Friday, March 03, 2006 | Municipal Itinerant

The single most important feature of La Jolla’s University Towne Center mall arches over the insurmountable boulevard to the north, extending the welcome of its commerce-laden cement lanes to pedestrians from the clusters of gleaming corporate towers across La Jolla Village drive.

Did I say most important feature? I meant the second-most important – parking lots generally better pedestrian luxuries on the essential scale. The bridges that connect UTC with the surrounding office complexes may not be quite as crucial in San Diego as a parking lot, but they make a vital contribution to the mall’s success as a quasi-public space within the rather foot-phobic jungle of the area.

It speaks volumes about the American/Californian/San Diegan political consciousness that we go to exclusive, private, commercial spaces to associate politically or recreate innocently. But in a seaside village like La Jolla, what choice do we really have?

UTC sits at the center of a major crossroads. There’s a public park nearby, but it’s not quite as central as the mall, it doesn’t sell food and it doesn’t have a lush, tree-shaded, central plaza with plenty of sun-warmed chairs gathered around a hypnotizing fountain.

Oh yeah – it also doesn’t have well-placed pedestrian bridges. Around noon the faucet on the offices across the street opens, spilling hundreds of sharply dressed professionals who head, favorite office friends in tow, straight for the frequent food options and fake dolphins of the mall.

From where the bridge path begins inside the tower complex, it completes a perfectly straight walk to the very center of the food court. One glance around the fountain plaza at lunchtime proves the success of this seemingly minor design feature: clusters of high-heels and collared dress shirts overrun the plaza’s rust-colored chairs and tables. The howls of hands-free cell-phone conversations echo through the narrow rows of boutiques.

The only groups with equivalent weekday presence are the La Jolla moms, who can dominate the free-for-an-hour office types by their duration of stays, if not sheer number. With strollers in tow, they use the mall as a public park for their tots – some of whom joyfully upset the fragile order by climbing trees and ledges, crunching the common purple flower boxes.

Which helps point out the oddities of the private-mall-as-public-space.

As the center of a bustling newer neighborhood where thousands of spendy, employed-types live and work, UTC’s popularity is transparent. But as a site for civic participation and noncommercial recreation, UTC tells an important story about modern American life. Consumption is recreation – how much of the time you’re not working do you spend consuming television, food, books, the Internet, or anything else that people makes other people money?

So of course we recreate (and therefore prognosticate) in the places at which we consume, especially when those places are posh “shopping towns” in developer-planned suburban cities like the UTC area of La Jolla. But weird things happen to a society that uses this hyper-commercial, exactingly planned environment like a public forum.

As a link in the worldwide chain of Westfield shopping centers, UTC is a crucial territory of dissemination for both the company and partner advertisers. Cheers one blurb on the corporate Web site: “Westfield reaches qualified consumers with money to spend and the desire to buy. The marketing professionals at Westfield will partner with you to create strategic, targeted promotions that dramatically outperform traditional advertising. Dollar for dollar, you’ll attract more people – and the right kind of people – and make more money. And isn’t that what it’s all about?”

Apparently it is – advertisements are so strategically placed inside UTC that you must constantly remind yourself that you are seeing them. (Forgetting is the only potential escape.) Promotional posters for Matthew McConaghey’s “Failure to Launch” film hang from every faux gaslamp pole or otherwise vertical structure, congealing with inane frequency in certain corners. Well-placed Coke dispensers are no longer soda machines, but “Westfield Thirst Quenchers” – the difference only a clean housing for the box that doubles as a billboard.

Small foot icons on the cement underfoot point out Westfield’s available services. Road-size billboards at crucial intersections in the hallway display the airbrushed mugs of local TV news anchors with unflattering accuracy.

With the ads arranged carefully around innocent enticements like the plaza, the frequent flowerboxes and the convenient pedestrian bridges, UTC manages to sell to you every second without you even feeling it. Its perfection as a public space is deliberate, not accidental: while we feel completely comfortable in its idealized environment, the mall works every inch it can to penetrate our product-hungry subconscious.

It would be excessively simplistic to argue that all this advertising is “bad” – or even changeable – though it’s probably unhealthy for the powerful segments of our society to live their lives between the office and the mall. Instead, we should try to recognize the degree to which we conduct our public and personal lives inside someone else’s business, and try to understand how this shapes our social and political perspective.

In their bright, Westfield-red polo shirts, the mall employees sweep clutter and empty trash invisibly next to designer chocolate stores and posters advertising a baby beauty pageant. Their obscurity reveals the biggest danger of the private mall when it becomes a crucial public environment: we only see what it wants us to.

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