The beautiful artificiality of the American mallscape
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Not far from where I live there’s a Starbucks where I sometimes work in the mornings, and a Target where I sometimes run errands. The two are about a half-mile from each other, and because it’s silly to drive that short of a distance, if I have reason to go from one to the other, I’ll walk. Yet even though there’s a sidewalk in front of the Starbucks, and a sidewalk in front of the Target, and sidewalks in front of nearly every other surrounding business, it only takes a few steps to see that these are mainly decorative. Without a car, getting from strip mall to strip mall in my town requires crossing busy intersections (often with no designated crosswalks), cutting across full parking lots, clinging to grassy embankments, and hopping from one short stretch of sidewalk to another, like an IRL game of Frogger. The best part of my makeshift Starbucks-to-Target trail is the sidewalk in front of Hampton Inn, which is separated from the parking lot by a narrow grassy patch, where the hotel’s landscapers have planted trees. From a distance, the trees looks pretty, but without much space to occupy, they’ve crowded onto the sidewalk, such that walking past them requires ducking and limbo-ing. It’s as though nobody ever expected people to actually walk on that sidewalk.
But when I used the word “best” above, I wasn’t being sarcastic. Here’s my terrible secret: I love the suburbs, and I love malls. I love chain stores and chain restaurants, and I dearly, dearly love the way that we, as imperfect-but-well-meaning human beings, try to make our places of commerce look natural. I have friends who talk about visiting relatives in regions choked with big-box stores and Olive Gardens, and they sound disconsolate. Yet this is where I live—where I’ve pretty much always lived—and I’m not eager to leave. I’m the guy in this Onion article who gets excited about the prospect of a Panera Bread opening in my neighborhood. Frequently, I crave the contrived.
Mind you, this isn’t about hating cities, or country life. I enjoy both of those, in small doses. I also hasten to add that I support local businesses as much as I can. But I think that dividing “local” from “chain” is too simplistic. Chains are local too, in their way, in that many have local owners, and nearly all hire from and pay taxes into the local economy. Anyway, Applebee’s to me is as much a part of our American heritage as the corner bar; and I’m as grateful for the new expanded Kroger near my house as I am for the farmers’ market I shop at each week. I’m not making an economic, sociopolitical, or environmental argument here; I’ve read the points for and against chains and malls, and like most of us, I try to muddle through and make choices that aren’t too destructive, though I acknowledge some failures in that area. But aside from those concerns, I find the experience of the great American mallscape to have a lot more charm than is widely acknowledged.
I think this goes hand-in-hand with my love of retro-futurism: the past’s idea of what the future will be. One of my all-time favorite pieces of American cinema—no joke—is Walt Disney’s pitch-film for EPCOT, a project that was originally conceived as an actual working city of the future, complete with bubble-domed downtown, a radial street plan, and individualized electric-rail transportation. There’s just such an pre-adolescent optimism about this idea: It’s Disney designing the ultimate “secret lair,” imagining all that people would need to live a comfortable, happy, productive life in a completely constructed habitat.
Those kind of large-scale projects have a hard time getting off the ground in our fractured democracy, though (for better or worse), and so it’s left to monied visionaries to build them on a smaller scale: as amusement parks, luxury resorts, cruise ships, chain restaurants, and shopping malls. Granted, there’s not much grandeur to the common strip mall, but the better enclosed malls—the ones that haven’t closed down, that is—are like EPCOT in miniature, from their climate-controlled interiors to their planned-out array of shops, attractions, and food. Walking through indoor malls, it’s not too hard to imagine them as sealed-off communities of the future, where the only sign of the changing seasons are the holiday decorations going up and coming down. Even the new trend in malls—toward car-free open-air plazas that look like mid-20th-century downtowns—isn’t too far removed from Disney’s vision of pure, perfected Americana.
Yet what appeals most to me about the design and execution of malls is that there remain kinks that can never be wholly smoothed out—especially once the facilities start to age. The plastic plants gather dust. The public’s interest in dipped candles and video arcades wanes. Retail spaces open up, and are often re-filled with much less care than in the original plan. My fondest memories of the malls of my youth are the stores that seemed out of place: the weird little collectibles outlets or quasi head shops that worked their way into the mall community and then hung in.
And even in the “mainstream” stores, there were always nooks. I bought Kurt Vonnegut paperbacks with Waldenbooks gift certificates (and snuck peeks at nudes in the store’s photography section). I found Smiths imports and Sonic Youth albums at Camelot Records. I saw my first Coen brothers, Spike Lee, and David Lynch movies at mall multiplexes. You know that Jurassic Park line about how “life finds a way?” Well, the same is true of commerce. Just as malls have to fill their retail spaces—even if that means renting to a weird dude who sells role-playing games—so stores have to fill their shelves, even if that means carrying material that would melt Walt Disney’s frozen corpse.
Much of the argument over whether or not malls are bland and lame is similar to the argument over “authenticity” in popular culture. “Is this band really hardcore or a bunch of poseurs?” “Is this the real folk-country-blues, or just some college kids who traded in their Casio keyboards for banjos?” But “authenticity” can have different meanings, depending on what the subject in question is being authentic to. A musician who grew up in the suburbs listening to “fake” blues might still make something powerful and personal out of those influences. A chain restaurant can still turn out a decent hamburger. The suburbs and their malls may not have the hip cachet of the city, or the integrity of the back-to-nature crowd, but they’re “real” too—in their artificial way—and have their own funky little corners to explore.
I have a recurring dream I call the “secret city” dream, wherein I turn a familiar corner and find myself in an unfamiliar marketplace, full of amazing merchandise the likes of which I’ve never seen. But while I call it a “secret city,” I know that I’m modeling it more on the shopping malls I haunted in my teens. Those spaces looked inorganic, like they sprung fully formed out of somebody’s head. Yet sometimes they’d contain real surprises and wonders, as though their creators had lost their train of thought. It’s the humanity of that that keeps me ducking under those trees, where no trees should be.