Free, seedy Lexington St. tops orderly, stifling mall


February 01, 1993|By JACQUES KELLY

It finally dawned on me why shopping malls don't hold much appeal. These shopping bazaars exert an unnatural control that grates against a free spirit.

I realized the difference one day last week on a trip to what's left of Baltimore's old and depressed downtown shopping district along Lexington Street.

The district suffers miserably from an advanced case of mercantile disease. Its middle-class constituency has moved on and deserted it; the locally owned department stores have evaporated. You'll be hit upon on every other corner by a wino in search of "money for food."

But at no time did I get a sense of the controlled and forced, unnatural environment that even the most laid-back enclosed malls exert.

In a mall, you have to listen to the music that hangs overhead like an all-present cloud. The more snooty ones (often in the Washington suburbs) torture you with some tinkly Mozart or something vaguely Baroque. The more average-Joe places employ some copyright-free generic music that's worse than a trip to the dentist's office.

But you can't get away from this aural surround sound. I think they

beam it through the potted plants.

On Lexington Street, by comparison, they play music, too. I think it's illegal, but some store selling electronic beepers and stereo speakers the size of Carroll County was blasting out Little Eva singing "Everybody's doing the locomotion," but her serenade carried only so far. You could walk around the Park Avenue corner and be rid of Little Eva.

In a mall, the acoustical dominators would not let you off so easy. They have yet another speaker discreetly hidden in the floor tiles.

Another category of mall white noise I detest is the ubiquitous mall waterfall. Some years ago architects, designers and plumbers devised these insipid appliances that have become universal in the terribly tasteful suburban malls.

These water jets tinkle and bubble and gurgle so cunningly. Aren't these just another form of water torture?

The mall air smell is a noxious environmental hazard. It could be the popcorn oil or cookies/brownies baking or the cotton candy machines. These odors aren't so bad in one place, but the mall's internal breathing machines recirculate these olfactory cliches around and around. There have been times when I've exited a mall and felt as if my clothes needed dry cleaning to get out the Oriental food smell.

The mall czars want you to believe their creation is as warm and cozy as your grandmother's kitchen. But the next time I want my grandmother's kitchen, I'll go knock on her back door.

There are smells on a city street, too. The scent of peanuts drifts off the nut shop at Lexington and Liberty streets. But just walk a few feet away from it and the cashew cloud is gone.

The Paca Street side of Lexington Market smells like a fish house. Once again, just walk a few steps away and no steakfish will assault your nostrils.

On the city street you have a choice: You can walk away from it.

And you can really walk, too, out in the open air, where there's sky, pigeons, smog, police sirens and car backfires. But it's the real thing, not perfumed air and the 17 Strings playing the Carpenters' greatest hits.

Nearly every city street offers those junky, fly-by-night stores that would send a mall leasing agent into a six-month Sheppard-Pratt stay. The stores sell dubiously priced, gaudy merchandise that is so outrageous it makes you laugh. There's something funny about a "$29 solid gold, diamond encrusted watch" being hawked on Lexington; there is something not funny about a $3.59 ice cream cone at a suburban mall.

Malls are not big on all-out financial competition. On a city street, a guy does battle with the one next door on the issue of price. A mall stresses controlled uniformity, especially price.

So, when visiting these enclosed shopping centers, I have learned to look past the hot-house plants, the water cascades, the food courts and other so-called amenities, always keeping an eye out for a mall's most necessary accessory, the exit sign.

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