By On the occasion of our 20th anniversary
By Gustavo Arellano
By R. Scott Moxley
By Alfonso Delgado
By Courtney Hamilton
By Joel Beers
By Peter Maguire
By Charles Lam
It's a big wheel, and from the top you not only see the swirls and minarets of the mall, but if you look south you can see the dry grass of Quail Hill, one of the open tracts of land that Bren has set aside not to be developed. Bren gets much props for doing this with more than 53,000 acres that he owns at the Irvine Ranch, and it seems every year some environmental group wants to give him an award. Of course, much of the land is unsalable land, some of it absolute, breakneck, sheer cliff that he donates to the county for tax breaks. The land that couldbe used by, say, a family with kids, he fences off like Quail Hill, which is bordered by Strawberry Farms Golf Club and rapid building on all other sides—Quail Meadows, with homes and apartments, is going up right now. No one is allowed on Quail Hill. What would they do, have a picnic? Run around? Laugh? And anyone who so much as breaches the fence is astonished to find a guard materialize like a space alien and tell them, Grapes of Wrath-like, to move on.
Given those circumstances, a lot of kids beat it to the Spectrum Center. You can see them, too, from the top of the Ferris wheel. There they are, sitting in their parents' cars on the San Diego Freeway, which runs in front of the mall, sullenly waiting to be off-loaded, these teens and tweens in search of something to do, who will then sullenly stalk and then sullenly wait to be loaded up again. To find them we must get off the wheel and head into the heart of the Spectrum. We do this by any of a number of ever-narrowing passages lined with stores selling $185 toddler suede jumpsuits and $320—on sale—Jerry West vintage jerseys.
When this place was built, Rick Evans, then the Irvine Co.'s retail division chief, said the mall would "defy all the rules." Exactly what rules they defy is unclear, because the Spectrum Center looks like any other outdoor mall with a Wetzel's Pretzels and a Jamba Juice. Perhaps he was referring to the Spectrum Center's defiance of the rule that a retail mall is intended as a destination for family entertainment. I heard a passerby explain to a friend that this was "less of a shopping center and more of a place to do things." But from the looks of things, the only thing you can do is buy stuff. Yes, there's a movie theater, but, hey, the Westminster Mall has a movie theater. There's a comedy club—no kids. There's a country music club—what self-respecting family would send their child into that(4). Most everything else is just a means for moving merchandise, and high-end Oakley sunglass-type merchandise at that.
The narrowness of the passages inhibits the flow of people, and you're less likely to linger with someone at your back. This seems to take the life right out of the teens, who have few places to hang. They do their best to gather and look tough smoking their clove cigarettes outside of Brookstone, but they look out of place, desperately seeking something to rebel against, somehow anesthetized to the fact that it—the something to rebel against—envelopes them at the moment.
Bren's mentor Ray Watson may have showed him how to turn that trick. He designed the Woodbridge section of Irvine and put in two lakes, lakes that might invite reveling and carrying on and kids getting wet and all manner of chaos. So he gave the lakes a strange blue-green tint, like the sheen one would see cast from an alien spacecraft. Who would jump into that? The lakes look like the Dead Sea. Even the most optimistic Huck Finn who walks to their edges to fish—what could live in that?—is soon approached by security and asked for some ID(5).
If you walk long enough, the passageways eventually open onto a large court that stands in front of the kajillion-screen movie theater, but don't look for any open space here. The square is jammed with the same kind of merchants' carts that dot the passageways, many of them manned by young people who sit avoiding glances as their carts announce, "Yes! We have Nukkles!"(6) The carts sell cell phones, temporary tattoos and toy cars and are arranged in such random clutter that it looks like a cross between Jesus meeting the money changers and that scene in Raiders of the Lost Ark where Indy is confronted by an entire square of people toting dirty laundry. Perhaps the rules are a good thing.
From here, there are more passageways that wind in such a way that you cannot immediately see the food court that lies at the end. Stashed in the corner behind the food court, where people gnaw on hamburger and teriyaki-chicken combos, is a small space for the younger set with yet another fountain. This one is of pulsing water that spurts forth in spasmodic bursts much in the manner of, well, you know. The kids love it and run around to be showered unseen by the rest of the mall's patrons, hidden, not seen and not heard. Those are Bren's rules.