Wealth of Nationhood


Bloomington, Minn. -- The Mall of America takes nationhood seriously. The sections of its parking garages are denominated by states -- we parked in Maine, Aisle D, Pier 11, near the red lobster logo -- and the self-propelled scooters that the infirm may rent to traverse the vast interior distances bear state names on plates. I nearly collided with Kentucky.

The Mall does not yet appear to have its own flag.

The stop was inevitable. Both the children, Alice and John Paul, seasoned Nickelodeon viewers at the age of 9, had got wind over the electronic grapevine of its existence. So when we traveled to Minnesota on vacation, an expedition to the Mall of America was their bribe price for nobly enduring all manner of tedious adult activities. The LEGO exhibit cast the principal spell, but they seemed to have caught the idea of the place as well: the modern Xanadu, with more marvels to see -- and buy -- than Kublai Khan could have imagined in his paltry pleasure-dome.

Their parents had known a different kind of pleasure-dome, the downtown department store. When my wife, Kathleen, recalls growing up in Columbus, Ohio, the Lazarus store rises in memory as a storehouse of the abundant life offering more than mere dry goods. One could eat a meal, get a haircut, see a show in an auditorium during the holidays.

Having a charge card in such a place was like possessing Roman citizenship in the ancient world. The store validated the good life from the middle class up, and at Christmastime those who could not afford such a passport to prosperity would come downtown to press their noses against the window displays.

Now those mighty keeps and baileys are falling vacant. The good life has migrated to the suburbs, with the surviving, consolidated department stores linked to smaller specialty stores in malls surrounded by acres of parking lots. The malls are more democratic -- Marshall's as well as Bloomingdale's -- for those able to drive there. And now the malls themselves give way to the mega-mall, the mall of malls, the Mall of America.

But nostalgia won't get us oriented. We are south of Minneapolis and St. Paul, off a freeway exit, at the east entrance to the Mall, which is a flattened circle inside an oblong. Department stores anchor the four corners of this world: Nordstrom on the northwest, Sears on the northeast, Macy's on the southwest, Bloomingdale's on the southeast. In the center are the "Peanuts"-theme amusement park, Knott's Camp Snoopy and the adjacent LEGO Imagination Center, and around them rise four tiers of shops and amusements.

The Mall of America has:

* Food courts on the third level overlooking the amusement park.

* Restaurants and bar/nightclubs: Boogies Diner, Fat Tuesday, Hooters, a synthetic German beer hall in Camp Snoopy. Planet Hollywood is coming.

* A set of General Cinema theaters at the summit.

* A check-cashing service.

* "Family rooms" off the main line where people can change diapers or sit quietly for a time with their overstimulated children.

* Quarter-a-pop telescopes mounted on observation platforms, through which the curious may gawk at the amusement park rides or the shoppers on the horizon.

* Rental lockers of varying size and cost where customers can shed their overcoats and down parkas.

* Duplicate stores -- two Radio Shacks, two Everything's $1.00 stores, two photo-developing shops. It takes hours, we've been assured, to tour the whole premises, so duplicating stores doubles the chance of catching the customers' eyes before their feet give out.

Like its downtown predecessors, the Mall of America is a temple to American abundance. Near the east entrance, on the day of our visit, rises a pyramid of produce, one and a half stories high, before which a woman on a dais describes the proper preparation and preservation of fruits and vegetables. People costumed as food -- a mobile banana, an ambulatory artichoke, a peripatetic bell pepper -- mingle with the crowd.

Beyond abundance, the Mall seeks to exemplify Americanism: the ersatz Scout uniforms on the Camp Snoopy workers, the strolling Elvis impersonator.

More than a shopping center, it has become a goal in itself. As the faithful once traveled to Canterbury, or Rome, or the shrine of St. James of Campostela, or more recently to the holy places in Anaheim and Orlando, they now memorialize their pilgrimages to the Mall of America. I saw someone with a video camera commemorating his family's hajj, and you can pay to have your picture taken as you come down the 40-foot flume in Paul Bunyan's Log Chute. The Mall operates its own gift shops at which the faithful can purchase mugs, T-shirts, postcards. Some Mall of America souvenirs bear an emblem of a descending dove.

And yet, by the end of the visit, it is not sacred space. It turns out to be merely a mall, a hypertrophied White Marsh, of no particular architectural distinction. It may have more, but it is all more of the same.

We got off lightly. Alice rode Camp Snoopy's Kite-Eating Tree (shaped more like a huge mushroom, suspending the riders in swings and twirling in an exhilaration of centrifugal force), and John Paul took a desultory turn with a miniature water cannon at the central fountain. Alice and I circumambulated one of the upper levels, while John Paul joined the hordes at the LEGO workbenches. Each child got one LEGO kit to work on in the car.

We stopped to take the children's picture outside the main entrance -- proof of their presence -- and drove off under heavy gray clouds laden with snow.

John McIntyre is a deputy chief of The Sun's copy desk.

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