Public Behavior in Private Spaces
Did you spend a lot of time at malls this holiday season? I did recently, although I didn’t go into very many stores to shop. Malls are great places to go when it’s cold and you want to get out of the house and get some exercise. While visiting my family this holiday season, nearly three feet of snow fell and local malls were just about the only place we could go to take a walk without freezing.
There’s a big difference between taking a walk outside and walking in a mall. Malls tend to be more crowded and walking space can be limited, so we often found ourselves walking in circles around some of the bigger department stores. Free samples in the food court can defeat the whole purpose of walking, too.
The most significant difference between walking in a mall and walking outside is that malls are private spaces. Seemingly anyone can enter a mall, walk around and use the restroom if necessary. But unlike a truly public place, management has the right to ask people to leave for a variety of reasons that might seem vague and could be arbitrarily determined.
One upscale shopping center had its list of rules posted by the restroom, which I have posted below. (I decided to remove any identifying information, since as you can see in rule #4 any unauthorized photography is forbidden there).
Some of the “codes of conduct” seem like common sense rules that only the most disruptive of shoppers would violate: vandalism, drag racing, and fighting seem like good things to ban, and they are illegal anyway.
But take a look at some of the others—they might be open to a variety of interpretations. “All guests are to be treated as you would like to be treated….standing, walking or sitting in areas that might cause an inconvenience to others, is not permitted” according to rule #1. Wearing clothes not deemed to be “appropriate attire” violates rule #5. Sitting in your car for too long violates rule #7.
If you have ever been someplace where people violated these expectations, you know it can be uncomfortable when others are rude and disruptive. But my guess is that these rules might be bent for someone who drops a load of money at one of the pricey shops. Someone carrying a dog in their bag violates rule #9, yet I have seen exceptions made for people who appear to be wealthy and thus possibly good customers. As Sally Raskoff blogged about, here in Los Angeles dogs are most common in malls with upscale clientele. I’ve been barked at in dressing rooms on more than one occasion.
Several rules focus specifically on young people. “Minors must not continually congregate in groups larger than four” according to rule #2. Rule #3 follows: “To enforce the rules applicable to minors, we require all patrons on our property to carry appropriate identification with proof of age.” Finally, rule #8 states that, “All persons under the age of 18 are expected to be in school during school hours and may be asked to leave the property.”
Teens in public are routinely seen as potential problems, and yet for many teens the only “public” spaces they can visit are actually privately owned. Sociologist Christine L. Williams observed this while conducting ethnographic research in toy stores. In her book Inside Toyland: Working, Shopping, and Social Inequality, she notes that poor kids of color were routinely asked to leave stores even if they weren’t causing any trouble.
I spent a lot of time in malls before I earned my driver’s license; in fact, one of the malls I recently walked in was the local hangout for my peers. I had no proof of age until I was 16 (except a birth certificate, which my parents kept in a secure file at home), and by that time was mobile enough that hanging out at the mall didn’t appeal to me anymore. It wouldn’t have been unusual for me to be there during “school hours” either. Sometimes my friends and I went there for lunch, and my senior year I arranged my schedule to have the last period free so I could work in a store at the mall part time.
But since my friends and I contributed to the economic activity of the mall, no one ever asked us to leave, even if our group grew large or we were loud. If we didn’t have spending money, our presence might have been considered more troubling. And consider that many retail stores tend to hire white, affluent teens, as 60 Minutes detailed in this story on Abercrombie and Fitch. This means that the mall rules can be applied disproportionately to lower income teens of color, who might have few other places to congregate.
The rule that might have the most important implication is rule #4. “Soliciting, picketing, rallying…distributing literature…soliciting signatures or personal information of any kind…is prohibited without the express written consent of the owner.” Essentially this rule outlaws any political activity in the mall, a rule that is common in shopping areas nationwide.
As historian Lizabeth Cohen points out in A Consumers' Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America, after World War II Americans’ gathering spaces became increasingly privatized, leaving fewer places for protests or political activity. Cohen concludes that during the second half of the twentieth century, Americans came to see themselves predominantly as consumers, not citizens. While the Internet has helped create a new space for organizing to some degree, with fewer public gathering places, it becomes more challenging for traditional organizing and creating community awareness of a particular issue.
Thinking of my recent walks in the malls I visited, I admit noisy protests or picket lines would have made me want to leave. And yet Cohen’s point isn’t that people should cause disturbances in malls and shopping areas, but rather that our public spaces have become commercialized--so much so that it might be difficult to think of public places that are truly public anymore. Especially in a snowstorm.