Thursday, September 25, 2014

Let's Visit Curacao! (Hispanic Heritage Month)

Arguably, a trip to Desert Sky Mall, primarily to visit Curacao, is less "Hispanic Heritage" than "Hispanic Right Here, Right Now." However, a Latino-focused traditional mall is apparently something that doesn't exist outside the Southwest, and it's an important enough trend in mall revitalization that the Wall Street Journal has covered it twice:

Also, it's the last place in the U.S. where you're likely to find Novi Stars still stocked, if you need Novi Stars NRFB. 

What's a little body horror between friends?
Desert Sky Mall opened in 1981 as Westridge, in what was then a largely white, non-Hispanic neighborhood way out on the west side. It still seems remote (there are nearby cotton fields), although Phoenix has sprawled much, much further in our manifest destiny of placing Walmarts, strip malls, and tract homes all the way to the California border.

The neighborhood these days is about 75% Hispanic, with 20% below the poverty line -- and quite lively in retail, which is probably helped by not having the dead hulk of a mall rotting in the center. All the usual low-end chain suspects are within a couple blocks, and if the place hadn't been built so suburban that it's miles across the parking lots, I would have been tempted by nearby Goodwill, 99 Cents Only, and Walmart.

The "transit center" (the local transit authority's name for any spot where more than two bus lines meet) is the busiest in the region, with 60,000-70,000 bus boardings a month. (There's a .pdf report on improving it, as it's basically a wide spot in the sidewalk.) Three major E-W urban lines (17-McDowell, 29-Thomas, and 41-Indian School) converge here, along with the MARY community circulator, an I-10 commuter bus to the hinterlands, and the Ajo Express to Gila Bend.

The benches in the center court bear the coats of arms of Mexican states.
A People's Guide to Phoenix gives a decent description of Desert Sky -- though it labels Curacao as an import store, when it's just a department store -- and there's a nice little ethnographic coursework piece floating around as well. Three of the five anchors (Sears, Dillard's, Burlington) are familiar middle-class brands, as well as about 25% of the mall stores. The rest are split between local businesses and low-end brands that show up at other malls. More important, it is fully tenanted at a time when I'm seeing vacancies at other middle-class malls in the region. Management may be giving breaks to local businesses to keep it full (roughly one in three food shops is La Carreta de Lily), but it's got to be worth it for the impression that this is a thriving place where you want to stroll on Sunday afternoon.

Curacao is a department store, founded in Southern California, whose value proposition is that they give credit to working-class Latinos who would otherwise have trouble getting it. Of course, there's the question of "exploiting a sub-prime market" versus "helping build a credit history for people who'd otherwise be locked out" -- and I'd guess there's some of both.

Curacao is the cleanest, most spacious, most aggressively organized department store I've ever visited. It makes the Burlington elsewhere in the mall look like a swap meet. Heck, it makes Nordstrom on a busy Saturday look like a swap meet.

Don't even THINK of getting bargains or finds due to poor inventory control.
The first notable thing about the doll department is that while Walmart, K-Mart, Toys R Us, and Tuesday Morning are introducing Swap Mart Beauties in private-label lines, all of the dolls at Curacao are name brands.

The second notable thing is that a number of lines are from a couple years ago, already on close-out elsewhere, but still full price here. The same Bratz "My Passion" dolls that are at Burlington for $12.99 are $19.99 here. Moxie Pets-That-Poop-Rainbows are still here at full price. Novi Stars have their own section, as if they never went away.

Novi Stars. In quantity, on purpose.
That Curacao can get away with this pricing -- when similar products are cheaper just yards away -- makes me think they're targeting a market that relies on credit to cover Christmas buying or that their willingness to ship to Latin America is such a big deal that people will pay a premium to send brand-name toys to the family down south.

As far as dolls who look like the little girls shopping at this mall (hint: more like America Ferrara than like Cameron Diaz)... it's not notably different from a random Walmart. Skelita Calaveras, the Monster High character designed to represent Hispanic culture, isn't present (though that may be because she's newer than much of the inventory). Barbie is her usual lightly tanned self. Neither the Moxie Girlz nor the Bratz are the full lines of characters, though of course Bratz Yasmin is here because she's the protagonist. (It seems that Yasmin is canonically half-ish Hispanic and maybe half-ish Middle Eastern, or not, depending whom you believe -- putting the ambiguous in Ambiguously Brown.)

Years and years ago, I went to a Toys R Us somewhere around Oakland, where the local population was predominantly African-American -- and it was wall-to-wall black dolls, to a degree that was jaw-dropping and awe-inspiring. Curacao was not remotely like that on the Hispanic doll front. So it does what it does for its target market, but it's not a secret source of ethnic-looking dolls that a suburban Target won't stock.

Since I was out and about, I dropped by Sears to see if they were stocking holiday toys yet. Answer: no.

It's beginning to look moderately like Christmas, but don't rush us.
Sears was an excellent place to be alone, to the point that a gentleman had settled down in the patio section with light reading material.

Unsurprisingly, the food court includes various forms of Latin American food. I'd originally wanted to try something more adventurous than a burrito, but the Salvadoran place had taped over most of its menu, while the mariscos were more than I wanted to pay for mall food on styrofoam plates. This is how I end up being a boring person.

The sauce really is bright orange, yet not particularly hot.
There's a second food court in the mercado that took over the old Mervyn's, but it consists of similar eateries. The mercado has become Your One-Stop Quinceañera Shopping Place, with at least 20% of the real estate taken over by Nori's Bridal and another 20-25% by Nori's competitors. It's kind of funky, though -- you'll be walking along between aisles of big pouffy dresses and then SEWING MACHINE REPAIR SHOP, looking like it's thirty years ago.

What Macerich seems to have achieved with Desert Sky is a functional small-business incubator without the hipster-techie-university trappings.

The one toy store in the mercado was closed on Wednesdays. There's also a small Toys 4 U in the main mall, where the notable product was a Moxie Girlz knock-off called Pretty Fashion Girl (link to photo from another site, since there was too much surveillance to take pictures). Again, not your secret source of darker-skinned dolls.

No shopping trip is complete without answering the question of "what is Yasmin doing?" At Burlington, she's working on being the next Skrillex.

Yasmin is going to launch the first tejano-klezmer-electronica fusion hit.
As Mattel lightens and de-ethnicizes its Barbie line, I'm becoming a lot more interested in Bratz. These are not "quality" dolls (my Meygan has the worst hair of any of the Permanent Residents) and there's still the rebodying problem because MGA doesn't go whole-hog on articulation -- but if I want an inexpensive, mass-market doll who actually looks something other than white-with-a-nice-LA-tan (without having to be a mythical character of possibly another species for this to be okay), my choices these days seem to be Sparkle Girlz and leftover Bratz. While Sparkle Girlz gets points for multiple shades of "black," Bratz shows more enthusiasm for ambiguously brown and for Asian. Yasmin and Jade are looking better all the time.

For an unrelated bit of Phoenix culture, here we have a semi stalling right across the southbound lanes of Central Avenue (and eastbound train tracks) at Indian School Road during rush hour.

O hai.
I was on a jam-packed train when the driver announced that anybody who wanted to continue westbound past the Indian School station would have to get off the train and switch to a train on the opposite side of the tracks, while this train would become an eastbound train. You can see why this might be necessary. It's not quite as exciting as the bus that fell in the sinkhole over by ASU a couple weeks ago, but I wasn't on that one.


  1. Another great post! It's like walking along with you. Novi stuff is still here too, but yes, on clearance. I never could get into those.

  2. I love visiting malls everywhere I go. And the ones I liked best were the ones in Chapas! this post is great. thanks for sharing!