Alfeo’s La Pizzeria
In the previous review, Pizza Club advanced a Strident Theory about the function of nostalgia in landscapes of pizza enjoyment. Feeling spiritually depleted by our own righteousness, we fled the slick post-historical nihilism of Remington’s curated foodcourt and went to the mall. Advocates of authentic urban lifestyles tend to deride the mall as a hollow simulacrum of town-square-plus-Parisian-arcade, and celebrate the death of so many suburban malls as sign of improved moral hygiene. Now that we’ve been to R-house, however, we feel that those who live in hollow simulacra should not cast stones. Moreover, Baltimore City is a contender for the birthplace of the modern mall, by way of an urban shopping center whose designer once claimed it was “built for the pedestrian, not the automobile.” Our collective pop culture memory of the mall and what it signifies doesn’t encompass its multiple conflicting lives, nor its possibilities. Here’s Rem Koolhaas admonishing us to “break out of the windless present of the postmodern back into real historical time, and a history made by human beings.” Let us do so on the wings of mall pizza.
|The mall c. 1958|
|Same mall, new cladding|
Opened in 1956, Baltimore’s Mondawmin Mall is among the earliest examples of the retail development formula that would define shopping for the rest of the 20th century: at anchor in a sea of parking, facing inward towards a burbling fountain and gestural town square, the American main street folded in on itself. It was enclosed and upgraded in the 60s with escalators, air conditioning, and palm trees to conjure that weightless, weather-less realm, the space station or biodome. Even in the pre-digital era, the mall anticipated virtual reality as a fantastical place of refuge when the earth and human bodies are no longer viable, but business must go on – a Cold War origin for today’s dematerialized worlds of online accumulation.
Retro malls may look charming in old photos; they also look a lot like space-age escape pods for white people fleeing to the suburbs. Mondawmin was a prototype for these pods, but also an exception to their logic: located amid historic rowhouses three miles from downtown, it served city residents with retail, a grocery store, a post office, and community meeting space. Aggressive blockbusting had already flipped the surrounding neighborhoods from white to black by the mid-1950s. "We expected to cater to colored patrons of the area when we built it," said mall manager Jerome McDermott in 1958. He spoke to a reporter from the Afro-American newspaper as activists picketed the aptly-named White Coffee Pot, the only Mondawmin tenant that refused to serve black customers. The Coffee Pot, hiding behind “company policy” in the midst of a thriving integrated shopping center, became a focal point for civil rights sit-ins until the city passed an ordinance banning segregated public accommodations in 1962.
The Baltimore Afro-American, Sept. 27, 1958
Subjective data from our long-ago mall Pizza Club meeting is here combined with more recent memories and impressions. Pizza Club finds the pizzaspaces of Mondawmin to be inviting and robust, though we’d like to see more public seating. Mondawmin evolved out of the strip mall, whose restaurants run their own dining rooms, thus it lacks that signature of 1980s and 90s suburban malls, the food court. However, customers today purchase food from multiple different vendors, and vendors now sell from outward-facing counters or kiosks. Thus, food-court-style seating would be a welcome adaptation to the times. We get the sense that mall managers view this kind of hanging out as a security concern. However, we believe that the premise of the millennial food hall, which charges a hefty premium for the experience of sitting in a “communal” space that evokes customers’ childhood mall nostalgia, should apply in the actual mall as well.
|Mama Lucia, plain and Sicilian|
We found their crust to be crunchier, with a cracker-like bottom, and with a lighter more delicate crumb. Indeed, the tenderness of the crust, so unexpected in a realm of hard edges, was quite supurb. No misbegotten efforts at rustic leopard spots, just an even lightly-browned finish. The cheese was standard bodega blend; the parmesan shaker is there to be used. Pizza Club obtained cheese, sausage-pepperoni, and olive-and-green pepper slices. These toppings were not necessarily worth bothering with; the significance of Alfeo’s is that they have a good mastery of their oven, producing concentric rings of crust, sauce, and cheese, properly browned and bubbly, with slight border caramelization, and you can get this at the mall. The specialty pies, though not as baroque as Mama Lucia’s, offer meals of various genres (taco, cheesesteak, spaghetti) chopped up and heaped on a pizza. We note that both mall pizza parlors are amply-staffed to feed lunch crowds in a timely manner.
|Alfeo's. Pictured: toppings|
Decent by-the-slice pizza is rare in Baltimore, only possible in places like Mondawmin where the crossing paths of shoppers, commuters, workers, and local residents assure a continuous churn of fresh pies. The front counter of Alfeo's faces the mall's original centerpiece, a spiral staircase arcing down from the second level, suspended above a round tiled fountain. A 2004 renovation demolished the narrow floating catwalk that extended over the fountain from the base of the stairs, replacing it with a wedge-shaped platform draped over the water like a lopsided pizza slice. Though probably an abomination against modernist architecture, the new design makes the space appear inviting and communal. Yet the platform opens on to nothing – no tables and chairs to follow through on the welcoming gesture. People sit on the rim of the fountain, on top of the inscribed warnings, “Please do not sit.”
|The future is floating stairs|
“The formless proliferates, the formal withers," observes Rem Koolhaas, mourning the obsolescence of the Rousian God-like planner, in whose absence fanciful cladding, spandrels, and space frames proliferate with no “rules, regulations, [or] recourse”. Pizza Club is inclined to say, “good riddance, give us the mutant, hybrid, ungovernable rhizome”; we’re not crying over spilt modernism at the mall. However, underpinning Koolhaas’s aesthetic complaint lie the “promiscuous and oppressive” imperatives of capitalism that run rampant without a benevolent planner to keep them in check -- imperatives which generate little enduring local value and leave a trail of waste and exploitation. Observe mall management trying to minimize the “risk” that the presence of human bodies entails, moving them through as quickly as possible while still capturing their dollars, dredging fleetingly-tossed pennies out of the fountain.
|No the future is this wedge|
The mall is a hybrid form, with contradictory values ascribed to it by communities, developers, and corporations. Many have suggested it as a model organism for Western-style capitalist democracy. “In the end," writes photographer Sze Tsung Leong,"there will be little else for us to do but shop,” suggesting that our pretenses of participatory self-governance inevitably crumble into the gravitational field of global capital.
Many Baltimoreans celebrate the longevity of Mondawmin Mall and its status as one of the most profitable malls in the country. We are proud to be good citizens of the urban market while suburban locations find themselves on deadmalls.com. Yet despite our exemplary patterns of consumption and generous taxpayer-funded corporate subsidies, we have no actual vote in the republic of shopping, nor do its rulers owe us any transparency. Target, the mall's anchor store since 2008, pulled out last year with no explanation, leaving residents who relied on the chain for essential household items to infer that its location in a black, low income neighborhood somehow outweighed its reliably high sales. At least the community could protest the White Coffee Pot's overt segregation in the 1950s; Target, unable to pick and choose its clientele, fled in the middle of the night.
Mondawmin’s ability to thrive with or without a major anchor will be a boon to the portfolio of Brookfield Property Partners, a global commercial management firm that purchased mall operator General Growth Properties in March. Perhaps the new management will anoint the abandoned Target, and the rest of the mallscape, with Koolhaas's litany of "re-'s": "restore, rearrange, reassemble, revamp, renovate, revise, recover, redesign,” return on investment. Perhaps they’ll want to “transcend” the mall’s association with the 2015 uprising, which began with police cordoning students in the parking lot as they tried to commute home from school. While creating a glossy simulacrum might be better for PR, such erasure isn’t possible here; people don’t forget. Mondawmin has an actual history, not as a sealed escape pod but as a permeable node in the city’s fabric, and that’s what has kept it alive.
If the mall is a space for the modest exercise of the only freedom that remains to us -- shopping -- at least it has good pizza. However, Pizza Club believes there are other things we can do in the end, to prevent the end or to hasten it, as your preferences dictate. Politics, conflict, and memory are antithetical to shopping, yet paradoxically built into the mall. In the case of the White Coffee Pot, Maryland’s supreme court ruled that the Mondawmin plaza was a free-speech zone where “property rights must give way to human and Constitutional rights,” and activists slowly worked through the existing system to end legal segregation. Alternately, there was that time someone rammed their truck into the side of the building and made off with an entire ATM. Pizza Club doesn’t want to debate you about whether robbing a bank is political, but we recall a recent subprime mortgage crisis when that bank scorched our neighborhood without facing any consequences. We hope someone handed the driver a slice of pizza as he peeled away.
Mama Lucia: ⅜ slices
Alfeo’s La Pizzeria: ⅝ slices
Mall architectural history courtesy of Jackson Gilman-Forlini
Photographs by Graham Coreil-Allen