Mark Strassmann set the stage for his featured story on a recent episode of CBS Sunday Morning with these words: "America's love affair with shopping malls began in 1956, when the nation's first fully-enclosed mall, Southdale, opened its doors outside Minneapolis."
As simple and straightforward as that statement appears, it was actually a momentous decision by a World War II military hero who made that marriage of people and products one that was able to celebrate a Golden Anniversary before the relationship began to crumble.
The hero was the wildly popular former General, Dwight David Eisenhower , who, as President signed the Interstate Highway Act which set into motion what was necessary to construct 54,000 miles of connective concrete arteries. These provided the pathways to allow the country's burgeoning population to move from largely rural roots to become firmly planted in the cityscapes and their suburban offshoots.
As Strassman added "but, also, what it afforded was the ability to construct regional shopping malls, and they just exploded across the country."
From 1956 until 2005, nearly 2000 malls were built that also attracted millions of international visitors each year. "It was the Golden Age of shopping which lasted until a new Golden Age came along, courtesy of the Internet. All of a sudden, consumers now had every single retail store throughout the world a key tap away."
The title of Strassman's CBS segment was " A Dying Breed: The American Shopping Mall." The underlying question was whether , since no new shopping mall has been built since 2006, was their any hope for reversing the trend?
On the outskirts of Atlanta, the reporter found a glimmer of hope...a formerly dying mall that was thriving. As he succinctly wrote: " where some saw financial ruin, Jose Legaspi saw opportunity."
In 2005, Senor Legaspi transformed a shopping center that was on life support into Plaza Fiesta, which he specifically designed to meet the needs of his area's exploding Hispanic population. His own exhaustive market research confirmed what a cursory examination had shown: that the Hispanic population of Atlanta had tripled in just one decade.
What was the missing link that could bring many of that demographic to Plaza Fiesta? As Legaspi told Strassman "...the extended family concept is very, very key to the culture of the Hispanic community. There was not a place where the families could gather. And shopping doesn't just mean shoes and clothing or eating at a restaurant; it's also a place where they can listen to music, sit down, relax, and spend some time with the family."
In year's gone by "...every Sunday...just remember 1950's America...people would come to the town square and they would listen to the band on the bandstand, right? Well, what we do every weekend is we have music...mariachi music...and people come and sit down, relax, and listen.It's more than one-stop shopping, it's a one-stop experience."
Legaspi added , in response to the question of what dying malls needed to have a second life, "...they needed a life affirming experience that you can't get online."
With six regional malls being transformed with mariachi performances a vital center piece, it appears as though Legaspi has found the key to saving at least some of the endangered regional shopping hubs.
While researching this unlikely renaissance, we came upon an interview on a Houston, TX television station about Mariachi Imperial de America, possibly the model for a vital missing link in the musical chain that can save these mercantile magnets. This multi generational group, under the direction of Jose Longoria, has had the opportunity to perform at the Mexican Embassy in Beijing, China and the U. S. Embassies in Armenia, Albania, and Macedonia. They took the time and effort to learn the mariachi classics (and local favorites) in the lingua francas of the countries where they played. English, Mandarin, Armenian and Hindi are just four of the languages in which they perform (as well as Spanish).
When audiences of diverse ethnicities can unite in the joy of listening to… and witnessing performances by …musicians who care about reaching all the people in their audience, everyone (including the malls tenants) will definitely benefit.
Can mariachi save the malls? So far, so good!