Saturday, July 13, 2013

The Domain: Public vs. Private Space by Ellie Wren

Malls have become an important part of America’s culture over the past decades. The mall is an adaptation of the historical marketplace – an area to gather, converse, and shop…however the modern mall is on an entirely different level of marketing and urbanization. Some malls are even much like an Edge City themselves. Today, “the mall has become an entertainment mecca, a major employer, and a premier vacation destination…the mall is also a workplace...[and] is becoming not only a genuine multi-use facility, but a completely self-contained homotopia of suburban life” (Kohn, 75.). Along with these changes to the American mall, comes the blurring of the line between what used to be considered public space in the historical market, and what is now private space owned and operated by mall corporations, shops, and residents. The Domain is an excellent example of this blurred line.
First off is the shopping mall’s built environment. The Domain of Austin is a mixed-use space in North Austin, full of outdoor shopping, restaurant, and residential spaces. As any Austinite who has visited the shopping area over the past few years can tell, the mall has been expanding in both shopping and residential space. The smaller stores are anchored by department stores like Neiman Marcus, Macy’s and Dillard’s. What is different about the Domain is that instead of the stores opening up to indoor hallways of sorts, they open up to the outdoor street. There are many different areas of congregation around the mall. The most prominent area I noticed was in the original section of the mall, between Neiman and Macys. There is a good sized children’s play area with animals to climb on and benches for mom and dad to sit on while they watch their children. Right next door are the Starbucks/Steeping Room restaurants, where the adults gather to eat and socialize, or sit and work on their lunch break. Currently there are plans already started to build a new Whole Foods, more stores, parks, and residential areas. The mall appears to be turning into an “Edge City.”
The opening of the shops into the street poses the biggest issue of private vs. public space. Historically, streets are considered public and free for all kinds of peoples to congregate, converse, and perform various activities. Is it public because it is a public mall, or is it private because the mall is owned by the Simon Property Group? Historically speaking, one could congregate on the sidewalks and streets and exercise their rights of public space. However, it is owned by a private entity, an entity with their set of rules. What about the security guards that never fail to make their appearance while you are shopping at the mall at any given point of the day? What about the private residential living apartments above and around the shops? This mall has taken both the private and the public and mixed them.
Second point I would like to address, are the cultural aspects of the shopping area that The Domain uses to market itself. As Austinites know, the city is very much pro-environment and walking and biking around town is valued. The Domain’s main webpage showcases their mindset of “keeping with the Austin spirit, [with] pedestrian-friendly, open-air lifestyle center” (The Domain).  They also say that their shopping mall is “so attractive because it combines the pleasures of public life with the safety and familiarity of the private realm” (Kohn, 75). Which also brings us back to the question of whether the mall is public or private?
Third: Is this space democratic? Is it truly for the public --- all the public, everybody? These are tough questions to answer. While people from all economic backgrounds are welcome to use and enjoy the public space, from my observations, that does not exactly happen equally, in a democratic way. During my observations, I noticed that the mall is somewhat set up with an upper-scale side and a lower-scale side. The upper-scale side consists of the Neiman Marcus anchored end, with Burberry, Tiffany, Michael Kors, Louis Vuitton, Juicy, and Coach, along with nice restaurants like McCormick & Schmick’s and Flemings. The Macy’s anchored end consists of less expensive stores like Forever21. That side of the mall continues with more affordable stores like Charming Charlie and restaurants like Subway. I noticed that towards the Neiman end, the demographics of the shoppers were more established people in their 30s and upward, in professional attire (likely coming from work on the weekday), and the women with designer handbags...or college girls with their dad’s credit card. In the middle with the kids’ play area were the families with smaller children, taking a break to play. Toward the Macy’s end and beyond were more of the teenagers and others without the high-end designer handbags. While there is a bit of diversity between the higher and lower ends of the mall, there still seemed to be an economic “cap” on the shoppers there. There were certainly no signs of the low-income families or homeless. While there are less expensive stores like Forever21, some still cannot afford the cheapest of the Domain. Being able to afford to physically get to the mall could be difficult for some people as well, thus furthering their exclusion from the area. It is not too accessible by walking from other areas, however there are a couple of bus stops nearby.
All in all, what I have gathered is that The Domain is a public (mall, restaurants, etc.) and private space (residential) with private rules. Their goal was to create a public, outdoor, urban space, but with the “comforts” of a private area…and they have succeeded. Over the next years we will see expansions to the shopping area, both in public and residential space.
Kohn, Margaret. “Brave New Neighborhoods.”

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