The Parable of the Shopping Mall

The Parable of the Shopping Mall

From the wreckage of capitalism an opportunity for change springs forth.


From the aftermath of wars, whether endured as victories or defeats, spring the opportunities for change. The twentieth century is flush with examples, stretching from the Russian Revolution to the creative surge here in America after the rout in Vietnam.

By its nature capitalism is war, and the savage reverses for capitalism, the gaping wounds in its pretensions, are the most salient feature in the world today. Whether in the collapse of the Western banking system, the agonies of post-Soviet economies like the Baltic and some Eastern European republics, or the rubble of Indian neoliberal policies, the economic mantras of an entire generation are going up in smoke. For the left it should be a time of unrivaled opportunity.

Take as an example the shopping mall, which changed the American landscape within the course of a generation. The left, by and large, never much cared for malls. They represented privatized space, the collapse of the public realm and the freedoms–of association and public protest–theoretically protected in public space. Malls, whether in strip or covered form, symbolized the conversion of people from citizens to consumers, the death of Main Street, architecture reduced to utter banality, without even the pizazz that allowed Venturi, Brown and Izenour to write Learning From Las Vegas in 1972.

Today, mirroring the distress in the mother ship of capitalism, the retail economy’s colonies and settlements are in decay. Consider the Bayshore Mall in my town, Eureka, California–a covered pedestrian arcade opened in the 1980s, owned by the Chicago-based General Growth Properties. Located on the edge of Humboldt Bay, though facing the opposite direction, toward Highway 101, our mall was an optimistic place in the early days. People dressed up to go there. Every pretty girl in Humboldt County wanted to work there, to see and be seen. People drove for three hours through the Yolla Bolly wilderness, all the way from Redding in the Central Valley, to savor its glories. There were stylish concerts in its ample food court.

The Bayshore Mall is in decline, embodying the misfortunes of General Growth–the second-largest mall owner in the United States–whose stock trades for 55 cents, down from $44 last May. Some major retailers, like Polo Ralph Lauren, have long since fled. Walk south along one of the arcades and you come to a wall of plywood, behind which lies the desolation that was Mervyns, a department store chain that has filed for bankruptcy. The little stores nearby have a somber mien, like people compelled to live in the chill shadow of a funeral home. The food court, serviced by six or seven fast food businesses, is becoming a sanctuary for the poor, who buy very small snacks and sit there.

Across the past forty years some 200 cities built pedestrian malls. Today, only thirty remain. Drive around any town and you can see strip malls in similar decline, their parking lots nearly empty, boarded-up stores in the retail frontage like a mouth losing its teeth, as the lights of Circuit City go out and Linens ‘n Things, Zales, Ann Taylor and Sharper Image retrench or collapse.

Out of crisis comes opportunity, one that’s been discussed for some years by movements like the New Urbanists and crusaders for the refashioning of the American urban landscape such as James Howard Kunstler, author of The Geography of Nowhere. A mall can be razed, like the Belle Promenade on the west bank of the Mississippi near New Orleans. Eureka is too poor a town to do that. But a mall can be refashioned into a more congenial quartier, albeit one blessed with easier parking.

Today’s failed or failing malls can be converted to mixed-use, with residential housing, public spaces and constructive social functions. In the Bayshore Mall even now I see groups of the mentally off-key being brought along for an outing in a place that’s sheltered, physically safe and equipped with bathrooms, and that has plenty of space with chairs or benches where they can relax. One can imagine that in many towns energetic councils and resourceful financing could offer the reeling mall operators terms and take the properties off their hands, reconfiguring the malls as social assets.

On the larger economic front, similar reconstructive engineering for the public good is vital, however adamantly Wall Street bankers plus Timothy Geithner, Larry Summers and President Obama may proclaim earnestly that the architecture of "free enterprise" capitalism must be preserved. We’re at that stage that Thurman Arnold captured so wittily in his 1937 book The Folklore of Capitalism. Arnold described with vivid humor the tenacity with which supporters of untrammeled "private enterprise" held to beliefs whose operating principles had engendered the Great Depression. He likened it to the University of Paris insisting in the seventeenth century that bleeding was still the cure for malaria, even though quinine, promoted by the Jesuits in Peru, seemed to offer a more effective remedy. "The remedy for fever," Arnold wrote, "was the art of bleeding to rid the body of those noxious vapors and humors in the blood which were the root of the illness. Of course, patients sickened and died in the process, but they were dying for a medical principle."

Is there a better description for the Republicans opposing the stimulus plan on principle or Geithner stoutly proclaiming his zeal to preserve the banking system as presently constituted?

Opportunity is there, to be seized from the jaws of capitalism’s shattering reverses. This is a chance richer than the opportunity offered and annulled in the mid-’70s. Circumstances will in all likelihood push Obama’s government to the left, just as they did to FDR’s when orthodoxy failed. The left should not be shy about pressing the challenge out of some misguided notion of preserving a polite progressive consensus. From malls to the economy’s commanding heights, let the Reconquest begin.

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