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Sunday, December 21, 1997
By Paul Ford
Sirens rang out and red pumper trucks pulled over the curb, parking near the bank machine. A teenager yelled, "the fire's here! In my pants!" His friends laughed, a woman frowned. Fat, short firemen, in rubber coats with smudged flourescent striping, walked frowning into Fulton Mall, wielding iron crowbars and scarred axes. Another teenager impersonated the sirens into his cell phone. "There's a fire," he yelled into the mouthpiece.
The man beside me in the bank line said, "Those firemen just want to get into Toys R' Us without waiting." People swirled, ignoring the cold and the fire trucks, carrying cloth-handled paper bags, and popping in and out of stores like groundhogs. Many of the young men wore down jackets that could cozy a phone booth, if downtown Brooklyn had any phone booths.
I felt bewildered by the contrasts between this urban mall and the suburban malls of my childhood. Tawdry flash dominated, instead of insincere, failed subtlety, and "Mr. Lover" and "Underground Fashion" replaced "The Gap" and "Limited." The colors were hematite black and gold leaf, not turquoise and candlestick brass.
Walking west along Fulton you find hundreds of stores, many closing or closed, victims of too much hope and shoplifting. Then you arrive at the mall proper, a large building with high windows, replete with escalators, but missing a fountain or oversized children's play space. The stores inside are the same you see on New York streets, with many independents and fewer chains, places with names like "Amir's Electronics" and "Great Hair Palace" wrapped around the more standard Radio Shack or Toys R' Us. The mall's minimal Christmas display is shunted into a fenced space the size of a cow's pen. Inside it repose an obese, six-foot teddy bear and some token elves that look like garden gnomes on holiday. Santa is nowhere, nor could he find room to sit and take orders. The place was built for people to enter, give up money, and leave, like a church. A suburban mall tends to be a labyrinthine, communal space; its architecture holds its occupants as long as it can, reluctantly releasing them to massive parking lots. Fulton Mall is here for the quick fix; city folk are never so patient to abide anything else.
I find it tempting to look for meaning in these contrasts, to see the deep differences in urban and suburban culture, in the patterns of spending and the ways products are sold. But I don't think the differences between the malls are more than cosmetic. Money has changed hands in markets, whether malls in Brooklyn or bazaars in Egypt, for millennia, and the basics stay the same. Crowd people in, tailor the goods to their desires, make the selling and buying an entertainment, and contrive some fasts and feasts to keep the product moving--whether "Mr. Lover" or "The Gap," whether White people or Black. When there's cash at stake, the cultural differences don't really matter.