This afternoon we went to the Great Mall, a… well, large… mall in Milpitas. (Or somewhere in the part of the Bay Area that one passes when driving between Palo Alto and Berkeley, and which I always classify as Bits You See Out the Window But Don’t Need to Know Anything About.) It was a fascinating experience.

For one thing, I had my children with me, and being put in a mall with two kids under 5 means that you pay attention to all kinds of things that you normally don’t even see. For example, it turns out that there are tremendous number of gumball machines and people selling helium balloons. I know this because Daniel took a great interest in the former, and Elizabeth was fairly obsessed with the latter. Both would have been visual background noise had I been there by myself.

But it was also fascinating because it was a weird slice of California’s present and future, and had some strange mixes of conventional mall culture and something else. The Great Mall isn’t a high-end retail space: I think it was a factory in a previous life, and it has a lot of outlets, a few stores whose unsold inventory is bound for the grey market– those stores in city centers that have lots of flourescent light and garish hand-drawn signs.

There were also some stores that seemed both weird and familiar. They were a total mystery, and it kept bothering me, even as I was distracted with fetching the children out of tents that were set up in the sporting goods shop. I finally figured it out, in a toy store that was selling everything from doll’s clothes to battery-powered motorbikes. It was the kind of store that I had seen in cities in Latin America and Asia, only normally they’re about five feed across and ten feet deep, and absolutely CRAMMED FULL of stuff. If you’ve seen these kinds of small shops, you know exactly what kind of a visual riot it can be; but blown up to American mall-sized proportions, it just seems cheap and a little pathetic.

As Robert Venturi, Jane Jacobs, and any number of urban and shopping theorists will tell you, there are times when crowded is good: it adds vibrancy, color, and makes cheap toys manufactured in Taiwan and China seem a little cooler. But the whole experience just becomes kind of dissipated when translated into American retail space.

Another thing that was really striking was that there were virtually no white people there. The crowd was middle class, but almost completely South and Pacific Asian, and Hispanic. It was an exaggerated version of the minority-majority California of the future. This diversity was picked up in the food court, which had a McDonalds and Subway, but also places (I’m not sure if they can be called “restaurants” when they face a food court) selling Thai, Indian, Japanese, Chinese, Cajun, Italian, and Mongolian food. (I know, I know. There’s Mongolian fast food? And it’s FRANCHISED?)