Tuesday, January 08, 2013

R.I.P. Ada Louise

I never met Ada Louise Huxtable, though for a brief period we were both writing for the New York Times. She even quoted me in one of her books, and I certainly quoted her in The Malling of America. She was one of its guiding lights. She died this week at the age of 91. Here's her LA Times obit.

Her beat was architecture for the Times, their first real architecture critic, and she was up there with Jane Jacobs and Lewis Mumford in reshaping New York City and how architects and planners thought about cities and how people live in them. She shaped criticism itself as a journalistic pursuit involving reporting, scholarship and taste.

In particular I found her work revelatory on the South Street Seaport in New York, when it was about to host another urban "marketplace" mall built by the Rouse Company, after its successes on the waterfronts of Boston and Baltimore.

At retirement age she instead became the architecture critic for the Wall Street Journal. She also wrote books (I'm footnoted in The Unreal America.) Her influence was highest in the 60s but her work inspired me in the 80s and I'm sure it is inspiring others right now. No reason why it won't for a long time to come. May she rest in peace, and her work live on.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

As Black Friday Goes...

Well, this looks like the annual Black Friday post.  The blog's look has changed, and not for the last time probably.

This year's Black Friday has been characterized by that great new product: pepper spray.  Justifiably famous for its use against Occupy protestors, especially at U.C. Davis (inspiring the Pepper Spraying Cop site and the image above, which is no longer satirical) it has been used today by cops against shoppers, and at least one shopper against all.

Most of the incidents--including tasering and shootings--happened at Wal-Marts or other low-end outlets, testifying both to the desperate straits many in the 99% are in, and to the residual power of consumerism, especially when TV commercials portray the appropriate Christmas gift for young couples as expensive cars. Check Wikipedia and see that this instance of Black Friday is the only one that isn't overtly (as opposed to ironically) a catastrophe. Our society's dependence on consumption is at least as dangerous as its dependence on fossil fuel, and of course the two are intimately related. Yet it is dependence in every sense of the word. And so this Black Friday is both different from the others and exactly the same.

Meanwhile back at the mall: 15,000 lined up at the Mall of America at midnight to raid bargains at 120 stores: "Mall operators estimated that it was the largest crowd ever at the mall, which is big enough to hold seven Yankee Stadiums."  Yet observers observed dolefully that there weren't a lot of bags being carried, so the amount of buying is in doubt.  Which once against provokes the question: is this an economy or is it an addiction?

Friday, November 26, 2010

Santa Claus' sleigh these days takes the form of this huge ship, commissioned by Wal-Mart and built in Denmark specifically and only to haul goodies from China to the U.S. It takes just 13 people to run it, even though it's longer than a U.S. aircraft carrier. This ship is so big that it had to be built in five separate sections that were welded together. The command bridge alone is higher than a 10-story building. The ship has its own cargo crane rigs--11 of them--that operating simultaneously can unload the entire ship in under two hours. So this is where Christmas comes from, where Black Friday lives. Typically, cargo ships from China that bring consumer goods to California ports, return with cardboard and material for recycling--in other words, garbage. But these ships reputedly return completely empty. [Thanks to Bill T. for sending me these photos etc. awhile back.]

Thursday, August 26, 2010

Cathedrals of Consumption
The apparent enemies may change, but this is the real religion that is so persistently and vociferously defended in America: the one true Church of Buying and Selling.

Through lofty times and fearful times, from the 50s onward, people have looked to the mall for excitement and solace, adventure and surcease, novelty and reassurance--and they found it all.

By the 1980s, Americans had come to believe in consumption as salvation: shop till you drop, spend till the end, buy till you die. Buying was the new time religion, which links adherents of all other religions and seems to transcend all other faiths. And the shopping mall was its cathedral of consumption.

There were the votive candles of neon, the altars of Atari, the icons of Calvin and St. Liz (Claiborne.) Like the cathedrals of Europe, the malls made their magic through the senses: the swirl of products' colors and textures, the smiles of clerks and waitresses, the soft splash of fountains and the dance of mirrored light in the Church of Buy Now, Pay Later. As psychologist James Hillman suggested, "Maybe that's what consumerism and advertising are all about, unconsciously, compulsively: a way to rekindle our desire for the world."

The needs and fears hidden in the human shadow were also expressed with their usual shocking power. The desire for comfort became raging greed and the addict's apathyt: the need for peace and identity within a community of worshippers became the walls of denial and exclusion.

What became most obvious during the 1980s was that the new religion of consumption had become organized and dogmatized. It had become the true church: one, unholy and apocalyptic. It was filling the world with waste, devouring its resources, exhausting society and the planet. But buying as a value above all others became a dogma and those who disagreed were heretics.

So the Church of Buying and Selling transformed everything into a product or the means to sell a product. The activities we call art, science, sport, inquiry (from scholarship to journalism,) public discourse, politics and government, weren't of this nature. But beginning in the 80s, they were embraced and adjusted, assimilated and converted.

The Church of Buying is also the Church of Selling, of advertising and public relations. Today these activities determine the form and content of information in all popular media and most of cultural life. To offend the Church of Selling--the advertiser--is to commit a mortal sin punished by banishment, the casting down into the pits of poverty and irrelevance.

The Church of Buying and Selling tolerates no rivals. There is no separation of this church and state. Politics and government have been commodified through corporate special interest lobbying and campaign contributions (which, by the way, we all involuntarily pay for, every time we buy something or even pay a bill.) Independent, disinterested or critical voices supported by the public are not permitted: even so-called public television is starved of public funds, and in the U.S. must rely on corporate funding that selects what it supports and therefore defines what gets seen.

Today the growing consumption industries are fast-food and discount shopping (where the new servant sector grins and spins for minimal wages), entertainment (which turns the beauty of sport and art into no-fault showbiz)and tourism, which pollutes and desecrates places of natural beauty and cultural or even religious significance (such as Native American sacred sites.) But how could that matter when there is only one true religion?

Doth not the Earth exist only to be consumed? And if we use it all up, we will still have our Cyberspace-Graven Images. Everything in nature, culture and history is turned into simplistic reverberate icons, emotional buttons for advertisers to push. Beyond that, they are useless and expendable.

Do not the Faithful work two and three jobs, and push themselves beyond the speed limits of life--sacrificing family, health, reverie, craftsmanship and civility, just to afford all the sacraments and indulgences the church can sell?

Do not the people exist solely to serve the Church of Buying and Selling? Does not all talent, energy, feeling, intelligence and belief belong to it? Are not all relationships secondary to our relationship to this Church? And have not our lives and souls become the ultimate consumables?

See now the congregation assembles for the service. See thge eyes flickering with bliss at Junior Miss. Hear the moans of devotion at Just Pants. Let us all gather by the bank machine--But wait, who is that whispering? Is that heresy we're hearing? Turn the sacred Muzak louder, post a photo of your redemptive purchases on Facebook, and keep moving, from one station of devotion to the next.

The screed above is mostly a piece of mine I'd just about forgotten, published in Adbusters Vol. 2 No. 3 under the title "Graven Images."

Monday, October 05, 2009

The much beleaguered Bayshore Mall in Eureka was humming on Saturday, so what does that say?--see post below.
A Sunny Saturday at Bayshore Mall

Autumn is the sunniest time of year here on the California North Coast, and this Saturday was very sunny--but the warmth of the sun was cut by the occasional cold breeze, so clearly this was one of the last summery days of the year.

So people were out, everywhere we went on our errands--including at Bayshore Mall in Eureka. As chronicled in a local cover story, it's much beleaguered these days. But on Saturday it was humming. At first I thought it was because the one new bright spot--a new department store--was opening, and sure enough, there were long lines at Kohl's checkouts. But people were out everywhere--at Costco, Eureka's only Big Box, and at the small yarn shop in Arcata where clerks said it was the busiest day they could remember.

People were in a good mood, too. I saw shoppers at Costco coax a young woman with only two items ahead of them in one of the long lines. There seemed to be differences, though. The yarn shop saw its known clientele--just more of them in one day than usual. Costco shoppers were friendly and chatty, but it was all about the stuff. The mall was more of a social center. Shoppers in the stores, but in the mallways there were the teenagers in groups, the couples of all ages, families.

Perhaps the biggest difference, though, was the age and race mix at Bayshore Mall. The fastest-growing segment of Eureka's population is Mexican, and there were a lot of Spanish-speakers at Costco, too, but even more ethnic and age variety at the mall. Native American kids from Hoopa, wearing identifying shirts. A junior high age Latina in a t-shirt that said, "To the haters, thanks for all the love."

This is a big difference from the first days of shopping malls in general, when they were almost exclusively white. Now the greatest variety of ethnic groups, ages, incomes, etc. is most obvious at Bayshore Mall.

I haven't been to Bayshore Mall at Christmastime in a few years, but someone who had said that it was even busier this Saturday. One is tempted to see a counter-trend of optimism to the continuing upward climb of the California unemployment rate, but maybe it's more pent-up demand. Or just a sunny Saturday afternoon.

I don't know that it says much about the future of the mall, either, but clearly this mall isn't dead yet. It's still a place people like to go and to be.

Thursday, April 02, 2009

This is a model of Xanadu, the mega-mall under construction in New Jersey during what seems to be doom time for the shopping mall. Is it? See the post below.
Sustainable Doom

Once again, the shopping mall is doomed. The death knell has been sounded periodically since the 1980s, even before The Malling of America was first published. Now the sudden and still continuing destruction/reinvention of the financial system and the severe downturn in the American and world economy--the Great Recession--seems to make it certain.

Time Magazine hangs its obituary on the bad timing of Xanadu, the megamall-amusement complex under construction in the Meadowlands of New Jersey. It seems made to order: huge and--by several accounts, including New Jersey's governor--garish and ugly--it is so badly timed that if it did open this year, it would be the only major new mall to do so. (But it won't--the opening has been pushed into 2010.)

Meanwhile, Time quotes predictions that up to 3,000 other malls could close this year, as well as 73,000 retail stores before summer. Another obit in The Week adds more numbers: more than 400 of the 2,000 largest malls have closed in the past two years, and a new one hasn't opened since 2006.

So are they right? Is the shopping mall doomed? Not necessarily, but then I've always taken a different view of what the mall essentially is. As the kind of dominant retail hubs that shopping malls were in the 1980s, they've been fighting a losing battle to the Big Boxes for at least a decade. As new large retail developments that can be plopped down at any highway intersection, clearly those days have been over for awhile. What could be malled in America, mostly has been malled.

What the Great Recession does seem to signal is the end of the kind of psychotic consumerism that gripped this society with increasing frenzy over the past several decades. So as centers of retail that generate huge profits, malls may well be gone with the wind. But the Big Box complexes that have replaced malls in many places aren't going to find the going so easy either.

Many of these changes have been happening for awhile, and some malls have responded to them. The Mall of America in Minnesota--which itself got started during a downturn--merged retail with destination entertainment, which was one new trend, and also self-consciously became a more diversified hub for a community it in part defined. Its proposed expansion was largely non-retail.

But that's not exactly the model for the future either. Malls are malleable--they can adapt. The trends some were slowly adapting to are now likely to accelerate: namely the move away from highway dependence, and a new balance between retail and everything else, including low-profit or non-profit public services. Malls as nothing but artifice, artificially sustained, right down to plants in their gardens that didn't actually grow, are probably over. Malls, like everything else, will have to become sustainable.

Sooner or later, communities and perhaps companies are going to realize that they can do better by retrofitting their dead malls instead of abandoning them, or even better, transforming them while they are still alive. They will have to become part of the green economy, and not simply market rain forest awareness and recycling somewhere else.

And there probably still will be a place for a Xanadu--which is well-located in the New York metro area, and accessible by a new train line. After a few stutters, entertainment is flourishing, as it did in the Great Depression. That doesn't guarantee Xanadu will survive even long enough to open. But it has a chance.

So do malls all over America, if the degree of imagination is applied that the shopping mall's pioneers demonstrated when they began, and again when they went downtown. Probably new models of finance as well as new models of what a mall can be will be necessary. For all the reasons I wrote about in The Malling of America, malls served the needs of people, better than other places, despite their deficiencies. Malls always had a social reason to exist, and not just an economic one.

Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Christmas at Ye Olde Shopping Mall: New traditions and even nostalgia now locate Christmas memories where, for better or worse, families have been going to celebrate as well as shop... for forty or fifty years.
Mall Nostalgia: Recalling Christmas at Ye Olde Shopping Mall

In what’s shaping up to be a bleak Christmas, thoughts may naturally turn to better days gone by. Holidays often look happier in memory anyway, and since Christmas is so associated with childhood (your own or your children’s or grandchildren’s), the season inspires recollections of magical lights and displays, exciting street scenes and parades, and those first visits to Santa.

But one difference over the years has become: many of those fond memories took place in a shopping mall. Routinely berated as cold, indistinguishable and soulless madhouses of over-consumption, these enclosed behemoths have increasingly become the locations of happy, wistful—and important—memories.

Right now on the Internet, sites such as Livemalls.com and Malls of America.com celebrate days of malls gone by, while others, such as Labelscar.com keep current with fan-like devotion to detail. That so many malls have failed in recent years (catalogued on such sites as dead malls.com), or were otherwise transformed in the course of time, has added impetus to this mall nostalgia.

So people are online sharing their memories of Christmases past that might include toddling past the huge mall Christmas tree to tell Santa your secret desires in the Walker-Scott department store in the Escondido Village Mall, or staring at Santa amidst the splendor of a Colonial Christmas with trees decorated by students of local schools at Montclair Plaza, or dashing through the shaved-ice snow at Fallbrook Mall in West Hills, California.

Or riding the Christmas carousel at South Park in North Carolina, being dazzled by the red and green lights in the fountain at Jefferson Mall in Louisville, or standing uncertainly in front of the Talking Christmas Tree at Midway Mall in Elyria, Ohio.

Real old timers may recall Santa arriving at the Tacoma Mall by helicopter in 1965, or in a tank from the local military base (a traumatic event for one online commenter) at the Edgewater Plaza Mall in Biloxi, Mississippi; or snowballs dropping from Santa’s plane over Northland Plaza in Lima, Ohio in 1967.

There is at least one mall that is primarily associated with Christmas experiences, and it happens to be the mall I wrote about extensively in my book, The Malling of America. A website hosted by Dead Malls.com called Greengate Mall Memories includes over a hundred comments in its “Guest Book,” most of them with recollections sited in the mall, and many of them mentioning Christmas.

These memories are so strong partly for two reasons: because Christmas really was a very big deal at Greengate Mall, and because Greengate Mall is no more.

text continued after photos and in photo captions...

Photos I took of Greengate Mall in 1999, when it was nearly abandoned: (top) outside the old Hornes (later Lazarus) department store; inside at center court, the famous fountain; and in the floor near the fountain, the time capsule, buried in 1985 and scheduled to be opened in 2005, but which apparently "disappeared" during demolition. In it, among other things, was a signed copy of my book, The Malling of America. (click photos to enlarge.)
Greengate was built on land that had been part of a farm and summer home owned by the appropriately named John S. Sell family. (The place even had a name: Sellcroft.) This was an era when a lot of the fresh milk sold in Greensburg came from local dairies and dairy farms. The farm was just west of the town of Greensburg, along the two-lane Lincoln Highway, adjacent to the Mount Odin drive-in theatre.

Then the new four lane Route 30 was built through there, having bypassed the Greensburg downtown. The highway spawned new commercial and housing development, meaning that beginning in the early 60s, it bypassed downtown Greensburg. An early indicator was the K-Mart shopping center that replaced the Mount Odin drive-in.

Then came the first enclosed shopping mall in the county, Greengate Mall. Designed by Victor Gruen, the architect generally considered the inventor of the enclosed mall, it opened in 1965, and after decades of dominance and several troubled final years, it turned off the climate control in 2001 and closed. The building was demolished and a new Wal-Mart opened on the site in 2005.
Greengate Mall, center court Christmas display. Click photo to enlarge. BK photo.
Local news coverage about Greengate’s demise inevitably mentioned its Christmas events and elaborate decorations. (I’d written about the overnight process of setting up the center court tree and Nutcracker theme exhibit, surrounded by a child-sized train ride.) Christmas season at Greengate was popular with the surrounding communities for at least 30 years—long enough for some who experienced Christmas at the mall to bring their own child to do the same.

Many if not most of the comments at Greengate Mall Memories—over a hundred of them—mention Christmas recollections. These memories could be surprisingly specific. I’ve tried to match some of them with images I recently transferred from color slides, which I took at Greengate during the Christmas season of 1981.

“I remember it was where I first told Santa what I wanted for Christmas,” said one. “I always loved going to Greengate Mall with my parents. It seemed like the holidays weren't the holidays unless we had our usual trip to the mall to sit on Santa’s lap.”

“I remember lights in the food court that would change colors (yellow, blue, green, etc) during Christmas as Charlie Brown music would play.” “There was a puppet show that kids would huddle around and watch.”

Many recalled riding the train through the snow-covered Christmas village. “I remember the animated deer with the jerky movements that built toys as kids rode through the display.” Another recalled a young adult perspective, of accompanying nieces and nephews, and watching “how big their eyes would be when they first walked into the center courtyard... Nothing made my parents more happy then seeing [the children] laugh as they went round and round on the train.”

The element of nostalgia is particularly evident in the frequency of comments such as: “Wow, nothing compares to it today.” A department store employee who met her husband there wrote, “We all have very fond memories of Greengate Mall. We especially miss the beautiful holiday decorations!” An ex-employee of another store who remembers “singing on the steps in center court in 1980 for Christmas” with a local high school choir, concludes: “Ahh - Christmas at Greengate Mall - it didn't get any better than that!!!”
When I was first writing about Greengate in the late 70s and early 80s, I often heard similar sentiments expressed about downtown Greensburg in the 50s and before: memories of shopping in the department stores and shops on Main Street, going from store to store in the falling snow, seeing friends and ducking into the Chat and Chew. But Greengate and other malls drew the department stores away from Main Street, and Christmas along with it.

As the malling of America took hold, their size, their concentration on consumption and their sudden omnipresence alarmed many, and their formulaic resemblances to each other brought the malls a lot of scorn. But lost in broad-brush critiques, as justified as they might be on many grounds, was the social and cultural roles many malls played, often defining their own communities.
Then they simply lasted, and thanks partly to years of shared experiences, the local shopping mall often became a real place. And so they became part of memories, and now, of nostalgia. A woman who remembers Greengate as a child (“at Christmas especially. It was wonderful”) has since moved away but visits family in the area every Christmas. She writes: “I'm sad the mall is gone. I would have loved to take a trip down memory lane there by taking my son to ride the holiday train I rode so long ago.”
Christmas is still being experienced at hundreds of malls, and thousands of photos taken with Santa. But even before the latest economic blows, malls were under serious assault by Big Box developments, chiefly Wal-Marts. After decades when not a single regional mall failed, many began to fade, and some (like Greengate) were demolished. Now retail sales so far in this Christmas shopping season are plummeting, and some retail companies are endangered. One mall developer (General Growth) already faces bankruptcy.

But all is not lost for those with mall nostalgia. According to the Natural Resources Defense Council, more than a dozen abandoned malls are being transformed into mixed-use projects, with housing, parks and public services as well as retail. Many malls with empty storefronts typically turn to recreation and public services to fill the space, and White Flint mall near Bethesda, Maryland used community-oriented events and organizations (the local Academy of Performing Arts) to increase traffic, and in the process revived itself as a retail destination. One key event was a Christmas celebration. Christmas magic, it seems, does not require total concentration on consumerism.

But will future generations remember instead a beloved Big Box Christmas? There are many reasons why is this unlikely, but the short answer is: maybe—but not quite yet. Some who rhapsodized Greengate castigated the Wal-Mart and related shops that replaced it. One called it “a soul-less development that could be in Anywhere, USA.” That of course is what used to be said of malls.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Big Box Reuse: an inspiring, important book about transforming abandoned retail spaces for crucial public uses (or at least public fun.)
Big Box Reuse

by Julia Christensen

The MIT Press

This is a wonderful, inspiring book--all the more so because it is meticulously reported and cogently written. But it's also wonderful and inspiring because of the people who made all these projects happen.

The book is about 10 projects in various parts of America that took abandoned Big Box buildings (usually Wal-Marts and some K-Marts) and transformed them for public uses--as a courthouse, children's or senior center, school, library, health center, museum, and in one case, a new wrinkle on a public market.

These buildings were abandoned not because there was anything wrong with them, but mostly because that's what Wal-Mart does: it builds a big store to create a market, then abandons it to build an even bigger store close by, to expand the market. Using jobs and business generation as bait, Wal-Mart often gets municipalities to provide land and roads for reduced or no cost, loans and a deal on sales taxes, with promises of later repayment and/or tax revenues--by which time they're long gone.

So it is more than poetic justice that retail buildings sited and built with public funds eventually get re purposed to serve the public. But it's not easy or quick. It takes a lot of public and private perseverance, ingenuity and hard work.

For example, the Wal-Mart that eventually became the Centralia Senior Resource Center in Wisconsin Rapids, Wisconsin. Once the long process of imagining how to use this building, designing it and getting the community to accept and even love the idea was all begun, a deal had to be struck with Wal-Mart, which made some compromises but eventually made money on the deal, as well as getting the money it owed the town forgiven. Though the Wal-Mart company was more giving in other projects described here, it was Wal-Mart workers who rose to this occasion, by donating their time to the project and forcing the company to contribute. Eventually there were over 900 names of contributors on a wall in the resulting complex, which has become a center not only for seniors but for the entire community.

For me, this and others like it --the Head Start Center in Hastings, Nebraska, and the charter schools in Buffalo, New York and Laramie, Wyoming --are the most heartwarming and hopeful stories. Of the library project, one participant said, "It honestly would probably be easier to count the people in this town who didn't help."

The more colorful projects may attract other readers more, like the indoor raceway in Round Rock, Texas or the Spam Museum (the kind in the can) in Austin, Minnesota, or the Peddler's Mall in Kentucky. Christensen does the work of a scholar in describing the projects, the design issues, the outcomes, and adds enough voices of participants to provide a sense of personalities. But it is her clear and judicious prose that brings this book to life.

There's a web site of photos and some information, but the book is the thing: hefty but sturdy, with friendly type on good strong paper, with well presented images. Well-written and well published, Big Box Reuse is a pleasure as well as an important book.

Sunday, November 30, 2008

When Black Friday Comes

When Black Friday comes, I stand down near the door
and catch the great men when they dive from the 14th floor.
When Black Friday comes, I call in everything I'm owed
and before my friends find out, I'll be on the road....
--Black Friday by Steeley Dan

Black Friday--the day after Thanksgiving-- got its ironic title in recent years because as one of the biggest shopping days of the most important shopping season of the year, it was the day that retailers went into the black.

This year, as expected, not so much. If it wasn't quite Black Friday in the old sense of doom, initial reports interpreted the data as not promising, and particularly, retailers were still seeing red. Already discounting, it seems they weren't slashing prices quite enough for consumers, willing (or perhaps needing) to wait.

If this shopping season is the nadir, it's been moving in that direction for several years, at least according to expectations--and expectations tend to become needs for those corporate investors who figure in the original Black Friday of the stock market. So come January, a number of major retailers may be holding going out of business sales.

But despite the pain and problems, some kind of adjustment is long overdue. Growth in sales and profits, artificially inflated over the years by marketing, easy credit cards, near-slave labor and other ethically questionable practices, could not continue indefinitely. It's all contributed to changing us, and not always for the better.

Part of what that means is evoked by the Black Friday incident of shoppers trampling to death a Long Island Wal-Mart employee in their frenzy to get into the store as he opened the door. The Washington Post reported further that: "Other workers were trampled as they tried to rescue the man, and customers stepped over him and became irate when officials said the store was closing because of the death, police and witnesses said."

What combination of greed and desperation could lead to behavior like that? Black Friday indeed.

It's likely that we're just beginning to feel the effects of the current economic turmoil, which may well result in a lot more unemployment, lost investments and economic insecurity in the coming year. But if this Black Friday is the symbolic nadir of the consumer age, January 20 may be the beginning of a positive transformation.

We have become a society out of balance in so many ways. In America we are consumers but not producers. The excesses of advertising and marketing, together with the dumbing down that helped to make them effective, have compromised our ability to communicate honestly about matters of importance. The resources consumed by our consumption have thrown our planet into dire peril, and weakened what ultimately sustains all life, including ours.

But in this election we have endorsed the changes we need, and hired the leadership to make those changes. Now we can help to build a more balanced society and economy, with cleaner and sustainable energy systems and practices. Besides buying separately, we can work together. The malls of America can house public services as well as private enterprise.

It doesn't have to be either/or, all or nothing. But as one age is dying, another is being born. It won't be easy or painless, but we can be part of it, help to shape it, and save the future.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Abandoned Greengate Mall in western PA, a few years before it was torn down. BK photo.
The Wasting of America

In sites all over the Internet, the shopping mall has become an item of nostalgia. I understand how malls can inspire these feelings, but when so many of these cherished malls are no more, this devotion is a sign of the shopping mall's decline.

There are lots of abandoned malls that aren't necessarily cherished, but there is still lots of fascination--at Dead Malls and other sites-- with these once-gleaming and still huge spaces becoming ghostly edifices and deteriorating ruins of a dissipating consumer culture. (There's more analysis than nostalgia however at the Label Scar site.)

There are lots of reasons for these mall failures (this article on the De-Malling of America suggests some) but while some closings are due to overbuilding and bad business practices, competition from Big Box stores and other outlets, etc., there are now significant, more general economic pressures that are likely to result in even more failures.

First there were the spikes in gasoline prices and now a global economy still falling like dominoes. In the U.S., the collapse of the housing market, financial system meltdown, corporate failures, rising unemployment, etc. are already being expressed in disastrous retail sales, and the Christmas shopping season is supposed to be underway.

Change has always been part of the shopping mall industry, and many malls have transformed themselves. Re-purposing old malls is not a bad thing--often they include more public services, and build on the sense that they were always community centers. (Some similar projects are catalogued at Big Box Reuse.)

But it's the abandoned malls that really tell the story of how this particular consumerist era is ending. Because many of these malls were simply abandoned long before any economic downturn. Following the practice of Wal-Mart, some were simply emptied and left behind for bigger malls at supposedly better locations. Wal-Mart has made a science out of such waste, because it is in a sense pre-planned. They build a market with one size store, then expand the market with a bigger store at a nearby location, perhaps in a different jurisdiction that will provide them with tax breaks and free access roads before they are required to start paying taxes from the old store.

I'm told that Florida, for example, is littered with abandoned malls of this kind, just as lots of places are littered with abandoned Wal-Marts. This was not the result of recession but of excess, a symptom of greed over any other value. To generate, attract and feed consumption, there was no conscience about consuming resources, taking land that might have been part of an ecosystem or at least green space, and leaving it a few years later as a heap of broken concrete, toxic chemicals and waste--and then moving on to do the same thing again to an even larger plot of land. Not to mention what these behemoths did to the existing web of businesses and their relationships in the community.

This was part of the wasting of America, contributing to a legacy that will haunt us for decades to come. But this grim end to the consumer culture may yet be redeemed. If we are lucky and smart, we are entering a new era which balances so-called private enterprise with public enterprise--with a sustained effort, involving millions of Americans, to modernize our common infrastructure, to transform our systems of creating and distributing energy as part of renewable, sustainable, super-efficient systems.

A Green Deal for a green economy may well be in our future, and soon. We have a new president who is also dedicated to fostering new public values: not selfishness but service, not 'you're on your own' but 'we're all in this together.'

When the shopping malls that so many people remember with fondness were being designed and built, America had a greater balance of corporate and government, of private and public, and especially of rich and not rich. There was a real, robust middle class.

We're not going back to that America, but we can find new ways to get that balance back, to get the middle class back, so that opportunity is real, and we aren't destroying what ultimately sustains us--like our natural resources, our common air and water, the rest of life, and our planet.

Victor Gruen had a dream: that America needed beautiful places that would foster community, where people could share efforts and ideas as well as pleasures. That was his idea of the mall's purpose. Beauty was essential to that idea, and so was commerce. In the thousands of shopping malls that were built in the next few decades, commerce was paramount and beauty--if it existed at all--was often accidental. But people do remember at least some of those malls as the centers of their communities. So there is hope that malls can be that again.

We're always going to want to buy things, and enjoy the process. But malls are going to have to provide more than that. They're going to have to be different than they are or have ever been. Above all, they can't be causes and symptoms of the wasting of America anymore. That kind of America has no future.

Friday, August 22, 2008

As products get crappier, malls get gaudier, especially
for upscale buyers, and especially overseas. This is
one section of several theme areas in a mall in Dubai.

This summer required our household to consider some major purchases, and it was an eye-opener. It began modestly, but with portent: the old microwave gave out. The next one lasted about a week--among its defects, the light stopped working. We took that one back, exchanged it for a different brand. That one took several weeks for the light to go out. We don't much like it, it's pretty shoddy and beat up already, but it doesn't seem we'll get anything better even if we try.

Then the stove developed a glitch that involved it turning the oven on all by itself for up to a few minutes. When this began to happen more frequently, we consulted two repair people, who diagnosed it as caused by two different problems, but came up with the same price for fixing it--which was nearly the price of an identical new stove.

Our stove was about four or five years old, but salespeople of new stoves told us that these days that's all they last: five years. I admit to coming from a generation in which gas stoves lasted 20 or 30 years. Refrigerators lasted almost as long, and again we were advised not to expect too much of our new one.

I realize that new appliances have new features designed to be more energy efficient, which might increase the initial cost. But why would it affect how long they last? We also had trouble finding appliances without additional bells and whistles we didn't want or need.

As we all know by now, practically everything we buy is now made in China or some other place overseas, beyond our health and safety laws. But add to that this fairly shocking shoddiness, and we understand some of the consequences of ceding our industries. It's also a predictable consequence of the Wal-Mart- China alliance and the fixation on lowering costs, which now goes way beyond Wal-Mart to most of the products available to other retailers.

American consumers, consumed by low prices and with no thought of the waste involved, are also to blame. When Wal-Mart figured out that if they sold lawn mowers at a low enough price, it wouldn't matter that they lasted but one summer. Consumers would just come back and buy another one the following spring. Let the landfills fill up. Let future generations worry about it.

It's a psychology that in a somewhat different way also affects a somewhat different segment: cutting-edge electronics. I've also been shopping for an Ipod type MP3 player, and I liked what I saw about a new Creative Zen player. But scanning the reviews on Amazon, I saw a question about the battery--could it be replaced? The answer was, no. But it would last two or maybe three years, and by then, you'd want a new player anyway. This response was not written by the manufacturer or retailer, but by a consumer.

Now I can guess that because this player is so small that its battery is simply built into it. But the attitude that a two or three hundred dollar device is expected to last for no more than a couple of years is appalling.

But what is really disturbing is the attitude that throwing this stuff away at that rate has no consequences. The millions of discarded cell phones alone are creating environmental havoc. We are being polluted and poisoned by e-waste at a fantastic rate. Well, not we consumers so much right now--a lot of this is shipped off to poison people who can't afford to buy any of it. But our ground water, our land and air are all inevitably at risk.

All for...junk.

Saturday, April 12, 2008

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Friday, April 11, 2008


When I published a new paperback edition/revision of my book, THE MALLING OF AMERICA, I became part of a new publishing phenomenon: print-on-demand. Several outfits, including Xlibris (where I published) offer books through primarily online booksellers, and when the orders come in, the books are printed and sent. It's digital age publishing, and for certain books and authors, it's great.

But these days, it's marketing that drives the publishing business. Conventional publishers market and publicize only a few of their books, usually to see that those that would do well anyway, do even better. But even big name publishers employ marketing and p.r. firms, and most of their authors must do most of their own publicity, and even hire p.r. and marketing firms themselves.

Still, getting your book noticed is a particular problem for those who "self-publish" through these print-on-demand companies, and so they often offer marketing services for additional fees, and there are independent companies that can be hired to do this work as well.

So after I published my paperback, I've been contacted from time to time both by Xlibris and these independent companies. Usually they offer to do things I've already done, or give me access to being reviewed in publications where reviews of my book have already appeared. (Not much point in offering me possible access to Kirkus reviews when I was already reviewed there, and in a full page review in the New York Times as well as the San Francisco Chronicle, etc.) But recently I received a unique offer--and an eye-opening one.

It came from an outfit called Chosen Few Books. At the top of the letter in headline-sized type were the words: The Malling of America has been chosen! The special meaning of "being chosen" is quickly "revealed" in the letter's first sentence: "Every year Christian authors write hundreds of inspiring and uplifting books." I'm sure that's true, but what does it have to do with my book?

"THE CHOSEN FEW is a limited collection of Christian titles that we believe deserve special attention. We discovered you and The Malling of America only because we were seeking books with powerful messages that we believe will sell."

I could rationalize ways in which my book could be read as having a message that comports with a Christian message of charity, tolerance and moral values. But it seems more likely that this letter was sent without anyone there having the slightest idea of what my book is about.

That much would simply be either touching or amusing or both. But then I took a look at what they were offering. There were the standard promises: book and author photo on their website, selling the book through websites and online booksellers (where it is already available), etc. But here's what caught my eye:

"We will guarantee an interview on a Christian AM/FM radio show."

And in bold:

We will guarantee an interview on a nationally syndicated AM/FM radio show.

For these and other services, they charge a fee of $2700. Which my perhaps creaky sense of ethical practices tells me, is for Christian payola.

For those unfamiliar with the word, "payola" was a term for record companies paying disk jockeys to play certain records in the 1950s, which led to congressional hearings and ended some careers. Things have slipped sufficiently now that many people may be surprised that according to the official radio and television code of ethics, an "interview" that's guaranteed by paying for it is unethical if not illegal, unless the radio program specifically states that it is a paid commercial.

I'm certainly not against giving potential readers the opportunity to buy my book, or to hear about it. (That should be obvious from this site.) But there are rules, or there should be.

Although I have to say that if I had $2700 to throw away, it might be fascinating to hear the questions of that interviewer, trying to figure out what the powerful Christian message of my book might be. I could point to the chapter near the end where I write about commercial media as part of the Mallcondo Continuum of controlled entertainment environments designed as simultaneous advertising and product. I could offer as an example, that very interview. Although perhaps that wouldn't be a very Christian thing to do.

Sunday, March 23, 2008

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Predictably Irrational:
The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions
By Dan Ariely
Harpercollins; 304 pages; $25.95.

Call me crazy, but I’ve always thought the axiom of academic economics that says our decisions, especially buying decisions, are based on rational choice is itself irrational. Counter-examples are rife in most of world literature, movies and TV shows, as well as psychology since 1890 and the entire advertising industry, which is not notable for critiques appealing to pure reason.

There’s abundant evidence, including books from Vance Packard’s 1957 The Hidden Persuaders to Douglas Rushkoff's 1999 Coercion to Martin Howard’s 2005 We Know What You Want that advertisers and retailers thrive on pushing non-rational buttons, as have con artists peddling snake oil, pyramid schemes, Florida land, phony stocks and fake charities, from antiquity to the Internet.

But apparently it takes an official Professor of Behavioral Economics at MIT like Dan Ariely to suggest that “we are really far less rational than standard economic theory assumes. Moreover, these irrational behaviors of ours are neither random nor senseless. They are systematic, and since we repeat them again and again, predictable.”

In this book, Ariely describes experiments that pertain to general conclusions (“Why we often pay too much when we pay nothing,” “why we can’t make ourselves do what we want to do,” “why options distract us from our main objective,” etc.), and then offers extrapolations of why these tendencies are important. He then offers ideas on how to get ourselves under more rational control, individually and by changing organizational or societal structures.

Some of his research I found eye-opening, particularly the experiments involving the suggestibility that words can have. In one experiment, Asian-American women took a math exam. Half were given a preliminary questionnaire with innocuous survey questions that related to gender (opinions on coed dorms, etc); the other half, questions relating to their racial heritage (family history, etc.) The women who got the race-related survey did better on the subsequent math exam than the women who got the gender-related survey, apparently confirming the stereotypes of women as bad in math, and Asian-Americans as smart in math, as suggested just by the topic of whichever survey they were given.

Another group was given a scrambled-sentence puzzle with words “priming the concept of the elderly,” such as “Florida, bingo, ancient.” Then when they were dismissed, they walked more slowly down the corridor than members of a control group. They weren’t, Ariely notes, “themselves elderly people being reminded of their frailty—they were undergraduate students at NYU.” Yet another experiment found that after being asked to list the Ten Commandment—or when they were reminded of the Honor Code they’d agreed to-- subjects were more honest.

Other topics include how we judge (and misjudge) relative value, the power of placebos, the power of price (more ailments are allegedly cured when the subject believes the medicine is expensive), and the gently subversive idea that market forces don’t always regulate the market for the best outcomes.

Most chapters frame the information in terms of the kind of decision-making processes many of us go through in choosing what or whether to buy, though usually in more simplified form than the bewildering blitz of options, questions and information we contend with these days. Since this book is meant for a wide readership, the style is pleasantly conversational and personal, though jargon is sometimes replaced by cliché.

Ariely’s conclusions sometimes make good sense to me, like bundling preventive health care procedures to combat procrastination. But some seem to be too limited in terms of what questions the research suggests, and others too broad. His general assertions—that we tend to underestimate the role of the irrational in our perceptions and decisions, and that if we have some idea of how we are irrational, we’re less helpless and can assert more conscious control—are useful principles to repeat. Even if they’re not at all new ideas, they could well be new to readers of this book.

While Ariely’s stated goal is to understand the decision-making processes behind behavior—“yours, mine and everybody else’s” he may be overreaching in the applicability of his conclusions.“We all make the same types of mistakes over and over, because of the basic wiring of our brains,” he writes, but he presents no evidence of this causal relationship. It depends on his behavioral experiments being universal. The experiments he presents support the irrationality part of his argument, but I don’t buy the universal predictability of all their specific findings. While these experiments take place in California, New York, Massachusetts, North Carolina and so on, they rarely get off campus, and the experimental subjects (at least the ones he describes) are almost always university students.

That’s a specific demographic group that marketing psychologists study very closely, and pitch their products to in ways that don’t work with other—especially older—consumers. There are several conclusions that Ariely makes (the decisive role of image among peers when choosing food at a restaurant, or the “irrational impulse to chase worthless options” in a game, for instance) that could be quite different according to age or even income and social class. And that’s without even attempting to assess the experiment involving young men, Playboy magazines and a Saran wrap-covered laptop.

In any case the accounts of these experiments are useful as cautionary tales and examples inspiring academic as well as water cooler discussion. As for Ariely’s basic conclusion, addressed as this question—“Wouldn’t economics make a lot more sense if it were based on how people actually behave, instead of how they should behave?”—hey, aren’t those economists wild?

Update: This review now appears in the San Francisco Chronicle Sunday Book Review.