For most of the video, I was behind my Canon PowerShot, pointing the lens at my three friends who were, at varying levels, annoyed with my documentation of our evening. We were in our freshman year of high school and the cast of The Secret Life of the American Teenager was hosting an autograph signing at the Charlotte Russe at Burbank Mall. It was 2009. Naturally, we were in line to catch a glimpse of the cast and maybe get our picture taken with them. Sarah was the friend who religiously watched the show, and while I had never seen an episode, I was excited just to have somewhere to go after school that wasn’t immediately home. In the nearly five-minute-long video, we scooched along the mall’s floor as the line inched forward, joking and laughing and almost getting mad at each other just to laugh again.
When it comes to mall culture in Los Angeles, not many rivalries compare to the one that exists between the Americana and the Glendale Galleria. Almost everyone in LA knows about those two. But the Burbank Mall, often referred to by my friend group as the awkward younger sibling to the Americana and the Galleria, has a sneaky stronghold on the valley.
More officially known as the Burbank Town Center, the Burbank Mall teeters on the eastern edge of the San Fernando Valley, sitting between the Verdugo Mountains and the Hollywood Hills. It bifurcates San Fernando Road, forcing pedestrians to walk through the mall in order to get to the other side unless they commit to circumventing the whole structure. No one on a tour of Los Angeles would make it a point to visit the Burbank Mall; it’s neither grand enough to hold allure nor strange enough to attain notoriety. It just is. I relish in how average it is. No fountains, no double-decker trolleys. Just three floors filled with quiet comforts: See’s Candies, the most humble arcade (where I learned about Dance Dance Revolution), and, at one point, the Tamale House (RIP Tamale House). A few years ago, the Burbank Mall underwent a renovation with the hopes of attracting more patrons. Sleek, white, and minimalist, the makeover stripped the Burbank Mall of its beige stone entrance and checkered flooring, including the giant horse statues that flanked the (now-closed) P. F. Chang’s.
The mall may look different now, but every time I visit, I’m taken back to all the afternoons and weekends spent bouncing from store to store. On weeks when I saved all my bus money by walking to and from school, I had enough for a slice of Sbarro pizza or a Hot Dog on a Stick. Even if I had already made up my mind, I still walked from stall to stall, sniffing at the mingled Panda Express–McDonald’s–Mongolian BBQ smells.
I relish in how average it is.
I always had my route at the Burbank Mall. Starting from the southern entrance with the horse statues, if I was hungry, I went straight for the food court that used to be on the top floor. If I wasn’t, I started at Bed Bath & Beyond, where I tried samples of their cherry-blossom-scented lotion, something I smelled all over my high school. Next was Forever 21, all neon yellow and skinny mannequins. I ran my hands along the synthetic cardigans, trying to imagine the infinite identities I could embody with each outfit. I always got a free sample at See’s Candies followed by a quick wander around Hot Topic. The northern end of the mall was anchored by Macy’s, where a blast of perfume hit me every time I walked through to get to the exit. If I was with my mom, we would pause to touch the purses, and I took pictures of her posing with the mannequins.
While the concept of a mall stands so strongly for American capitalism and excess, it’s also an alternate reality of buttery cinnamon-sugar pretzels and sprawling Old Navys where a young immigrant girl could escape into the crowds for a moment. Especially at the Burbank Mall, time seemed to stand still under the yellow-orange light that has since been replaced with bright fluorescents. Tucked into a corner of the mall is a four-screen AMC theater, the best in the valley in my opinion, where I took my little brother for matinees on weekends once I started to make some money as a hostess at a local restaurant.
The Burbank Mall itself is a story of quiet struggle, always trying to renovate its brand after the image of the Americana or the Galleria yet never quite reaching that potential. Despite it all, the allure of the Burbank Mall for me was its simplicity. Floating through the stores absentmindedly with my friends afforded me a place to be that was merely elsewhere.
At home, I was the eldest daughter of immigrants living in a one-bedroom apartment with my family. As far back as I can remember, I was their interpreter at the DMV or the bank. I was the person filling out our government forms, trying my best to put down the right answers so as to not jeopardize my family’s status in the country. My parents hid from me the loss they carried with them every day, from country to country, apartment to apartment, the ghost of their firstborn son haunting them as we moved. I only felt their sadness seeping out as an anger I couldn’t understand. But at the mall, I could forget that. I was just another teen with a hot dog pretzel.
Before there even was a Burbank Town Center, there was the Burbank Golden Mall, a pedestrian-only shopping center that spanned the length of six city blocks along San Fernando Boulevard. Opened in 1967, the Golden Mall was ambitious during its time for proposing a traffic-free shopping experience when the rest of the city was booming with cars in all directions. Looking at the photos from this time, it’s a surprise to see a corner of Los Angeles without cars. By the ’70s and ’80s, lack of traffic became more of a problem than a blessing when storefronts at the Golden Mall saw a steep decline in business. At the end of the strip of shops was a forty-acre parcel of land that developers wanted to turn into an additional shopping center. After several financial pitfalls and failed partnerships, the new mall finally opened its doors as the Burbank Town Center in 1991. The Golden Mall no longer exists as a pedestrian shopping center—there’s a giant road running through it now—but the storefronts still lead to the Burbank Mall at the end of the street, acting as little appetizers to the bigger mall experience ahead.
Floating through the stores absentmindedly with my friends afforded me a place to be that was merely elsewhere.
In a Los Angeles Times article from 1991, doubts were already cast upon the Burbank Mall, with warnings that “shoppers may be unwilling to check out a new mall in favor of the more familiar and established [Glendale] Galleria.” But the mall still stands today, even after the Americana entered the picture in 2008 with its dancing fountain and fake snow.
While you won’t find Miley Cyrus at the Burbank Mall as my friends and I once did at the Americana, you might glimpse a C-list comedian fast-walking in sunglasses and a baseball cap. The Burbank Mall is a place to go when you’re in desperate need to slow down time. Nestled into the back booth of the then-functioning Tamale House, a close friend and I would catch up on each other’s lives over chile verde chicken tamales and horchata. Even if our lives were on opposite coasts by the time we were in college, anytime we were both at the Burbank Mall together was a time when that distance didn’t exist for a few moments.
“How do you feel about Mervyn’s closing?” I asked my friend Sarah in the video. The discount department store sold factory seconds that my family loved to sift through, elbow to elbow with other shoppers hunting for a good bargain.
Sarah barely kept herself from rolling her eyes, then responded, “It’s showing our crappy economy.” The questions from me continued as we moved along the queue: “What’s your favorite food? What would you like to rant about? What are we doing now?” Eventually, I resorted to knock-knock jokes when we finally passed through the Forever 21 doors.
When I watch my video from the night we attended the meet and greet, I’m overcome with embarrassment for my younger self and her squeaky adolescent voice, oozing a snarkiness she thought was cool. But I also hold a tenderness for the young woman who so desperately wanted to be close with friends who maybe thought she was a bit annoying. I’m proud of her for finding a means of survival, even if it meant clinging to a mall, when life elsewhere felt claustrophobic.
The video, complete with acoustic-music intro and outro, ended with a slideshow of photos from the night. I was in a short-sleeved black-and-purple striped hoodie, and my hair was sleek-straight, just like the other girls’. The camera’s flash cast a shine all over the oil on my face, long before I found out about cleansers and serums. When I visit the Burbank Mall now, I always keep my eye out for the girl in the group who looks around a bit more than the others or who maybe lags behind because she feels uncomfortable in her own skin. I think about all the times I went to the Burbank Mall to disappear and how I go there now to just be.
An Uong is a writer, editor, and recipe tinkerer whose work orbits themes of pop culture, food, and Vietnamese-American womanhood. Her writing is forthcoming or has appeared in Catapult, Eater, Hyphen Magazine, Roads and Kingdoms, Bon Appetit, Taste, and elsewhere. Living between Los Angeles and Providence, Rhode Island, she’s always on the lookout for a good bowl of bún bò Huế. Find her online: @anuonganuong.