Saturday, July 13, 2013

Barton Creek Mall, Public or Private Space by Agueda Matano

The Barton Creek Square Mall is one of the largest shopping malls in the Austin area. In North America, a mall refers to a large shopping area composed of one or more buildings forming a complex of shops, usually “anchored” by one or more department stores with interconnecting walkways enabling visitors to easily walk from one unit to another, and surrounded by a parking lot. In a simple sentence; a shopping mall is an indoor version of the traditional market place. Shopping malls are public good as they serve as a single location for shopping location that not only save money and time to its visitors, but also help fuel the local economy and provide jobs for its citizens. Shopping mall institutions promote themselves as new town squares or public spaces in which people should come and be friends, and get familiar with the community, and entertain while having the shopping experience. However they are promoted, shopping malls are privately owned establishments, which raise a big a controversy about public versus private space; the Barton Creek Mall is not an exception to this rule.
Margaret Kohn in Brave New Neighborhoods says: “today the only place that many Americans encounter strangers is in the shopping mall; the most important public place (page 254).” However she continues saying that this public place is now private and probably not by accident… so it is difficult to determine what exactly constitutes a public space. We define a public space as a place where all peoples are welcome independently of their race, social class, or gender… an area in which members of the public who are strangers to each other might congregate for the same purpose, and where ideas can be freely shared (almost like in the Greek polis). In this sense, the Barton creek Mall is a public space. Everyone is welcome; I personally saw people of all ethnicities at the site. Nonetheless, we also consider a public space an area for recreation and entertainment subject to usage by the public. In this manner, I guess that the mall fails as a public entity. At the Barton Creek just like any other mall, I believe that individuals perform learned behaviors based upon personal private interests which are consider appropriate civil behavior within the boundaries of their businesses. So, although the mall resembles the traditional market place in many ways, the shopping mall is more a quasi-public space.
The Barton Creek mall, is owned and operated by the Simon Group Property Inc., which is ranked as the number one real-estate investment trust and of course their main goal is to make a profit. So the mall was specifically designed with the purpose of movement and consumption, which in my understanding automatically limits the uses of the site. Likewise, activities in the mall are within a certain space limited to those that promote shopping or another particular agenda that sweeten the interest of the corporate owners. Even the aesthetics of the mall is somehow “limiting” or else exclusive, as the mall was designed for its higher income trade area; something that can clearly be seen from the type of cars in the parking lot, to the watches, and handbags of the visitors. Although you see all kinds of people in the site, visitors are mainly middle-to upper middle class white persons; in this way the mall matches the demographics of its surrounding areas and although indirectly, excludes the less privileged which cannot afford to shop there. I guess this should not be the case of public spaces. So I find it hard to answer the question of whether the place is democratic. According to the Merriam Webster definition the world democracy means “rule by the people,” then with the Barton Creek mall being privately owned, I assume that the owners have the power to decide what can and what cannot take place… Although there is not any constitutional prohibition against legislation protecting political speech in places where citizens were normally allowed to be (including public areas of private malls), citizens need to remember that civil rights and commercial interest do not always mix, and when this is the case, certain liberties are surely lost. Like Margaret Kohn states “ the privatization of public spaces, leaves public sidewalks and streets practically as the only remaining available sites for unscripted political activities (page 254)”… The idea of a public space includes the gathering of people with the absence of coercive powers as well, as quasi-public destination being designed around the concept of security. At the Barton Creek shopping Mall for instance, there are security guards who are well uniformed and patrol the mall corridors and the outside area by car. There are also security cameras throughout the mall, and despite not seeing any particular sign dictating what behaviors are appropriate inside the mall, the fact that the mall is patrolled on a regular basis detracts a little from the concept of the public space that shopping malls try to convey.
The Barton Creek Mall, like other malls, is really a façade of a public space. Economic circumstances define the accessibility of the site and which level of income one must have in order to participate. You cannot simply approach people and speak to them; something that I know from my personal experience on the first part of the assignment. People would not even listen to what I had to say just because I was not carrying any shopping bags… I felt a lot like an intruder that did not belong there, or do anything in the mall space because you will be asked to leave. Nevertheless, the mall is becoming not only a multi-use facility, but a completely self contained homotopia of suburban life… the shopping mall is so attractive because it combines the pleasures of public life with the safety and familiarity of the private realm. And this is exactly what poses a number of conceptual challenges upon which public policy makers must act: the problem of privatization of public spaces.   

“The Mauling of Public Space” From Kohn, Margaret. Brave New Neighborhoods: The Privatization of Public Space. Routledge, 2004.