Tag Archives: Consumer Culture

High-End Malls, Dead Malls: Consumption in Surfers Paradise

I just recently holidayed in Surfers Paradise, Queensland (Australia) and observed many interesting sites of consumption. Although my current research uses Melbourne, Victoria (Australia) as it’s case study, mostly due to Melburnian’s widespread fixation on luxury consumption, Australia’s Gold Coast could have also been an excellent site. What Surfers Paradise has which Melbourne does not is ‘dead malls’. In the USA, a mall is deemed ‘dead’ when less than 30% of its retail space is untenanted (so, a mall 70% full of tenants is declared ‘dead’ and closed). However, it seems apparent that Australian retail has no such ruling. Piazza on the Boulevard is a shopping mall/arcade on Surfers Paradise Boulevard, in a relatively prime retailing position. From the details on a plaque, I was able to ascertain that the 1980s mall had a face-lift in 2002. However, I would estimate that this mall reversed the US ‘dead mall’ ruling: about 30% of its retail space was tenanted and 70% was vacant. In this mall, ‘for lease’ signs were more common than shop signs! At 6pm, when other malls in Surfers Paradise were a-buzz with activity, this mall was completely, and eerily, empty. Few shops even bothered to open. The lighting was on, the doors open, the escalators working…but there were no customers, or even people taking short-cuts. I felt like I was in one of those post-apocalyptic horror films…2015-03-10 19.09.51

The entrance, a prime space in an arcade, was messy as it was being used for storage (see above). Although it was fairly clean, the mall was not immaculate, as most of the highly used malls such as Chevron Renaissance were (more on that later). And although it has been updated in 2002, the decor did not quite reflect this. It felt like the aesthetic amendments were minimal and cheaply done. It also felt like too much of the dated 1980s character had been retained. Malls boomed in the 1980s – as did Surfers Paradise as a holiday destination. Piazza on the Boulevard is a weird ghost of the boom, somewhat maintained but mostly disregarded, shabby and forgotten – despite its top location on the main strip of town. It’s street frontage is small and does not scream for attention. The sliding glass doors, possibly added to an older arcade opening, almost look like an entrance to a mundane old office building. I only found this place on my third day, despite having walked past it perhaps ten times or more, during mornings, afternoons and evenings.

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I have taken the pictures at night, but it was the same during the day. Empty, spacious, lonely. My footsteps echoed loudly as I walked through the place, snapping pictures and musing on how the Piazza may have died. My postmortem was the only attention being given to this mall.

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I have made this image ridiculously immense so you can begin to get the feeling that the mall had. The musty air was rich with frustration, sadness and toil. I thought about what I would do if I owned it, much like ‘well-meaning’ jerks will tell a ‘fat’ girl that she has a pretty face. Across the street from the Piazza, stands the Chevron Renaissance. If The Chevron Renaissance was human, it would be Charlize Theron: polished, old-style classical beauty, almost unmarked by age and stunningly beautiful. Designed in 1999 and finished in 2003, the Chevron is of a similar age to the Piazza’s renovations. Could the Piazza have dolled herself up as much as she could afford to so she wouldn’t look so dowdy against – and possibly lose tenants and customers to – Chevron?

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Like other phenomena that I observed in Surfers Paradise, this in some ways is a materialisation of stratification. The Piazza has a website that presents itself as alive and well, with its landing page showing images of its external body. The shops facing the Boulevard and Elkhorn Avenue were tenanted by everyday businesses such as pharmacies and franchised eateries such as Subway, suggesting a degree of security, perhaps even life, for the Piazza. At the end of Elkhorn Avenue closer to the beach, high-end luxury-branded fashion shops such as Hermes and Louis Vuitton have recently cropped up, sandwiching Piazza between Chevron and a luxury strip. Like everyday women next to Charlize Theron (importantly; without the access to the cultural capital that being a superstar entails), the Piazza looks startlingly ordinary against the showy Chevron Renaissance and even worse when considered against the tasteful beige row of pretty new luxury shops (see below):

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Whether we can start eulogizing Piazza just yet remains to be seen. It is likely that she is next in line for a Pretty Woman moment in the form of some serious gentrification. Last time I holidayed in Surfers Paradise was 1991, so I was surprised by some of the changes. Although I intend to come back sooner this time, I am sure that my next trip will show me a new side of Piazza, and a new Surfers Paradise. The city was buzzing with life at all hours, just like how I remember it in the 1980s and 1990s. But faces had changed – some locals complained of an alleged ‘Asian takeover’ but I see this as an opportunity for Surfers Paradise to grow into a more cosmopolitan city. Surfers Paradise is, therefore, an interesting case for consumption – but also, it provides us with some deeper thoughts about modernity and our current culture. Australia can attest that the process of maturity is a difficult process and current high-tech, and high-stratified, norms complicate this further. The agency of the individual is stressed; yet the binding problems of structure often get left out of media or social interactions about class mobility and change. As with most things in life, there is always so much more than what meets the eye….

Postmodern Social Fragmentation and The Universality of Experience

The title is contradictory, no? How can we, as contemporary individuals, experience a baffling medley of social roles whilst juggling our often alienating structural traits whilst being able to say “me too?”

I guess it is this problem I have been grappling with for the last six months. As a consumer culture sociologist, I try to comprehend how we can experience an object of material culture, or a commercial consumption space, individually. Due to what often feels like cultural homogeneity, this challenges both my critical senses and my personal feeling that mass commodification tends to flatten out the social. Is there room for resistance within commodity culture? And if we find sites where individuals and groups have deviated from the status-quo, how can we discuss them without forgetting a social actor’s location within existing social relations and relatively deterministic economic structures?

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The main case study in my thesis research are the heritage arcades that greatly contribute to Melbourne’s reputation as a high-cultural postmodern consumer spectacle. The Hub, The Royal and The Block Arcade are relatively unique in Australia, and coming from some US tourists I have approached, they are also unique to ‘new world’ consumer culture. By this, I mean that the heritage arcades here in Melbourne can be seen as a preserved site of colonialism, an old world Eurocentric implantation into a new country, that sought to bring the feelings of the old country to the distant geographical otherworld that Australia represented. The harsh climate, the uncanny fauna and flora and the youthful cities confronted migrants in the nineteenth century. However, Melbourne’s 1880s economic boom saw it’s international reputation as a brash new city full of luxury and romance flourish. Melbourne remains famous for it’s ornate cast iron and Victorian buildings alongside cutting edge postmodern architecture and clean shiny streets. Politically-focused planning movements such as the 1980s ‘Marvelous Melbourne’ campaign and the 1990s drive to retain Melbourne’s charm alongside new large-scale urban developments function as forerunners to current norms of Melburnian pride of place. Current challenges, such as sustainability and infrastructural maintenance pose not-so-new issues, but public engagement and the presence of world class universities in the CBD provides Melbourne with a diverse blueprint for future action.

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The political movements above suggest a top-down event, however, it was individuals, and their passion, that implemented the blueprints and have maintained, on a sociocultural scale, the importance of Melbourne’s urban beauty to its residents and tourists. Statistics on the Melbourne City Council’s website see a daily visiting population in Melbourne of almost 900,000 people. This includes workers, students and other individuals commuting to the city for leisure or other means. My rudimentary observations of the arcades confirms that the historical urban spaces are among the most popular sites for consumption. Shopping is a popular pastime for Melburnians and tourists alike – and the boutique experience that the arcades (and laneways) provide the Melbourne shopper are unique in Australia. My research will also look at other Western cities (Las Vegas, London, Sydney and Toronto) to investigate whether this phenomenon can be found elsewhere. I suspect that each city will provide me with an unique example of what boutique consumerism means. Below, is an image of Sydney’s The Strand Arcade, which is similar to Melbourne’s main three historical arcades:

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The above certainly does not begin to address my initial problem of social fragmentation. This is why I have decided upon using postmodern social theory as a lens to discuss how diverse experience can be, whilst, strangely, remaining relatively similar and common to most. The implantation of familiar global symbols (such as the ‘golden arches’ that signify the presence of a McDonalds) are mixed within heritage spaces, at times openly contradicting other messages and moods. Even absurdities such as the ‘McCafe’ within the McDonalds complicate the matter further! Here, Baudrillard’s treatise of simulacra and simulation begins to give us the toolkit to work towards analyzing how urban strangeness molds into a mosaic of everyday experience and widescale social acceptance. If we can begin to accept that society itself is a simulation of the real, a ‘map that precedes territory’, then we can work towards a critical, yet realistic, theory of contemporary consumerism.