Are Knoxville's shopping malls the only fragment of urban living we have left?

by Joe Tarr

When the doors of West Town Mall are unlocked at 6:30 a.m., they are already there.

They are almost all over 40, and they are not here to shop. They strut briskly around the inside of the mall, always staying on the right side, covering every wing, alley, and aisle of the place. Some walk in pairs, others listen to music through headphones as they march along in their Nike and Reebok running shoes. Stevie Wonder, Anne Murray, and Bing Crosby sing carols through the loudspeakers.

It is somewhat chilling to see, because the mall is so different now, so quiet, so eerie. The only activity is the walkers parading methodically along. You can't help but recall the horror movie, Dawn of the Dead, in which zombies roam an abandoned mall.

These people are much friendlier than flesh-eating monsters, however.

"There's one gentleman who makes candy and gives it to everyone," says Mary Lifford, a gray-haired woman who seems to never stop smiling as she walks with Charlene Landry, rounding the front of Dillard's. A man holding a cup of coffee raises the gate of a nearby shoe store, steps inside and then pulls it down again. "We call him the candyman. And there's the sweetest old lady, she's a retired school teacher. And another lady, every time you see her, she tells you her age."

The pair have been walking at West Town for more than a year, circling through it twice each excursion. They walk here because the temperature is always perfect, there are no hills or ditches, they can window shop, and, as Landry jokes, "We don't have to worry about our hair." Mainly, they love the camaraderie.

"We don't know names, but you know everybody. If you see 'em out somewhere, you say, 'Hey, you're a walker!' " says Landry, who carries a small dumbbell in each hand, swinging them slightly as she walks.

They strut past snowflakes dangling from the ceiling, underneath wreaths that float like halos under skylights, and ivy-covered deer figures.

As the morning winds on, West Town's stores slowly come to life. Managers arrange displays behind their locked gates. In the Garden Cafe, fast food restaurants are open and people eat breakfast or chat over a cup of coffee. One young woman quietly reads a leather-bound bible.

Malls are an American institution, epitomizing this country's consumerism, which so often seems lurking everywhere. But watch the daily rituals of West Town or Knoxville Center waking, or look closely at the symbols here—which are somehow both ironic and straightforward—and you realize that malls are not simply about shopping. People come here for something else—to be near people perhaps, or to disappear in the crowd, or to stake out an identity or to feel a part of something.

If you look hard enough, you're bound to see something of yourself at the mall. But you may not always like what you see.


Developers began building shopping malls in the 1950s. Consumers did not immediately flock to the newfangled shopping meccas because they were too accustomed shopping in city centers. Mall owners even held carnivals and wrestling matches in their parking lots to attract them. But soon enough, shoppers were hooked. Today, there are more than 34,000 malls and shopping plazas in this country.

Plans for West Town Mall were announced in 1965, and after a series of false starts, construction began in 1970. Built for around $12 million, the mall opened in August 1972. Anchored by Miller's, J.C. Penney and Proffitt's department stores, the new mall included a total of 75 stores and about 600,000 square feet of retail space.

Mary Crawley was one of the original tenants at the new mall, opening her own Merle Norman make-up shop. She's still in the same location, although there have been renovations over the years. Standing in her store, filled with mirrors and the scent of perfume, Crawley says people didn't know how successful the mall would be back then.

"This was a big open field, a farmhouse that had cattle," she says. "People were not that familiar with malls, and I wasn't either. In the beginning, people didn't know what a mall was. It seemed like a tremendously large space. But today, it's even larger."

Costing $50 million to build, East Towne Mall (oddly renamed Knoxville Center last year) opened in 1984 and temporarily became the prime shopping center in the Knoxville region. After a couple multi-million dollar expansions and renovations, West Town has regained that status with its slightly more upper-crust stores.

Today, West Town Mall has 1,354,917 feet of retail space, including five department stores and about 130 shops and restaurants. Knoxville Center has 1,151,393 feet of space. Together, the two malls make up 32 percent of the city's shopping plaza space. Each year, 10 to 15 million people will visit West Town, according to Deenie Deeringer, the mall's general manager. There are 7,000 to 8,000 spaces for these shoppers to park in, including 600 in a new parking garage.

In the old days of malls, many stores were locally owned, Crawley says. Today, most are owned by national companies. And today, people go to the mall for more than just to shop.

"People like to watch people. You also have people that bring children in strollers. The children are entertained and they really identify with each other. It's entertainment."


At one time, malls were easy to navigate, but increasingly, they are designed and decorated to get shoppers lost. You can never really see far ahead of you, and maps can be difficult to find. But it is not an unpleasant atmosphere. A bridge stretches over a phony duck pond. Underneath the skylights, fig, olive, and palm trees grow, immaculately pruned to keep them the proper height. Sun shines through the skylights, into your eyes.

University of Tennessee architecture professor Mark Schimmenti says mall developers have created a space that in some ways feels public, but really isn't. You cannot step beyond the rigid social mores.

"You're a citizen without rights. You can't scream about Christ or scream about abortion. You're on private property. But there's a mental construct that you're in a public place," Schimmenti says.

Schimmenti says what troubles him about malls is that they increase dependency on cars, and that they pull people away from the truly public places and activities.

When you add up all the parking area and building space, it equals almost exactly what you have in downtown Knoxville. In many ways, the malls are attempting to take over the function of downtowns as well, adopting their iconography. At West Town, you can see this in stores like Street Corner News (which, with a handful of papers in a small rack by the door, bears little resemblance to those gritty urban newsstands that offer papers from around the country, as well as racks of porno mags), and in a sign announcing the coming next year of "Main Street Market," a cafeteria that will have a menu changing daily (just like the old S&W Cafeteria). At the Baptist Hospital office at Knoxville Center, senior citizens gather one night to hear acoustic music. The city even has an office at Knoxville Center, where residents can get information, pay fines, or get permits. It is as though, having helped kill downtown areas, malls are selling the nostalgia of them back to us.

Built on two levels, Knoxville Center incorporates little bits of East Tennessee as attractions. In one section, you can walk over a map of the University of Tennessee, with each building and road labeled. Around the ledge of a skylight are flies and trout and a quote about fly fishing. There are pictures of Appalachian life and East Tennessee notables like Cas Walker. The food court is underneath a large bubble, with a hole in the top that creates a draft—an attempt to make it feel like you're outside.

But no matter how hard they try, Schimmenti doubts the mall will ever be the same as a downtown or town square.

"Everything you see is controlled. The color, the lighting, the size of the signs, the texture, the facade—all of it is completely controlled," says Schimmenti. "There's not one spontaneous thing happening. If you see someone performing, it's because they're being paid to perform."

Inside the new Regal Funscape at West Town, the symbols get even more bizarre and spooky. Riding the escalator up from the mall, you pass by wooden cutouts of downtown Knoxville's landmarks: the Sunsphere, the old Courthouse. At the top, you step into a dim garden alcove with wooden park benches and trees—the kind of place you'd imagine Donna Reed and Jimmy Stewart sneaking away to on some moonlit night of It's A Wonderful Life. Only the trees are wooden branches with plastic leaves glued to them, and there is an ATM machine in the corner.

Inside, Funscape is a kind of Coney Island fantasy with cutouts of New York skyscrapers and a suspension bridge towering around the sides. Swing era jazz blares through the loudspeakers. There are electronic bumper cars, a virtual reality roller coaster, aisles of shooting games, and driving video games that shake and shimmy. In one section there are hybrid carnivalesque video games, which you can win prize tickets on. Take these tickets to a counter in the center, where you can cash them in for pencils, teddy bears, rubber balls and, if you are persistent or talented enough, a boom box. A sign above the prizes reads, REDEMPTION.


Michael Kearl, a sociology professor at Trinity University in San Antonio, Texas, has studied malls extensively and offers a unique perspective on them. Malls have become the temples and churches of Americans, the places they go to worship their guiding light—consumerism.

"The entire dependency of the American game plan is on consumption," Kearl says. "If we stop consuming, the wheels would slow down real fast."

In malls, retailers have created a place where shoppers can feed this system. Kearl's theory is not simply some self-righteous rant against greedy capitalists and shallow Americans. It is a way of explaining how people seek meaning in the larger world around them, and how they have dealt with changes in that world.

Until industrialization, most work was invested with a sense of meaning, Kearl argues. The crafts people learned enabled them to produce concrete things that could be passed down through generations. Religion could help men find transcendence through work. "With industrialization, the individual worker became a component of a process," Kearl says. At the same time, industrialization (along with unions and labor laws) increased workers' paychecks and leisure time, leading them to look for meaning in other places.

"When one thinks about it, it is within the mall that the consumer experiences that...sense of feeling connected with the broader social orders," Kearl writes in an essay on the subject. "Malls have all the attributes of traditional town centers and have become one of the most effective forums for reaching people. They are one of the few places where one even sees one's fellow community members. And, considering the spectrum of international product lines, the mall is one of the few places where one comes in direct contact with the world system."

Kearl sees religious metaphors everywhere he looks in a mall. Both churches and malls incorporate grand, larger-than-life spaces. Saturdays are the holy days, when families make shopping excursions. The various types of malls and plazas—outlet, discount, middle and upper-class—are analogous to Christians denominations like Southern Baptist, Episcopalian, and Mormon. As they once went to churches, today people go to the malls to escape life's troubles, or celebrate a promotion or family event—perhaps buying a new suit or a VCR. Buying gifts for others has become the genuine way to build bonds with family members and friends. Focus groups and polls serve as the new voice of god, setting the standard and dictating style. Retail clerks work as priests, greeting shoppers at the door and guiding them through their purchases.

In the days of old, communities used to pull their resources to build glorious churches filled with sculptures, stained glass, and murals—a tribute to their deity. Today, they build malls.

The metaphor has its limitations, Kearl admits. People buy underwear because they need underwear, not because they're seeking transcendence. "It is, though, the realization of one's own efforts and one's own values. It is the net result of, the meaning given to, an episodic punctuation to the sum of one's suffering and boredom," he writes.


For many journalists, one of the most dreaded tasks is the man-on-the-street interview: approaching a complete stranger and in 30 seconds trying to convince him that you are not some weirdo, just a stupid reporter looking for quotes and opinions. This process is even more difficult in a mall. Mall etiquette frowns on that sort of interaction. You simply don't talk to strangers (unless you're a clerk). It is an attraction of these places—you come here to flow with the masses without being hassled by beggars, street preachers, or swindlers.

Thoughtful comments about malls are hard to come by. Granted, the questions asked are fairly stupid and trite. But it seems malls are such a mundane part of the American landscape that their existence and effects are not worth the time to think about. A mall is just a mall.

It is her second day of work and Linda Loy is here at 8:45 a.m., well before the official opening of 10 a.m. A former Levi's worker, Loy unwraps the large canopy around the T-shirt booth where she works and unlocks the cash register. She is ready for business well before her competitors and relaxes, chatting with mall walkers and others who work here.

"I like the layout, the people, the stores. It's a comfortable, happy atmosphere. Everybody says hello to you, even if you're just walking by and not going into their stores," Loy says.

One afternoon, Jim Strange takes a break from reading a mystery novel, Total Control, to tell me he likes the "many stores, all the sales." Strange says he comes to the mall about once a week, and though he likes it here, he regrets that malls helped kill downtowns as the center of life.

At Knoxville Center, Steven Ronguillo says he comes to the mall to play video games and watch movies. Sitting in the food court, he is reading a magazine. "It's a safe non-threatening environment to meet people, without having to worry about anything," he says. He visits once or twice a month.

"It's a good mall, it really is," Stephen Dunn says of West Town. He is smoking a cigarette outside, taking a break from volunteering with the Angel Tree gift program. Because he lives in Loudon City, he doesn't come here often. But, he adds, "They have whatever you're looking for."

Deeringer, who manages West Town, says what makes a mall distinctive is its stores. Malls like West Town are always mutating, he says. For years, malls have tried to offer more entertainment for their customers, and some are even including a mix of office space and retail—that more traditional downtown blend.

West Town still emphasizes shopping, he says, but you don't have to buy things to go there.

"The mall is a place for people. We have mall walkers who come here every morning. We have people who are here more than I am. And that's good. We encourage that," Deeringer says.


A simpler explanation might be that malls are one of the few places you can be near a lot of other people, a place to enjoy the excitement of the holidays.

Mothers stroll arm-and-arm with their daughters, laughing. In the food court, teenagers giggle as they eye up strangers. A blonde in a blue dress annoyingly scolds her boyfriend inside Camelot Music: "Look, I'd buy you something if you'd just tell me what you want." A clerk at Sears yells to a co-worker to come check out a quilting show on a TV in the electronics department.

Children whine. The clerks smile and look happy, despite what must be an emotionally draining and aggravating job. They repeat over and over again, "How are you today, sir? If there's anything you need, just let me know."

For all the developer's attempts to create some unique (or maybe un-unique) atmosphere, it's always the people who make these places interesting.

His fingernails are painted black and he is wearing a black Salvation Army T-shirt, black leather jacket, and black pants. A chain dangles against his leg, attached at both ends to a belt loop. Fastened tightly around his neck is a thin, black leather strap. His dark brown hair is short, and looks styled with gel.

Swaggering down the mall, he stops at a phone booth, picks up a receiver and plunks in some change. He smacks the phone with the palm of his hand, and then dials a number. A few seconds later, he slams it down, and then leans against a column, waiting.

After a minute, the phone rings. He speaks on it a few seconds, then hangs up.

Middle-aged couples in white V-neck sweaters carrying packages from Proffitt's and Lerner New York glare at him through the corners of their eyes. Younger people smirk.

"Usually I dress a lot more outrageous," says the 20-year-old, whose name is Jake Marlow. "It's kind of a casual day for me today."

Marlow lives in Roan County and works at DialAmerica Marketing and the Lava Lounge. After watching him for a few minutes, I expected him to sound jaded and cynical, but he does not. He says he comes to West Town two or three times a week, to visit friends who work here, shop, play video games and hangout.

"It's got its ups and downs. I come here and eat every Tuesday after I get paid. They've got good food in the Garden Cafe," he says. As we talk, he thumps the toe and heel of his boot into the floor, shrugs his shoulders and looks around.

Despite his getup, he says he is never hassled here—not by the security guards or other shoppers. "You get the occasional frat boys laughing," he says. "I get occasional stares, but it doesn't really bother me."

Lounging on a bench near the food court, two young men from Durham are impressed with West Town. Friends of a UT basketball player, they are in town for a game and killing some time before tip-off.

"It has the same stores [as other malls], it just has more and better things. There's more little venders in the middle. I like the Regal Funscape," says Malik X. "I don't see that many black people, but I guess that's just a sign of the times."

His friend, Jafar Mohammad, says that malls lack something that downtowns have. "They don't have stuff like bars and city attractions and parks. There's not much opportunity to socialize."

Another friend walks over and says, "C'mon, man, let's get out of here."


Just as the mall yawns to life in the morning, it drowsily slips away at night. Even after the official closing time of 9:30 p.m., many stores remain open and shoppers continue to shop, albeit a little more urgently. One by one, the stores begin to pull their metal gates down over their entrances.

Vacuums hum inside as the carpets are cleaned, and mops are sloshed around tiles. But no one urges anyone to leave. People sit on benches, or grab some food at the Garden Cafe.

Next to Proffitt's there is a simple door, above which is the universal "exit" sign. Step through it and the made-up controlled environment dissolves.

The floor is concrete, the walls are cinder block up to about eye level, and then they turn into drywall, the covering of which is torn in spots, painted white in others. The hallway zigzags, moving past the rear entrances of J. Riggings, Lane Bryant. Their doors are marked "Employees Only."

Walking through this hallway is like stepping behind the curtain of the Wizard of Oz, to find that there is no magic or wizard, just a scared old man dithering away.

You're not quite sure where it is leading, if you're allowed back here. But the hallway finally ends at a door. You push it open and the cool night air hits you and hear the hum of traffic, and there are noises that don't seem to belong.