Wednesday, November 12, 2008

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.

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