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Mall Rats

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You either love or hate The Aristocrats. The movie records numerous retellings of, and much commentary on, a single joke: 

 

 

A guy walks into a talent office and says, "You have to see this act. This group of people gets up on stage and does the most vile, disgusting and unspeakable things possible."   

 

"Really?" replies the talent agent. "What are they called?"

 

"The Aristocrats!"

 

See, the humor is that performers who do grotesque things shouldn't be named something that sounds proper and dignified. It's much funnier when told with an unflinchingly scatological emphasis by George Carlin. Then again, some people think it's just obscene.

 

Which brings us to Pittsburgh Mills. It's really a shopping center and mall, but you could tell it as a joke.

 

A guy walks into a talent agent and says, "You've gotta go shop at this place. It's a big collection of national chains and big-box retailers in the middle of nowhere."

 

"Really?" says the talent agent. "What's it called?"

 

"Pittsburgh Mills!"

 

Like Lemon Pledge or compassionate conservatism, Pittsburgh Mills is really neither. Located in Frazer, it's 12 or so miles from town out Route 28. I was about to cut it some slack for the "Mills" part of the name, because one of the cooperating developers is the Arlington, Va.-based Mills Corporation. So maybe it's not just rubbing salt into a de-industrialized wound. But then it went and called the outdoor part, with its agglomeration (still under construction) of Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and Lowe's, the "Village." Because apparently it takes a village to offer quality merchandise at discount prices. Orwellian language is part of the culture, or lack of it.

But the most irksome aspect (so far) of Pittsburgh Mills is the way in which the Galleria, the enclosed shopping-mall part, pimps out (in the old, bad way) a watered-down, plasticky pastiche of images and names from actual Pittsburgh in order to promote the business of faceless national chains in an asphalt desert.

 

Karie Boyer, director of marketing for Pittsburgh Mills, explained that image-making for the Galleria started with the mall's design team. They studied the area to look at "what makes Pittsburgh Pittsburgh." 

 

Things like neighborhoods, cultural institutions, bridges and architecture.

 

So the Galleria is divided into five sections, called "neighborhoods," numbered one through five. Not that anyone lives in them, of course. They are distinguished by different decorative treatments, though. One neighborhood has benches and hanging, oversized Christmas-ornament things that are abstractions of identifiable bridges, such as the Smithfield Street Bridge. Another neighborhood has a flat plastic cutouts that are basically simplified stencils of Downtown architecture. Then there are the signs whose illuminated cutout letters name a bevy of favorite local institutions including Point Park University, Phipps Conservatory and the Carnegie Museum of Art.

 

Another spokesperson cautioned that Pittsburgh Mills doesn't actually have a contractual arrangement with, say, the Phipps Conservatory. But it's happy to use the name. It's stunningly hypocritical that an enterprise that follows most of its tenant names with a registered-trademark circled "r" is using the names of Pittsburgh's cultural institutions for its own promotional purposes without asking.

 

In fairness, Pittsburgh Mills did look at local organizations in efforts to lease space. For example, it approached the Carnegie Museums about an off-site version of their museum stores. But according to Mark Leach, general manager of retail stores for Carnegie Museums, the offer came "just a few weeks before they were going to open," and the involved parties "couldn't work out the numbers." Too little, too late. 

In the end, the actual business of the Galleria has almost nothing to do with the city that it aims to reconstitute. The dribbles of local flavor in actual retail come from the Pittsburgh Brewery store, which quite sadly stocks regalia only -- no beer. And of course, Pirates and Steelers stores and merchandise figure prominently. But not a single cultural institution named on the signs is represented by leased space. And no true quality of the city comes through in the mall, whose real purpose is to prevent people from going to the city anyway.

 

So doesn't Boyer think it's kind of funny that Pittsburgh Mills is not a Mill and not actually in Pittsburgh?

 

"No. Not really."

 

Maybe not. Maybe it's just obscene.

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