‘It’s not just shopping, right?’: life in the shadow of North America’s biggest mall

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'It's not just shopping, right?': life in the shadow of North America's biggest mall
World Waterpark at West Edmonton Mall claims to be the world’s largest indoor wave pool / © Dan Riedlhuber/Reuters

Since it opened in 1981, West Edmonton Mall has been one of the defining features of Alberta’s capital. With its giant water park, ice rink and 800 shops promoting a culture of consumerism, is the mall more than just ‘space’?

I should have known we couldn’t handle the wave. Far from the beach, my four-year-old daughter and I clung to each other in water up to my chest. Swimmers around us screamed in anticipation. I backed up and stumbled as we braced ourselves to meet the wall of water that was now a whitecap above our heads.

“Look away!” I shouted at the moment of peak pointlessness. The water shot into our nostrils, scouring sinuses with a chlorine burn. We gasped and rubbed our faces before staggering to the vinyl-clad shoreline, laughing like the fools we clearly were for having paid roughly £55 to (almost) drown in the world’s largest indoor wave pool.

World Waterpark is one of the many super-sized attractions in my local shopping centre – which happens to be the largest mall in North America, and was once the biggest in the world.

Recently, I have questioned whether time spent at West Edmonton Mall is time well spent. Only a five minute drive from my home in the Alberta capital, and with a car park that can accommodate 20,000 vehicles, I used to be embarrassed that my hometown’s reputation could depend so heavily on it. I sniffed at the culture of consumerism it represented – and what it took away from the character of the community.

My mother offers the best example of the mall’s effectiveness as an insulator. On 31 July 1987, Edmonton was hit by a tornado that killed 27 people and destroyed 300 homes. My mother, who adores West Edmonton Mall, was shopping there with her sister, who was visiting from England. […]