Thursday, January 7, 2010

the anti-malls of orange county

I'm currently on the West Coast, so posts this week will be about something I've seen or done while I'm out there. JUTP will be back in full force next Monday, January 11.

Orange Thing
The inside of The Lab Anti-Mall in Costa Mesa, California.

It's unfortunate that the TV show The O.C. came to define Orange County, because the suburban domain south of Los Angeles has a lot more going for it than big houses and sleeping around. With nearly three million residents, Orange County boasts a branch of the University of California, a symphony hall, and even a hockey team. If it were a single city, it would be third-largest in the country, right behind Los Angeles. So it's not surprising that there's a push to give it the culture of a city as well.

In 1993, Shaheen Sadeghi renovated an abandoned factory in Costa Mesa, one of the county's many "edge cities," into The Lab "Anti-Mall". Having spent years working in clothing design at surf and skate companies, Sadeghi saw The Lab as a rebuke to mainstream retail. Its handful of stores target hip, sophisticated people uninterested in the posh sterility of massive shopping palaces like South Coast Plaza up the street.

Fountain, The Lab
A fountain made from recycled barrels fronts an informal seating area at The Lab.

In this video, Sadeghi's wife (and marketing director) Linda explains the center's focus on creating art and community. The Lab's newsstand stocks artsy magazines like Dwell, but there's also an open-air courtyard with tables and couches for reading them or just hanging out. Works by artists in the small but growing local scene are hung in a gallery called The Artery, and the center frequently hosts open-mike nights and workshops. To that end, The Lab's been more successful as "a cultural center" than a business venture, to the chagrin of those in the retail industry.

Across the street, the Sadeghis have added a companion "anti-mall" with an outdoorsy focus, dubbed The Camp. Here you'll find the decks to go with the skate shoes you bought at The Lab. (Of course, there is a "No Skateboarding" sign right out front.) The two combined form what is now called "SoBeCa," or "South on Bristol [Street] Entertainment, Culture and Arts." The city of Costa Mesa has even developed a master plan for the neighborhood around them.

Walkway, The Camp
Inside The Camp, The Lab's outdoors-focused counterpart.

While the set-up of The Lab and The Camp inevitably draws self-styled alternakids, you'll see a fairly wide age range at the two shopping centers. It's because they give people a "third place" for socializing. It also allows visitors to consume and produce a locally-grown culture without the explicit pressure to spend money.

The Lab and The Camp are public spaces owned by private entities. How many developers would be so generous as to let people sit in the courtyard of their mall for hours without buying anything? The Sadeghis and an increasing number of retail analysts think that if you give someone a place to call their own, they'll eventually open their wallets. And for the past seventeen years at The Lab, they have.

These shopping centers were high on my list of things to see in Southern California, if only because they represent the future of suburbia. Inner cities can't continue draw the bohemians or immigrants who flocked to them when the rents are so high that they either move back home or to Langley Park. So suburban places have to find ways to bring people together, whether for commerce, for culture, or for creating. And I wouldn't be surprised if places like The Lab soon appeared for the artists of Montgomery County.

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