Not long ago, I was having one of those blue afternoons. I was doing things like opening the refrigerator and staring inside, as if someone had hidden treasure in there. The distraction fairies of Facebook and Gmail weren’t doing it for me. I needed movement. I needed people. I needed NorthPark.

I have been heading to NorthPark in these restless hours ever since I was a teenager. I find something fundamentally soothing about those wide, tall hallways flanked by cream-colored brick. That afternoon, I sat in the dazzling natural light of the food court and watched strangers’ lives unfold, and it gave me the same comfort I found in New York when I walked to Central Park and sat beside the giant weeping willow at the boathouse. Here was a place that could absorb my loneliness. Here was a place that could connect me to the noise and laughter and chaos of a town.

It may sound ridiculous to compare an indoor shopping center to Frederick Olmsted’s triumph of landscape architecture. The latter is an oasis of curated splendor, while malls are the breeding grounds for Forever 21. But NorthPark is not just any mall. It is, in fact, a triumph of civic architecture, with its modern sculpture and glossy concrete floors. (It also boasts a lovely park.)

Twenty-six million people visit NorthPark each year, and within that number you can find every color in the city’s swirl: black men and Asian women, punky kids and blue-haired grandmas in jogging suits. Downtown’s Klyde Warren Park may hope to become our Central Park, but I suspect Dallas’ true town square is going to need air conditioning. Everybody goes to NorthPark. When I started telling friends about my private sojourns there, all I kept hearing was “Me, too.”

This was the idea of the enclosed shopping mall back when Victor Gruen conceived of it in the mid-1950s. Austria-born Gruen wanted to create a thriving city square protected from the elements and highway sprawl. But malls haven’t exactly lived up to their utopian idea. What was intended to be a climate-controlled sanctuary became a depressing symbol of suburban blandness.

And the indoor American mall has fallen on hard times of late. General Growth Properties, one of the country’s largest mall operators, filed for bankruptcy in 2009, and websites like DeadMalls.com track the carnage. Until recently, Valley View Center was like a trip to some future apocalypse—a cluster of random kiosks and defeated storefronts. That space is now getting a $2 billion overhaul to become a sleeker, open-air retail facility more like The Shops at Legacy in Plano, with condominiums, restaurants, and a ritzy hotel. This century’s version of the concrete box off the highway.

But NorthPark proves that folks will still trek to an enclosed mall, as long as it’s a good one. It is the fifth-most popular shopping center in the country. Much of the success can be traced back to the Nasher family, which still runs NorthPark (and shares ownership with a California-based firm) with the same eye for detail that makes the Nasher Sculpture Center one of the city’s crown jewels. Ray Nasher built the mall in 1965, and his daughter Nancy remembers how her dad would drive her to elementary school in the morning, going out of his way to pass the North Dallas cotton fields as they transformed into what was, at the time, the largest air-conditioned retail facility in the world.

So many of Nancy’s childhood memories involve that place. She remembers wandering the building with her sisters; she remembers her mother, Patsy, walking through the hallways removing dust from each leaf. It was Patsy’s idea to make Santa’s reindeer out of pecans and sour cherries and raisins. Inside that one decision—to choose originality over cheap cliché—you see the handprints that define a place. Actually, you can find the Nasher family’s literal handprints inside NorthPark. They’re outside the Bulgari store, pressed into concrete nearly 50 years ago.

Nancy and her family did the same thing when the new wing opened in 2006, and it is this sense of history that also makes it special. Kids grow up here, and they take their kids here.

But I don’t have kids, and I still come here. That blue afternoon, I performed the same retail two-step I’ve been doing for decades. I tried on fancy dresses I did not buy. I ran my hands along glittering baubles and flashy makeup. Is this silly of me? Am I a slave to consumerism? Maybe. I only know that it eased a knot of discomfort. I left having bought nothing but still feeling a bit transformed.