which people can gather and ideas can be debated and spread. From time immemorial, the material and the spiritual, the economic and the cultural, have met in the marketplace, in an area thickened with people of all kinds, brought together by the web of public commerce. From Mishnaic times onwards, the Torah has been read in public and the Rabbinic Bet Din has met on Mondays and Thursdays because those were the traditional market days. In The Case for Democracy, Israel b'Aliyah leader, MK Natan Scharanksy, says that the acid test of whether a society is a totalitarian fear society or a democratic free society is in the quality of freedom to be found in the town square. Can you express your criticism of the government in it without fear of arrest or physical harm?


But what if there is no town square? All over the country, since the first successful mall, the Ayalon, was built in Ramat Gan in 1985, the downtown area of Israeli cities—the place where the life of the town, its cultural and political heartbeat, are situated—has suffered, often grievously, because of the introduction of the mall. According to Moshe Rosenblum, 32 percent of all retail commercial transactions, excluding the sale of cars and real estate, take place in one of Israel's 200 or so malls. If one excludes food buying, the largest percentage of sales in a typical family budget, and an area of retail dominated by free standing supermarkets, these statistics indicate that a large majority of buying in Israel now takes place in malls. No wonder that the degradation and downgrading of the downtowns of every large city in Israel (including Tel Aviv, Beersheva, Jerusalem, and Haifa) have coincided with the rise of the malls.


The situation is even more severe in smaller cities, where the local mall, or even worse, a gigantic "Power Center" built outside the city on agricultural lands, has largely destroyed the main street, which gave every town its unique character and its sense of community. The vision of those in the business of developing and managing malls is of a future in which just about all commercial enterprises are located within the controlled environment of the mall. "You will still need places other than the mall," says Rosenblum, without irony. "For entertainment, cafes, restaurants. Like in the Marina in Herzliya. You can't have all the entertainment in the mall."


The mall is the new equivalent of the "matnas" (community center), according to R, who wishes to be anonymous because she is still working in the mall industry. After being involved in the management of malls for the past ten years, R has become increasingly aware of the destructive possibilities of mall culture. "People come here to meet each other, to be with other people. But, it is a 'matnas' reduced to one possible activity."


"I kept trying to come up with ideas to connect the mall to the community," says Elana Ber, an artist who was in charge of decoration for the Nes Ziona Mall for seven years. "I wanted, for example, to create a corner where pictures painted by Nes Ziona children would be displayed. But that idea was nixed in the end." Elena points to a corner of the mall, just past the food court in which we are sitting, and exclaims. "I keep thinking about how I might dress up a corner like that, make it beautiful and pleasant for the people that come through here. I keep forgetting that the owners think of the mall only as a device for making money."


But at least the malls are good for business, we might say—and that is no small thing. Air conditioned, impervious to rain or sun, well-lit, shiny clean, safe, with ample parking, open from morning until late evening, malls provide a perfect environment for shopping. In the mall, shopping merges into entertainment—how else to explain the huge crowds that surge into the malls on Thursday and Saturday nights? And yet, on second glance, it is possible to say that the malls have been good for only one kind of business and bad—even fatal—for every other kind.


Chain stores are the one kind of business that malls cultivate, empower, and spread. Approximately 80 to 90 percent of the stores in Israeli malls are part of a chain. "The chain stores grew out of the malls!" Rosenbloom tells me excitedly, reveling for a moment in the power of malls. "When Kanyon Ayalon began in 1985, how many chain stores were there in Israel? Elite, Steimatsky, Ata? Now you can hardly count them. The malls gave them the power!"


To understand why malls and chain stores are fused together in a lovers' embrace, you first have to know how malls are run. The developers and owners rarely run the mall themselves—what they are interested in is developing another mall. Instead, they either hire or create a separate management company, headed by a general director, the most important person in the life of any mall. Although directors are ultimately responsible for the security, cleaning services, and maintenance, their most crucial job is to fill the mall with people who will buy things. The stores in an Israeli mall pay a maintenance fee, generally about $14 per square meter of space, directly to the management company. To the owners, they pay either a per-meter rent, which can range from $40 to $60 per meter or more, or 7 percent of their gross intake, whichever is larger. For a director to retain his job, he must keep the owners happy by maximizing the amount of money passing through the stores' registers, and thus the percentage that arrives in their pockets.


The most important tool managers possess is their power to decide which stores to "bring in" to the mall—and which to force out when their rental contracts expire. Malls almost never sell individual store space so as not to lose this power. This is because the right "mix" of shops is what attracts people to the mall, thus keeping the cash register singing. And increasingly, the right "mix" is understood to be composed almost exclusively of chain stores.


Early mall-theory held that every successful mall must be "anchored" by one or preferably two giant-size stores—for example a department store like the Israeli HaMashbir or a huge supermarket. But mall-theory has been updated. "Now the anchors are the famous chains—Fox, Castro, Honigman, TNT," says R. "If you are a self-respecting mall, you have to have these stores." When I first tried to understand why malls were filled with chain stores, I concluded that it was because only chain stores had the financial reserves to pay the high rent and maintenance costs that malls entailed. And that is certainly a factor—on the street it is possible to find a small shop, in a less desirable corner, one that needs refurbishing, and to try to start a small business with a minimum of investment. That is impossible in a mall. But the main reason that new single-outlet stores are rare in malls is that they are largely being blocked from entry by the mall director. Directors choose to rent the vast majority of the stores under their control to chains—usually, the larger the chain the better. "Superfarm or Nuvofarm?" says Rosenbloom, "That's simple. I'll always choose the stronger one." R points storefronts out to me in the mall in which we are sitting that used to be occupied by successful, one-of a-kind shops that were forced out by the Kanyon's new management, who wanted to install more chain stores. She also points out a shop, sold by its original owners, that went bankrupt after they opened up too many franchises at once. "Today," she sums it up, "either you're everywhere or you're nowhere."


Mall directors prefer chains because of the financial backing they bring with them—chains have the cash to invest in advertising and in special sales that bring in customers—and they are more likely to pay their rent on time. But the real attraction of the chains is that they charge the malls with a particular kind of energy that sweeps us away from wherever we are—Nes Ziona or Afula, Netanya or Bet Shean—and transport us into the realm of the universal. Malls, as we have said, are situated in no place. Taken blindfolded into a mall, you won't know whether you are in Eilat or Hadera, or even New Jersey or Toronto. Although most of the chains are Israeli owned, the signs and logos—like those of Fox, Castro, and TNT—are in English. The language of fashion is also international. In malls all over the world, this season's color is orange, and there is nothing an Israeli on the Left can do about it [Editor's note: In Israel, the color orange is associated with the right-wing settler movement]. So Moshe Rosenblum is wearing a shirt colored a delicate orange.


The mall cuts itself off from the neighborhood it is situated in because its desire is turned towards something larger, more abstract, and thus more perfect than the gray and grimy reality of the local. It aspires to global culture, whose engine is the constant need for economic growth, and which is the most powerful force on earth today. The more places a chain exists in, the less it is local, and the more it participates in that perfection; it radiates the charisma of that power. As we walk through the towering but impenetrable outer walls of the mall and into a circular reality flashing with the bright logos of the most familiar and popular chains, we step into an alternative existence, a brave new world, the one we see on television and surf on the Internet. We are in a place that is nowhere and everywhere. We are redeemed from the physicality and the mortality of the merely local.


But the flash and shine of the mall studded with prestigious chain stores comes at a price. The mall-dominated economy destroys small businesses, integrating retail trade—once the last democratic bastion of the entrepreneurial spirit—into the world of large corporations. It also creates a new kind of feudalism. While some chain stores are operated by their owners, many sell "franchises" to people who at one time would have used their money to start their own small business. Like serfs who must give part of their crop to their landlord, the franchise holders have to pay a certain percentage of their gross earnings to the franchise owners, alongside the percentage they pay to the mall owners. "The owners use complicated contract agreements to abuse the franchise holders," says R. "Everything has to be done according to very specific standards, and the franchises have to produce high enough profits, or they will replace the franchise owners."


Still, isn't this what people want? Haven't Israelis voted with their feet, by showing up at the malls and making them a huge success?


In fact, not all malls are successful. As anyone who works in the development, management, or marketing of malls will tell you, the general consensus in the field is that too many malls have sprung up too close to each other. Many malls are locked in life or death struggles with other malls. "The malls are spending massive amounts of money on advertisement(s), on creating children's activity centers within the malls and on other strategies for competition," R told me. The extra expense is passed on, of course, to the consumer. And in Israel, "traditional" malls, built on the outskirts or in the industrial zone of cities, are now also threatened by the new Power Centers—huge discount malls built, often semi-illegally, on agricultural lands approachable only by automobile. The Power Centers have the added advantage of being open on Shabbat, which coalition agreements within municipal boundaries will not permit.


More importantly, the effects of mall culture on Israeli cities and on the landscape are too significant to be determined by the ability of air-conditioning, bright lights, and the glamour of chain stores to attract shoppers. Besides their impact on the health of downtown areas and small businesses, Yael Dori of Amutat Adam Teva VeDin explains, malls nearly always require cities to expand approach-streets to double lanes, shrinking the space for sidewalks and trees. They also contribute to the suburbanization of commerce throughout the city, leaving the poor who live within a city's traditional boundaries, and who often have no automobiles, trapped in an environment stripped of jobs and revenue for schools and other facilities.


"In many parts of the United States, Canada, and Europe," says Irit Solsa, an architect and the chairman of Amutat Merchav, the organization for Israeli urbanism, "the law requires open town meetings in which citizens have a hand in determining the future of their city and its surroundings. In Louisiana right now, for example, town meetings that will help determine the shape of the reconstruction of towns and cities damaged by Katrina are being held."


Here in Israel, more often than not, no comparable discussion takes place, even in the city and regional councils in which decisions about city planning are made. The rise of the Israeli mall has been enabled by the political system and by city and national governmental management failures, which have left municipalities on the verge of bankruptcy. Mayors tend to readily push for the approval of a new mall, because when developers begin to build on a piece of formerly industrial or agricultural property—in the case of Ayalon, the mall was built on what was a city dump—they must pay the city a large, one time "Heytal Hashbacha," a nice chunk of ready cash. The malls also pay the city government a substantial piece of arnona (residency taxes) while providing for themselves much of the services that the city would provide the stores in a traditional downtown—lighting, security, waste disposal.


"The mayors are thinking very short term—how to raise some money so they can leave their term looking like a success. Their longest term horizon is about getting elected for another term," says Solsa. "And the city engineer, because he is a political appointee, has to go along with what the mayor thinks. The mayors also have a lot of political clout in the regional councils, enough to pressure the representative of the Ministry of the Interior, which also has to approve the plan, to agree to what they want."


Solsa thinks that malls could actually, in some cases, be harnessed in order to help strengthen cities, if planned correctly. "Take the Kfar Saba mall as an example. It sits right on Rechov Weizman, and is open at both ends to the street," says Solsa. "It's not a black box like other malls. The city insisted that residential housing be built right above the mall and invested money keeping Rehov Weizman beautiful as the mall was being built. The result is that the downtown was strengthened, not destroyed, by the mall." In most other cases, says Solsa, the rise of the malls coincided with the neglect of downtown areas—a sloughing off by the mayors and the cities of their most basic responsibilities. What happened in Netanya, Solsa told me, in the 1980s and 1990s is representative of the sequence of events in other cities as well. Planners and developers convinced Netanya city politicians that by creating new neighborhoods far from the city center, they would attract a "better" population to the city. The new neighborhoods, instead of increasing revenue, expanded the area to which the city must provide services, and further impoverished its coffers.


Malls are just one example of the tendency in Israeli public life to sell off or abandon more and more of what used to be public space to private contractors and developers, and to create an Israel designed, primarily, not for people, but for automobiles. For two days in December, Amutat Merhav held a public conference in Bersheva, which raised essential questions about the future of Israel, whose need for housing, commercial areas, and infrastructure will continue to grow: "What will be the shape of this growth?" Solsa asks. "Will it be a continuance of existing patterns of development; fragmented, automobile-based, enclaves consuming ever larger quantities of land, fragmenting and destroying the last areas of agricultural and open spaces of the dense coastal plain? Or will it be a smarter, more urbane and civic development, based on public transit accessibility to homes and jobs, on dense and yet human-scale development that will strengthen existing cities and protect and enhance important open spaces and ecological areas?"


What if the current haphazard planning, based on the needs of developers and of city politicians for a quick infusion of cash, continues? What if the inevitable pollution and destruction of green areas in a car-based society is not curbed? What if global warming, caused at least partly by exhaust emissions, continues to wreak havoc on the weather? What if the innermost centers of our towns and cities continue to be left to the poor, who grow increasingly desperate as schools and city services decline even more in quality? Then, in fact, the malls will be truly necessary, more even than they are now, because the outside will have become intolerable, and only there, in the privately owned and privately policed air of the cathedrals of the global market, will we able to laugh and breathe, to meet each other and fulfill our destiny.