An exact definition of what is and is not a mall is hard to put into words. Just like pornography. Also like pornography, “I know it when I see it”. New York City does have shopping malls, but they aren’t like the ones you find in the wide open spaces of the U.S. proper.
Malls aside, New York City is famous for offering world class shopping. I’m not a world-class shopper. I enjoy opening up a box that came to my door, rather than making the effort to trek off downtown to elbow the mobs at Century 21. Shopping as an activity is not on my list of pastimes, with a few browsing exceptions (I’m kind of a sucker for a really good housewares store).
Let’s not forget where I grew up, though: Southern Cal. Shopping malls were my native habitat, and I know a mall when I see one. These examples will help.
South Street Seaport
The South Street Seaport was an amazing sight in the 1980s when Pier 17 was in full swing, right beside the original port and museum. In earlier years, the South Street Seaport was a vibrant marketplace where fishing boat captains met and haggled with purchasers for restaurants and markets, and the obligatory Wise Guys who ran the docks. Fish for the city were bought and sold there.
During the mall years, stretching roughly from the 1980s through the closure of Pier 17 in 2013, the Seaport was arguably the first salvo in the war to win the NYC waterfront for the people. When it was new, it was a favorite drinking and lunching venue for Wall Street support personnel. For years, it descended into sad and touristy theme-park mall-dom.
Now, it’s been completely renovated in an effort to slingshot it back into your average New Yorker’s “what should we do this summer” list.
Is it a mall? I’d call it a mall in recovery.
Eataly is an overpriced “Italian market” that can be found in identical form from New York to Dubai with shops and a restaurant. In New York, it’s catty-corner to the Flatiron Building. You can get the same exotic cheese and dried meats in Eataly that you can buy on
Arthur Avenue for half the price, where they taste better. Then, have yourself a nice plate of pasta with fish for lunch, and pay the same price that you should be paying for a Kobe steak. Top it off with some too-sweet crepes from the “Nutella” bar, and you’re done.
Is it a mall? Yes. Don’t let those weathered wooden floors fool you. It’s a shopping mall masquerading as an Italian marketplace.
The Chelsea Market is also quite pricy, but there’s a difference. It’s got great, high quality-I-can’t-believe-I’m-saying-the-word-artisanal products and food. Local merchants can rent stalls there, unlike in Eataly which smacks of corporate decision makers who are creating a
“shopping experience” from top to bottom. People who live in Chelsea actually GO to the Chelsea market. Yes, it can get crowded and touristy, but like Seattle’s Pike Place, it’s a real marketplace that almost everyone visits at some point.
Is it a mall? No. It’s a market.
The Oculus, aka Westfield World Trade Center
This much-hated but distinctive money pit features a clean, minimalist décor. It’s built out of white marble, using white accents and marble design elements. It’s so overdesigned that some safety features have been overlooked, causing one death already. But aesthetically, it’s flawless – if you like that kind of thing. And the shops! Apple, designer handbags, high-end
jewelry, more designer handbags, shaving supplies for those with hairy faces and money to burn, and a central plaza featuring a one-man information booth marooned in a sea of marble like a cartoon desert island. There’s nary a table, bench, chair or perch of any kind to mar the unrelentingly smooth-and-light experience that one expects to find in Heaven, if Heaven had an Apple store. But…is it a mall?
Is it a mall? No. It’s a redesigned department store. Isidor Straus would have been right at home.
Bronx Terminal Market
The Bronx Terminal Market offers 4 gritty floors of shopping. You’ve got an Applebee’s. You’ve got Bed-Bath-n-Beyond. You’ve got every mall store you can shake a stick at, including a Chuck E Cheese’s, right there beside the Major Deegan. And it’s all just a hop away from the heart of the Bronx, the Grand Concourse.
Is it a mall? Kinda. It’s got all the trappings and all the stores of a mall, but if you had pulled a 12-year-old me from my idea of paradise, a mid-century mall in San Diego named “Fashion Valley” (still around, by the way), and transported me to the Bronx Terminal, I would not have had any idea it was supposed to be a shopping mall. That’s because, in spirit and layout, it’s much closer to a New York phenomenon: the shopping building. A New York City shopping building is basically a New York street fair with a roof. It’s spread over several floors of one building, and can have the look and feel of a bazaar. A good example is Pearl River Mart, and the Diamond District has them, too. The Bronx Terminal Market just took a New York shopping building, and slotted in a bunch of mall stores. It’s a hybrid.
The Shops at Columbus Circle
Back in the day, Columbus Circle was a statue of you-know-who on a pillar, surrounded by boarded up and crumbling structures. Chris is still on his pillar (maybe not for long though), but now he is surrounded by shiny new stores, expensive restaurants, and a Whole Foods
Market in the basement. If he wanted a Rolex followed by some Tall Food, he could climb right down, waltz across Broadway, flip off the Trump Hotel, and shop to his heart’s content.
Is it a mall? It’s more like a cruise ship, if a cruise ship replaced the casino with a Whole Foods.
Rock Center was built during the depression years (finished 1939) in a beautiful art deco style that has come to symbolize much of New York, and ensure our city doesn’t look like some of those generic cities with all those blue glass towers (Toronto, I’m lookin’ at you). The idea behind Rockefeller Center was that it was to be center, not only of commerce, but of the arts. It was to be a city within a city. The project also employed 40,000 workers during the worst years of the depression.
Did it succeed? It did. There’s theater (well, there’s Radio City Music Hall), the famous skating rink, bars with a view, offices, shops, and television studios. Go downstairs, and the subway spills right into it. You can walk for blocks underground, buying sushi, flowers, and Kleenex as you go. Get your shoes shined, too.
Is it a mall? No. Downstairs, it’s an arcade. Upstairs, it’s a temple to the taste, philanthropy, and wealth of one man – John D. Rockefeller. Frankly, I like the place. It even got its own TV series named after it a few years back.