Barf me out! Even Valley Girls grow up

Sherman Oaks, shrine to a curious 1980s Californian cult, is to close. Andrew Gumbel gives the last rites

IT WAS, like, totally awesome. It was the shopping mall that defined its generation, the place to hang out in the early 1980s if you happened to be a member of that remarkable southern Californian species known as the Valley Girl.

Y'know, the kinda person who, like, buys shoes and stuff, and paints her nails like some really gross colour and talks about how bitchin' all the guys are and, like, says the word "like" a lot.

But times have moved on, and the Sherman Oaks Galleria is no longer the pivotal attraction that it once was. The teenagers of the San Fernando Valley - Los Angeles's quintessential suburban community, north of the Hollywood Hills - have headed on to new hang-outs. Business has slumped. And now the owners of the mall have decided to close the place down and refashion the whole thing from scratch.

Most of the outlets have disappeared already, including the much-fetishised local branch of The Gap, and the rest have been ordered out by April. Already there is a ghostly air to the lonely corridors and barely used escalators. The third floor Food Court, scene of a thousand teenage romances and as many unromantic break-ups, has been reduced to a Chinese takeaway and a Mexican sandwich shop where refugees from the last closing-down sales sit forlornly on the plastic bucket seats and munch alone.

Last week, the mall's anchor tenant, the Robinsons May department store, launched its everything-must-go closing-down sale, flogging sewing machines, crystal glasses and cotton shirts at 50 per cent off. Young married couples and elderly women came flocking to pick over the bargains, but there was barely a teenager in sight.

"Times have moved on. The Valley Girls have matured, grown up and had children of their own," reflected Mee Lee, spokeswoman for the Galleria's owners, Douglas Emmett & Co. In other words, spending time at the mall has become as passe as trademark Valley Girl phrases like "gag me with a spoon" and "grody to the max".

The plan is to revamp the property primarily as office space, with restaurants, some high-end shops and 18 state-of-the-art cinema screens. The new-look Galleria will be ritzy and smart, according to Ms Lee, but it won't be the sort of place teenagers will want to spend time any more.

Many are the reasons cited for the Galleria's demise. Back in the early 1980s, when the place inspired such eminently forgettable teen movies as Valley Girl (starring a youthful Nicholas Cage) and Fast Times at Ridgemount High, the sanitised artificiality of the indoor mall was enough of a novelty to disguise the fact that this particular example of the genre was a poorly designed, bland white box.

Daughters of the early Reagan era, Valley Girls were forever aspiring to hip sophisti- cation, but lacked the privileged background and easy glamour of their counterparts over the mountains in Beverly Hills. The mall became their home from home, the place to ogle the latest fashions and impress the boys.

But then several things happened. First, Sherman Oaks became wealthier and more crowded, with the result that the Galleria got boxed in by other, newer buildings. Its once enviable position at the junction of two major freeways turned it instead into the neuralgic centre of a never-ending traffic jam. When an earthquake struck the area in 1994, the Galleria only became enmeshed in further chaos.

And then there was the style of the place - a bit quirky, a bit resistant to the mass chain phenomenon of the mid-to-late 1990s. The owners spent many of the past few years fighting with Robinsons May and arguing that the department store simply wasn't classy enough. Robinsons May, meanwhile, complained that the parking facilities were inadequate. Both sides were probably right.

There are those who see the fate of the Sherman Oaks Galleria as a symptom of things to come: perhaps not the demise of the mall itself, but at least the demise of an important part of mall culture. Americans may still love their malls - and Los Angeles is arguably the epicentre of the phenomenon - but it is a love based more on convenience than any lingering sense of romance.

Those that thrive do so because of convenient parking, intelligent layout, great shops and, often, an attractive array of entertainment and restaurants pitched at family groups rather than singles.

For the modern equivalent of Valley Girls, malls have become far less interesting than coffee bars and open-air promenades. Indoor hang-outs are strictly for mom and her friends - old Valley Girls who have grown up and "pruned out". Spending time at the Galleria would be, well, like, ohmygod, barf me out!

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