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Considering CityWalk: A Brief History of the Mall and Artificial Neighborhoods

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A few months ago, I met one of the electricians assigned to CityWalk at Universal Studios. He worked the graveyard shift, which meant patrolling the mall after hours, fixing everything from frayed wiring to replacing busted lightbulbs. It had been years since I last visited CityWalk and I imagined the electrician on his nightly rounds, a lone custodian in a neon-lit ghost town.1 It felt like something out of a Twilight Zone episode and for whatever reason, compelled me to make a daylight sojourn to the mall.2


With all due respect to The Citadel outlets, CityWalk is far more of a citadel than any other shopping property in L.A. The complex, now 19 years old, sits on high, lofty and remote at the top of Universal City. You can't even see CityWalk from the base of Universal Hollywood Drive; foolish walkers - such as myself - must first ascend the Drive's steep, 13º incline, then choose one of several huge parking lots/structures to thread through to reach the CityWalk complex. City planning typically centralizes services to improve accessibility for pedestrians. Only in L.A. would one of our pioneering experiments in faux-urban space be so difficult to get to on foot.

This was, of course, partially by design. Even if CityWalk was meant to mimic the hustle and bustle of a crowded city street, its planners didn't want it to come with all the attendant unruliness that can sometimes mark actual urban life (least of all barely a year after the L.A. Riots). Under all its colorful facades, CityWalk is still a mall and like all malls, the complex is hyper-surveilled, including both a private security force and a built-in L.A. County sheriff's substation. All that and a Pink's Hot Dog Stand.3

MCA Development, who along with "experience architecture" designer Jon Jerde, built CityWalk, saw the complex as an "idealized reality" of city living, according to company head Lawrence Spungin. Non-idealized reality? Venice Beach, of which Spungin complained, "there's somebody on every street corner with a 'Work for Food' sign. It's not fun anymore." Instead, the original CityWalk brought the beach with it, importing a bank of sand, but leaving the panhandlers and bong merchants back by Windward Ave. 4

Critics have often accused CityWalk of being an amusement park version of Los Angeles, which seems like a perfectly fair observation given that it's owned by the same company that owns the amusement park next door. Moreover, one of the most influential of CityWalk's predecessors lies 36 miles southeast: Disneyland's Main Street. As a child, Main Street always fascinated me, partially because of its old-timey feel but also for its intimacy. This too was by design: Main Street was built using "forced perspective," which is to say, it was built in familiar proportions, but at a smaller scale, thus making the block feel smaller than it actually is. CityWalk uses forced perspective too, but in the other direction: the signage is built at a larger scale, thus making the viewer feel smaller in the face of such "looming" buildings.


In strolling CityWalk, the signage is, indeed, enormous but oft-times more comical than imposing. That's Jerde's touch. Before he worked on CityWalk, he was best known for having rehabbed San Diego's Horton Plaza Park, all huge, tall angles and day-glo colors as well as the massive Mall of America in Minnesota, best known for having an amusement park inside the mall.5

If CityWalk is an amusement park concept of sorts, its fantasy is still grounded in a longing for a particular kind of real city space: dense, busy and vibrant. It's almost a tacit acknowledgement that as much as L.A. wants to hold itself as better than San Francisco or New York, there's still an envy for the classic, compact urban design of our rivals. In essence, CityWalk is one of the clearest, most literal examples of what L.A. historian Norman Klein describes as the "social imaginary," i.e. "a collective memory of an event or place that never occurred, but is built anyway." 6

These kinds of complexities and contradictions run deep enough to reach back to Lankershim. For example, it's absurd - even perverse - to consider that Los Angeles, one of the largest metropolises in the country, would need private developers, on private land, to build a private enterprise complex meant to be a facsimile of...public space. However, L.A. also doesn't run over with public space; purportedly less than 5% of city land, at the time, was set aside for such purpose. Moreover, as an example of privatized "public" space, malls are an L.A. tradition, dating at least back to 1947 with the opening of the Broadway-Crenshaw Center, a nationally-recognized prototype of the modern mall and whose size and parking accommodations were considered innovative at the time. 7


One of CityWalk's main innovations was something that the Broadway-Crenshaw Center took for granted: an "open-air" design. For those who grew up in L.A. in the 1980s or earlier, your mall memory would likely have been dominated by the golden age of indoor complexes: the Beverly Center, Glendale Galleria, Del Almo Fashion Center, et. al. The indoor mall had been the ubiquitous style for shopping centers since the early 1950s, especially in conjunction with the first wave of suburban development where indoor malls not only brought consumer convenience and climatic shelter to middle class/white flight families, but were also a boon for municipal tax revenue. However, indoor malls, with their plain, monolithic exteriors, also became code for big box homogeneity, a point brilliantly lampooned in George Romero's "Dawn of the Dead" (1978), where a Pennsylvania mall became both sanctuary and slaughterhouse for survivors trying to avoid a zombie attack.

CityWalk, in many ways, is still organized much like an indoor mall - all its shops face across an interior corridor while the exterior walls are featureless. Like many indoor malls, it still maintains an atrium, a curious feature for an outdoor space.8 However, in taking the roof off and through Jerde's "experience architecture" aesthetic, CityWalk transformed the sense of what a mall could look and feel like. In other words: less like a mall.

During the rest of the 1990s, consumer-oriented experience architecture found its greatest partner, not in malls, but in casinos, especially in Las Vegas where "idealized reality" simulacrums practically defined that city by decade's end. Most obviously, the New York, New York casino, opened in 1997, riffed on many of the same urban design ideas as CityWalk, including masterful use of forced perspective, and two years later, both the Venetian and Paris Las Vegas casinos followed suit, albeit with an Old World flair. 9


Back in Los Angeles, CityWalk's open-air design would eventually become the new-norm for mall developments. As a teen, I used to frequently bike past the old Plaza Pasadena, a rather generic indoor mall from the 1980s. It was torn down and turned into the Paseo Colorado, a more upscale, open-air mall in 2001. Even more telling has been the fate of Santa Monica Place, an indoor mall originally designed by Frank Gehry in 1980. In 2010, it underwent a massive redesign to increase its open-air space, no doubt influenced by the success of the neighboring 3rd. St. Promenade, which has been an open-air shopping success since at least the 1960s.10

However, the true, upstart heir to CityWalk was undoubtedly Rick Caruso's The Grove, which opened in 2002. As much as CityWalk may have riffed off of Disneyland's Main Street, The Grove was a more perfect progeny, eschewing the intimidating, suffocating scale of CityWalk and instead, aiming for intimacy and elegance. It too, is still a mall, but even I have to admit, its seductiveness is remarkable. My family rarely visits but when we do, my wife - no fan to mall culture - often remarks, "I want to live here." By 2008, she could have, when Caruso opened the Americana at the Brand which offers half-million dollar condos atop its stores. Why anyone would need to live within walk-up distance of a Juicy Couture, I'm unsure, but the Americana's residential/commercial integration still makes more sense compared to CityWalk, an urban block where people visit but no one lives.11


Mall evolution aside, the "need" for a space like CityWalk also seems far less relevant today. Over the last 20 years, L.A. has modestly improved its relationship to "public" urban space, with more thought given to accessibility, convenience and social contact.12 Think the L.A. Live development, downtown Culver City, Old Town Pasadena or 4th St. in Long Beach. Let's not get carried away though: as sneering San Franciscans, Portlandians or New Yorkers will gladly remind us, L.A. still isn't a "walking city" by any means. Its impossible to imagine it ever fully will be. But in 2012, CityWalk doesn't feel like an idealized reality of anything but itself. It's not the city-as-we-wish-it-would-be, if ever it was. It's an artifact of a conceit about what "the city" is supposed to be like, one whose potency has long vanished, just like its faux beach.

I ended my visit to CityWalk by passing the Raiders store.13 When the shopping center opened, the team was still playing at the L.A. Coliseum, but within a year, they decamped back to Oakland. Even though I grew up with the Raiders playing in L.A., the store still felt out of place for a moment, i.e. "why is there a Bay Area sports team outlet here?"14 But geographic displacement aside, I also realized that amongst all these outsized facades to urban artifice, here was an remnant of L.A.'s actual past, one that many fans are still nostalgic for. I lingered for a moment then walked the few steps to the back exit, the imagined cityscape neatly stacked behind me while the rest of Los Angeles sprawled out in front, in all its awkward, unruly beauty.



1 The truth is, of course, that CityWalk likely has an entire corp of people who work after-hours to clean and prep it for the next day.

2 Out of curiosity, I went to look through old Twilight Zone episodes and found "Where Is Everybody?", in whicha disoriented man wanders around a city block, completely devoid of any other people. I looked to see where the episode was shot: it was on set at Universal Studios, literally next door to CityWalk.

3 Yet no Hot Dog On a Stick, a surprising absence given that 1) it was founded in Santa Monica and 2) in every other mall you'll find in L.A.

4 The beach no longer exists. Perhaps merchants realized that customers tracking sand around was less than ideal.

5 Interestingly, before CityWalk, Jerde also redesigned Fashion Island in Newport Beach but his design there is far more toned down and elegant than his other projects of the era.

6 In his book, The History of Forgetting: Los Angeles and the Erasure of Memory, Klein described CityWalk as a site that "deodorizes the image of Los Angeles," which - for all its mixed metaphors - is still delightfully evocative.

7 The Broadway-Crenshaw Center is now better known as the Baldwin Hills Crenshaw Plaza. Ironically, the Center was originally open-air but in 1987, was rebuilt into an indoor structure, bringing it in line with the dominant mall design of the era. Were it to be built today it's almost certain the Plaza, like all new malls, would instead use an open-air approach.

8 The mall atrium is a common feature to hundreds of malls nationally and though they're a distinctive architectural feature, they almost never serve the purpose for which they were originally included: as a public meeting place, similar to the function that atriums served in European cities. Not surprisingly, the key architect, literally and figuratively, of indoor malls was Victor Gruen, a WWII-era Jewish refugee from Vienna who wanted his shopping centers to capture the feel of Old World arcades, hence, the intricate atriums.

9 Paris Las Vegas has one of the better interior designs of any casino I've seen. Kovacs and Associates painted the ceilings in a shade that might be described as "perpetual twilight," giving the space a soft, cozy feel that, along with faux cobblestone flooring and other nods to classic Parisian architecture help mask the other obvious casino details (i.e. gaming tables, slot machines, etc.).

10 The space now called the 3rd St. Promenade was originally built in the 1960s around the model of a downtown pedestrian mall, which had its own moment of vogue popularity until they were displaced by... suburban indoor malls. Just looking at the relationship between Santa Monica Place and the 3rd St. Promenade gives one a mini-window into the constantly cycling history of mall design.

11 In all fairness, CityWalk was originally part of a much larger, multi-billion dollar development project that included residential housing but those more ambitious plans were eventually scrapped.

12 It must be said that these changes haven't just come through city planning. They've also been made possible through increased surveillance and aggressive policing as well as the pre-Recession housing bubble which accelerated gentrification and displaced older, working class families. Parts of L.A. have acquired more local sustainability, but in many of those cases, "the locals" are mostly newer arrivals, eager for a taste of functional city living. That didn't always exist for previous residents, many of whom are now exiled to the exurbs of Antelope Valley or the Inland Empire where the indoor shopping centers of yore are now shuttered.

13 Like most malls, there are multiple entrances to CityWalk. The "end" I refer to is the mall's southeastern entrance.

14 To put this in perspective, most of the teens who visit CityWalk wouldn't have been born during the Raiders' L.A. era.

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