Wednesday, June 28, 2017

ghost malls, the denudation of place, & The Process


Hmm. Been a month since my last post. Guess I fell out of the saddle and have had a hard time getting back up in it.

Since I was in Jersey a couple weeks ago and had an appetite for the ramshackle (having recently digested Sputnik Photos' Lost Territories Wordbook during a visit to Poland), I paid a visit to the The Shops at Ledgewood Commons, colloquially called the Ledgewood Mall.

If there was any mall in Morris County, New Jersey destined to become a ghost mall, it was Ledgewood. Of the three indoor shopping plazas in the immediate area (less than half an hour's drive away), it was the obvious runt. You really only took a trip there when you had last-minute Christmas shopping to do and lacked the strength for another plunge into the yuletide vortices at the Rockaway Mall, or when your budget restricted you from patronizing the upscale mall at Short Hills. Ledgewood was didn't even have a food court, and was in a one-story building. In retrospect, the surest sign of its moribundity (even before the Great Recession revealed the depths to which the irreversible rot had seeped) was that Starbucks never bothered with colonizing it. Seattle knew which way the winds were blowing in Ledgewood.

I only remember four of the shops that used to be there, and of them I only remember one by name: Hero Town, the area's premier destination for Magic: the Gathering cards, comic books, and Warhammer 40,000 miniatures. Directly across from Hero Town was an arcade, and for a while it was a pretty good one: in 1997 it had X-Men Vs. Street Fighter, Samurai Shodown 2/Metal Slug/Bust-a-Move, Gunblade NY, and Time Crisis cabinets, and the legendary Twilight Zone pinball table. When I needed a break from Magic during the Wednesday night Arena League sessions at Hero Town, I'd go see if anyone was playing X-Men Vs. Street Fighter, and then head down the corridor to a little eatery that sold hot dogs and Jolt Cola for a dollar each. Most of the other warbling 13- and 14-year-old misfits opted for the nearby pizza shop, where they'd park at a table together and peel open Alliances and Mirage booster packs.

Now that I think of it: none of the shops I patronized in Ledgewood were franchises.

Holy time warps, Batman! I just found a zombie website (last modified in 2007, but clearly much older) listing local businesses in North Jersey. Most of its images are broken, but one of the extant pics is a photo of Hero Town from when it was alive and well.


Quaint memories.

Here's what the Ledgewood mall's interior looks like as of June 2017:


When I was very young I often pretended the corridors were canals, I was a speedboat, and the russet-colored squares were whirlpools. I think my experience with the NES game Cobra Triangle was responsible for that.

As you can see: the lights are on. The doors are unlocked. The air conditioner is running at a low setting, and the PA system is still administering a steady drip-drip-drip of lite FM. As the CAUTION signs indicate, the floor had recently been mopped. And I did check—most of those plants are alive, so the property owners are still paying somebody to water them.

But the there aren't any tenants. Don't be fooled by the dark area you see in the distance: that's just a banner hanging from the wall, left by a kitchenware store that was planning either to move in or reopen, and evidently thought better of it.

After I took this picture and walked ahead a little ways, a woman came around the corner from the left. She was probably in her sixties, and wearing sweatpants. She moved with a brisk stride, fingers folded into fists, cleaving to the perimeter of dark tiles along the walls. She was Ledgewood's last surviving power walker.

Her plodding gait and the low arc of her swinging arms intimated halfheartedness.

If you squint, you can see the entrance to Marshall's in the distance.

The Leviathan.

Two of the four anchor stores are still open: Marshall's and Walmart. (The rentiers must have been desperate: they had to have known that letting in Walmart would eventually cost them the rest of their tenants.) As it stands now, the Ledgewood Mall basically exists as an indoor pedestrian thoroughfare between Walmart and Marshall's. The only commerce occurring between the two big boxes is at couple of soda vending machines, and I suspect the only people visiting those are the guys who come in to clean the floors and care for the plants.

(Postscript correction: apparently three anchor stores are still open for business: the third is an Ashley HomeStore. I hadn't noticed it when I was there.)

My vocabulary in behaviorism or environmental psychology is insufficiently up to snuff to articulate it clearly, but the Ledgewood mall was an object lesson in how particular types of environments train one to act within them. I walked slowly, deliberately, and quietly—an observer might have reported I seemed cautious, maybe even deferential, as though I were in a museum or mausoleum. I suppose the Ledgewood Mall is a little something of both.


More memories: around 1998 or 1999, when I got tired of playing (read: spending all my money on) Magic cards, I mostly stopped visiting Ledgewood. I was 14 or 15 years old and filled with angst. I'd discovered Nine Inch Nails and Marilyn Manson. I wanted to spend more of my nights out of the house with my black-clad peers, beyond the scrutinizing eyes of parental supervision. This was when I became a full-fledged mallrat at the Rockaway Mall. I must have been dropped off there two, three times a week, usually with a friend. We weren't there to buy anything; these were social trips. We were there to spend quality time with each other and to make the acquaintance of the other rodents in fishnet undershirts and black nail polish loitering in and outside of Hot Topic. To play fighting games and talk about fighting games in the arcade. To flirt with and/or deliberately frighten off girls. To buy tabs of acid that didn't actually work. To play jejune pranks on the people behind the counter in stores we didn't like. To hang out on the sidewalk outside the west exit and talk with the older kids who smoked cigarettes and had scars on their wrists. To play hide-and-seek in Sears. When I went on my first date during my freshman year of high school, where do you think each of us had our parents drop us off so we could make out in the stairwell of a utility hall?

If this is a nostalgic paean to the mall, it is a reluctant one. My peers and I were there for three reasons.

One: we were too socially alienated/academically unmotivated for anything else. I quit playing basketball and dropped out of karate because I didn't care for most of the other people in the league and at the dojo. Staying in school past 3:00 PM to participate in extracurricular clubs was absolutely out of the question because I absolutely hated being there. After my father moved 45 minutes away in the wake of the divorce, I stopped attending the local Episcopal church on Sundays, so my involvement there came to an end. (To my relief, I think.)

Two: My friends and I didn't have any better ideas. This one is on us. When summertime rolled around, we slept over at each others' houses, roamed the streets and woods and graveyards after dark, and trekked to Dunkin' Donuts and the Mobil Mart because, well, they were the only places that were open that wouldn't have taken forty minutes to walk to. But during the winter and on school nights, we either neglected homework to play video games and peruse internet porn, or we pleaded with our parents to take us to the mall. We couldn't think of much else to do.

Three: As number two may have implied, there wasn't anywhere else to go. And this was the big one.

I never particularly liked the cartoon Doug, but I watched it anyway. (That's what one does when one is a child and there's a TV in the living room.) There was only one thing about Doug I ever found fascinating: the Honker Burger, where Doug and his friends/enemies congregated after school. That there was, in Doug Funnie's world, a place where kids could walk to and hang out was astonishing to me. The town I grew up is pure suburban sprawl: miles and miles of clustered residential developments, built up without any aforethought of design, no sidewalks, altogether too hilly to get around by bicycle, and with no viable public transit system. (In its defense, it has very nice public parks/open spaces, but that's beside the point here.) If you didn't own a car, you were effectively paralyzed—or absolutely dependent on somebody who did.

The runaway growth of the nebulous postwar suburbs and the existence/former stature of the shopping mall are not unrelated. Quite the opposite: as a matter of fact, their lives were braided tightly together from the start.

After stopping in Ledgewood I felt compelled to revisit Lizabeth Cohen's exhaustive (and sometimes exhausting) A Consumer's Republic: The Politics of Mass Consumption in Postwar America (2003), where she lays out the convergent causes and mutualistic relationship between suburbs and shopping plazas as each took root in the United States during the 1950s. The chapter concerned ("Commerce: Reconfiguring Community Marketplaces") is too informative not to excerpt at length:
As existing suburban town centers proved inadequate to support all the consumption desired by the influx of new residents, as suburbanites more and more attached to their cars increasingly viewed returning to urban downtowns to shop as inconvenient, and as retailers came to realize that suburban residents, with their young families, new homes, and vast consumer appetites, offered a lucrative frontier ripe for conquer, the regional shopping center emerged as a new form of community marketplace. [Political scientist Robert Wood] underscored the tremendous increase in suburban share of total metropolitan retail trade from 4 percent in 1939 to 31 percent by 1948; by 1961 it would total almost 60 percent in the ten largest population centers. ...

The development of a new, distinctive kind of metropolitan marketplace suited to mass suburbia lagged behind the construction of new residences. New suburbanites who had themselves grown up in urban neighborhoods walking to corner stores and taking public transportation to shop downtown had to contend with inadequate retail options until at least the mid-1950s ... [M]any new suburbanites of the 1940s and 1950s continued to depend on the big city for major purchases, making do with the small, locally owned commercial outlets in neighboring towns for minor needs.
The grand opening of the Middletown Shopping Center in
November, 1957 (via Vintage Everyday).

It was not until the late 1950s that a new market structure appropriate to this suburbanized, mass consumption society prevailed. Important precedents existed in the branch department stores and prototypical shopping centers constructed between the 1920s and 1940s in outlying city neighborhoods and in older suburban communities, which began the process of decentralizing retail dollars away from downtown. But the scale required now was much larger. By 1957, 940 shopping centers had already been built. That number more than doubled by 1960, and doubled again by 1963; by 1976 the 17,250 shopping centers in the nation would represent an almost nineteenfold increase over twenty years. With postwar suburbanites finally living the motorized existence that had been predicted for American society since the 1920s, traffic congestion and parking problems discouraged commercial developers from expanding in central business districts of major cities and smaller market towns, already hindered by a short supply of developable space. Rather, retailers preferred catering to suburbanites on the open land where they now lived and drove, deeming it a unique opportunity to reinvent community life with their private projects at its heart.
Merchandisers at first built stores along the new highways, in retail "strips" that dispersed consumers could easily reach by car. By the 1950s, however, commercial developers—many of whom owned department stores—devoted themselves to constructing a new kind of marketplace, the regional shopping center, aimed at satisfying suburbanites' consumption and community needs, which had similarly been paired in the old town centers. Strategically located at highway intersections or along the busiest thoroughfares, the regional shopping center aimed at attracting patrons living within half an hour's drive who would come by car, park in the abundant lots provided, and then proceed on foot ... Here was the "new city" of the postwar era, a community center suited to an economy and society built around mass consumption. Well-designed regional shopping centers, it was thought, would provide the ideal core for settlements that grew by adding residential nodes off major roadways rather than concentric rings from downtown, as in cities and earlier suburban communities. After spending several months in the late 1950s visiting what he called "modern-day downtowns," Women's Wear Daily columnist Samuel Feinberg was moved to invoke Lincoln Steffens's proclamation on his return from the Soviet Union in the 1920s: "I have seen the future and it works." ....
By 1973 a U.S. News & World Report study reported that Americans of all ages spent more time in shopping centers than anywhere else, except for work, school, or home. In the new public place of the shopping center, consuming and leisure were becoming inseparably intertwined, constructing community experiences around the cultural tastes of white middle-class suburbanites.
Three things we can take away from this:

(1) There was a period in our nation's history when people were hailing shopping malls as the arrival of the American future. Breathe that in for a moment. At the time, they represented a cutting-edge union of proliferated technology, shiny new infrastructure, and novel approaches to commerce. People were excited about them.

(2) The mall was conceived not solely as a commercial venue, but as a social one—a community center situated on privately owned property. When I went to the Rockaway Mall as a stupid teenager to hang out with my stupid teenage friends and do stupid teenage things, we were doing precisely what its architects intended for us to do. The mall became a hub of social activity (adolescent or otherwise) by its very design, which followed and informed, step by step, the development of the interminable residential zones it served. (Relevant postscript: a viewer commenting on the video above writes that the Ledgewood Mall used to host local craft fairs during the 1980s.)

(3) While the suburban town without a center and the regional shopping mall facilitated each other's growth (though, according to Cohen, the sprawl preceded the mall), neither could have existed without the automobile. A machine whose purpose is to bridge gaps, to shrink distances—to diminish space.

(One stage began with Ford's Model T; the next began with America Online. The Model T was not the first automobile, and AOL was not the first web portal—but each entity inaugurates a step forward in The Process. But we're skipping ahead.)

Several of the towns surrounding the Rockaway Mall (excluding the one I grew up in) have been around longer than most of the sprawl, having been built up before World War II around railroads, canals, and mines. These towns usually have central axes—main streets. When I was a kid it did occur to me that most of these towns were drab at best, and run down at worst. Had I been more attentive, and had I possessed a natural aptitude for process thinking, I might have worked out the connection between the state of these starveling little commercial strips and the giant shopping plaza just a few miles away. The Rockaway Mall was erected in 1977: by the mid 1990s, the local businesses' inability to compete with a two-story fortress housing dozens of national retail chains and four department stores—not to mention the malls already standing in Wayne, Ledgewood, Short Hills, and Paramus, and the retail strips along the local highways—was plain to anyone who cared to look.

Cohen describes the effect of the Paramaus' Garden State Plaza on the nearby city of Paterson:
In 1950, Paterson was a major shopping district, while retail in Paramus hardly existed. Twenty years later, Paterson found itself suffering from long-term economic decline, ignored by recently constructed parkways, turnpikes, and interstates, and facing growing competition from shopping centers, while Paramus was well on its way to becoming one of the largest retail centers in the world. As the segmentation of consumer markets became the guiding principle in postwar commerce, no amount of revitalization could make a city whose population was becoming increasingly minority and poor attractive to white middle-class shoppers with money to spend.
In January it was reported that crime in Paterson had fallen to a 25-year low: only 1,126 violent crimes were reported in 2016, and just nineteen murders! William Carlos Williams would be proud.

Further to the west, in my neck of the woods, one could observe the same phenomenon on a smaller scale in Dover, which is structured around a small urbanized core. Like Paterson, it was once a hub of local commerce. A 1984 New York Times piece about "the old mining town of Dover" states that "new Interstate highways and suburban shopping malls drained Dover's economy." But the journalist sees reason for hope:
Four years ago, the intersection of East Blackwell and Morris Streets——the heart of the downtown shopping district——was flanked by empty, boarded-up buildings that had been dark for more than a decade. More than 40 stores were vacant and weeds as tall as trees sprouted from cleared urban-renewal land.

Today, there are no more than a handful of vacancies downtown and the once boarded-up buildings on Morris and East Blackwell, as well as a dozen other streets, are bright with steam-cleaned brick facades and renovated interiors refashioned into offices and residential condominiums.

Bulldozers scurry over the empty lots preparing the ground for four new buildings that will hold 69 condominium apartments, and the old railroad station is going to become a new restaurant.

The key to the turnaround was a decision by city officials to abandon an earlier plan to clear tracts downtown for redevelopment with new buildings and instead to offer existing structures, many with character, for renovation and recycling. Once it got started, Dover's revival moved so quickly and so strongly that town officials only regret that they had not more accurately anticipated what would happen. ...
Hugh E. DeFazio Jr., a local lawyer who grew up in Dover, is the principal in a firm that is developing the project. Last year he completed a large rehabilitation project that converted six rundown brick buildings on East Blackwell Street into residential and commercial condominiums that have helped set the tone for Dover's revival.
Condominiums in the new project are selling for $68,900 to $85,000, prices that set them well below average in the active Morris County market. Mr. DeFazio said that deposits had already been placed on 61 of the units, and that the first of the four buildings should be ready for occupancy by next spring.
So far, most buyers at Dover Park Plaza have been young professionals and married couples purchasing their first homes. Mr. DeFazio said they were attracted by the low prices and by the conveniences of living in town, where everything, including the train to Hoboken, is within walking distance.
The Times' and Mr. DeFazio's optimism was a little premature. The yuppies moving into the new condos in the 1980s apparently didn't stay for very long. By the time I was a teenager the white kids in my school were (unaffectionately) calling the town "Dover Rico" because of the influx of Latin American immigrants drawn in by deflated property values. Dover is still a predominately Latinx town (the United States Census reported that almost 70% of the population identified as such in 2010) and is actually a rather cheery place—way nicer than Paterson. But it must needs be mentioned that the Census also showed that Dover's median family income ($61,187—less than those condos' pre-inflation prices) is lower than that of all four towns directly bordering it.

Supposedly an image of Dover in the 1950s. I recognize the hill on the
horizon and the sideways traffic lights, but nothing else.

Of Dover's four immediate neighbors, the one with the lowest median family income according to the 2010 Census ($73,571) is Wharton, another former mining town built up around a main street. If you're a Cyndi Lauper fan, you might recognize Main Street Wharton from the "Time After Time" video.

Wharton, NJ, 1983, via "Time After Time." There ain't no department stores
in Wharton nowadays.


Whatever Wikipedia's word is worth, it calls Betty's Department Store a
"a staple of the community in the 1970s." I have a hard time believing
a storefront like this ever existed in Wharton.

Dover and Wharton both directly border Rockaway Township.

Hmm.

Rockaway's median family income in 2000 (according to the Census of that year) was $64,957. Pretty low for the town hosting what was then the axis of retail commerce for a huge chunk of Morris and Sussex Counties. But then again, nobody living in Rockaway actually owned the mall or anything in it. (With the possible exception of the occasional independent CD store or T-shirt printer, but it's doubtful their owners/operators were in a position to pay off their mortgages earlier than planned, and none of them lasted long into the 2000s.)

Even the power center where the decaying Ledgewood Mall is situated has had a visible effect on the surrounding area. The Ledgewood Mall is on NJ Route 10, which runs parallel to US Route 46 for a few miles. Route 10 is all strip malls and fast food joints, and has been for as long as I can remember. The buildings along Route 46 have always been a mixture of little houses, diners that are only open before noon, antique shops, locksmiths, coin appraisers, engraving businesses, sellers of made-to-order artisinal stationary, independent auto repair garages, non-Subway sandwich shops, and that one janky Victorian mansion purporting to be a janky hotel. The parking lots are usually empty, and most of the time you see CLOSED signs over the doors and the window blinds down. Many of the buildings are empty. After all, there's a Home Depot, a Staples, and a Walmart two miles away. The old mom-and-pop outfits just couldn't (and can't) compete.

Lately Route 10 isn't looking so hale itself. The blight is radiating outward from Ledgewood. Looking around the adjacent Roxbury Mall (a huge outdoor strip) on Google Street View I see several vacancies in the central building, and can't even remember who the previous tenants might have been. Dress Barn isn't long for this world. Neither is Mandee's. GameStop's fate is probably up in the air. It's anyone's guess how much longer Barnes & Noble can hold on, or how the Batteries Plus across the street can still pay its rent. The Pizza Hut and Ruby Tuesday that depended on traffic the plaza are both gone.

The Rockaway Mall's best days are also clearly behind it. A day after peering inside Ledgewood I stopped over at Rockaway (I needed to buy a new backpack), and it was about as quiet as I've ever seen it. Maybe I came at a bad time (noon on a Saturday), but there were virtually no teenage mallrats to be found. Seventeen years ago, the place would have been slithering with little scene kids.

A 2016 Business Insider poll of 110 teenagers tells me I shouldn't be surprised:
To figure out more about this elusive generation, Business Insider polled 110 teens.

One statistic stuck out: many don't hang out at the mall anymore; they don't think it's cool.
A little over 59% said the mall is not a cool place to hang out; 40.74% said it was.
This would seem to corroborate an 2014 NPR Youth Radio story submitted by a high school student in Georgia: "Teens And [sic] Mall Culture: The Fading Love Affair?":
Allison and I spend a lot more time with technology than at the mall.

"I definitely will sit in the house watching TV or Netflix for several hours straight and just be like, 'I feel fat and like I need to go move.' But then again, Netflix is so wonderful," she says.

To be fair, Allison likes doing active things too, like going to the park to play Frisbee or soccer with friends. But the stereotype of teens hanging out together while on their devices isn't totally off the mark.

"We are all constantly on our cellphones," she says. "That's true, but that doesn't mean we don't speak to one another. We still talk to one another. And sometimes we talk about things that are happening on social media. For example, Twitter fights are very entertaining to observe and so are Facebook fights. It's great entertainment. Free entertainment. I don't think it's laziness. It's just inconvenient to go to the mall. Why would you go to the mall? It's unnecessary."

As for shopping, Allison does it online.
And if we need a reminder of the big picture: a 2016 TIME piece, "Shopping Malls Closing: A Third Will Close Soon:"
Shopping malls are rapidly losing their appeal with shoppers.

About one-third of malls in the U.S. will shut their doors in the coming years, retail analyst Jan Kniffen told CNBC Thursday. His prediction comes in the wake of Macy's reporting its worst consecutive same-store sales decline since the financial crisis.

Macy's and its fellow retailers in American malls are challenged by an oversupply of retail space as customers migrate toward online shopping, as well as fast fashion retailers like H&M and off-price stores such as T.J. Maxx. As a result, about 400 of the country's 1,100 enclosed malls will fail in the upcoming years. Of those that remain, he predicts that about 250 will thrive and the rest will continue to struggle. 
Between the retail plazas of Route 10 and the geriatric family-owned shops of nearby Route 46, and between the Rockaway Mall and Dover's Blackwell Street, one can view in opposition the local winners and losers of the postwar, pre-digital economy—living artifacts of The Process, diagramming the social and economic forces of their times as vividly as a living tree divulges the circumstances of its growth to anyone who knows what to look for.

But now it's looking like they might all be losers. To see the probable winners, you need only take your smartphone out of your pocket and open the Amazon or Facebook app.

To be clear, I am not in mourning for the dying shopping malls of the suburbs. But: the economy—the institutions and practices by which a society produces its resources and allots them to its people, and the mechanisms of distribution—is the bedrock on which the whole cathedral of human affairs is built. Everything we do as individuals and an aggregate proceeds it. Retail counts for something like two-thirds of the United States' GDP, and it still employs the most people of any private sector. When the composure of the retail industry is reconfigured, it changes everything and everyone it touches. I'd be more than happy to toast the end of the twentieth-century shopping plaza—celebrate the weeds chewing up the parking lot and the ruderal trees cracking open the stucco facades—if so many people's livelihoods weren't dependent on its vitality. And I'd be less concerned if the US economy were more generous in providing livable alternatives to people pushed out of the workforce by store closures (and not aggressively seeking to obsolesce them through automation).

The instability of the capitalist society—businesses shuttering, mass layoffs, economic shocks and downturns, regional blight and flight, the changing of the rules of the "make enough money to survive (and if possible thrive)" game every few decades—isn't a flaw of the system. It's a feature. It's the price we pay for inexpensive consumer goods, neat gadgets, fast food, and one-day delivery. (By consensus, we've deemed it an acceptable trade-off.) Marx called it "social anarchy," one which "turns every economical progress into a social calamity."

The Process is anarchic in the sense that it is not overseen or orchestrated by any central authority, but it is not random: it is a logical, mass-scale operation of refinement. Consistent patterns may be observed (or, at the least, conjectured):

I.) The tendency towards centralization and consolidation. Cohen uses the word "decentralization" to characterize the rerouting of commerce from medial shopping districts to constellated plazas and malls during the second half of the twentieth century, but this is somewhat misleading. In terms of geography, retail locations did became more diffuse—but while the locations of stores radiated outward from established population centers after the 1950s, in terms of ownership the forces are entirely centripetal.

(Anecdotal) Example 1: When I was very young, my parents bought Christmas cards and got prescriptions filled at a local business called Morris Country Drugstore. Its owner lived in the same town where he set up shop. His daughter was in some of my classes. By now it must be at least ten years since it closed after dwindling for a while with half-empty wall display. and it's been maybe a little more than ten years since CVS and Walgreens began carpet bombing the area with new locations. Now my mother gets her prescriptions filled at the CVS on Route 10. The money she spends there is funneled toward the CVS Health Corporation (NYSE: CVS), which ranked seventh on the Fortune 500 list in 2016— an entity which has no personal stakes in nor obligations to the community in which it operates, save for its interest in continuing to persuade residents to buy what it's selling.

(Anecdotal) Example 2: Not only am I old enough to remember video rental stores, I'm also old enough to remember video rental stores that weren't Blockbuster. (The one my parents used to visit to rent Disney movies for my sister and NES games for me also developed film and performed copy shop services.) They all mysteriously disappeared at about the same time Blockbuster opened locations in the area. I was too young then to think to wonder what the proprietors did after they lost their shops.

Example 3: In her seminal No Logo (2000) Naomi Klein dedicates some pages to the assault on local businesses by corporate franchises with cynosure branding and very deep war chests. Here is a pithy excerpt:
The combination of the big-box and clustering approaches to retailing is having a transformative effect on the retail landscape. Though they represent very different retail trends, the combined effect of the Wal-Mart and Starbucks models has been to gradually erode the market share of small business in what was one of the few fields remaining where independent operators stood a solid chance of competing head-to-head with multinationals. With the chains able to outbid smaller competitors for space and supplies with barely a second thought, retail has become a battle of the big spenders. Whether they are using their clout to drive prices down to impossibly low levels, to keep them artificially high or simply to seize near monopolistic market shares, the net effect is the same: a retail arena in which size is a prerequisite and small companies can barely maintain a toehold. Like sumo wrestlers, the competitors in this game must push the limits of their weight category; bigness begets bigness.

Of course independent stores and restaurants continue to open and thrive, but more and more, these are high-end, specialty retailers in gentrified neighborhoods, while the suburbs, small towns and working-class neighborhoods get blanketed in——and blasted by——the self-replicating clones. This shift affects not only who can stay in business but also ... what makes it onto the store's shelves.
This is what Marxists mean when they talk about centralization: wealth accumulating within fewer and fewer hands as large firms use the superior resources at their disposal to clear the playing field (and eventually kill off or absorb each other). Imagine six towns like Wharton are served by six Betty's Department Stores in the 1950s. When the shopping mall appears in the 1970s, they're forced to compete with Macy's and Sears at the shopping mall straddling the nearby Interstate, and they all eventually close their doors by 1980. But now it's 2010 and the game continues, and Macy's and Sears have to deal with the likes of Amazon—a fight they can't possibly win. Six local businesses are bled dry by two national franchises, which are then leeched to death by an e-commerce monolith (and its smaller online "competitors"). Six becomes two, two becomes one. Consolidation.

II.) The fissioning of residential space and commercial space. As the single-use zoned sprawl takes over, the places where people live and the places where they work/shop/congregate are separated like solids in a centrifuge, and then linked via automobile. The upshot of this geographical decentralization is that the place where one lives is no longer where (or even close to) the place where one works. The customers one serves, the bosses they work for, and the clerks who ring them up are no longer one's neighbors. My mother certainly doesn't communicate with anyone at CVS on a first-name basis like she did at the Morris County Drugstore. When I worked at the Rockaway Mall way back in 2000–2002, several of my coworkers had a 30–40 minute commute between their job and their home.

Cleverly, the architects of this scheme arrange things such that community functions are increasingly relocated to privately owned commercial zones instead of residential or public areas (as Cohen points out above, and examines in far more detail elsewhere). When the activities of community are displaced from the neighborhood, so is community itself. "One in three Americans," claims sociologist D. Stanley Eitzen, "has never spent an evening with a neighbor."

III.) Standardization. A long-term consequence of the sprawl, the mall, and the car was the homogenization of place in much of the United States. Take your car into any suburb, get off at most any Interstate exit, and the places you can park, get out, and be at are the same as they are anywhere else—and controlled by the same entities. A landscape of identical McDonald's restaurants, identical McMansions, identical strips housing identical franchises staffed by service workers wearing identical uniforms, stealing peeks at their identical white-and-blue Facebook timelines.

William Least Heat Moon's wonderful Blue Highways: A Journey into America (1982) prods at this phenomenon. It breaks my heart to say that I can't locate my copy, so we'll have to quote a passage transcribed by another fan:
Maybe America should make the national bird a Kentucky Fried Leghorn and put Ronald McDonald on the dollar bill ... the franchise system has almost obliterated the local cafes and grills and catfish parlors serving distinctly regional food, much of it made from truly secret recipes. In another time, to eat in Frankfort [KY] was to know you were eating in Kentucky. You couldn’t find the same thing in Lompoc or Weehawken.
 IV.) The diminishing of place. Having spent a lot of time in the sprawl, I can say that many (most?) people living there don't really know or interact with it as a place. The 25 miles of paved road between their driveway and the shopping center hosting the Labcorp they work at and the Walmart they shop at exist only in the abstract to them: so many flat images crawling across the glass as they sit in the interior of their cars and wait to be at where they're going. (It is telling that many of us reckon transit distances in terms of minutes instead of miles. Miles imply space, volume, contents; minutes do not.) Nearly everything between Point A and Point B exists in a kind of meaningless psuedospace—and because of the homogenization of the cultural-commercial landscape, it and the gaps separating Point A from Point C or Point B from point D are practically fungible.

(Tangential: green movements will always be hamstrung by the reality that people won't ever take environmentalism seriously as long as "the environment" is just something they whizz past at 55 mph inside an air-conditioned metal capsule, or stare at through numbed, disinterested eyes as they idle in rush-hour traffic—or when it's only the occasional pretty flat thing they scroll past on their Instagram timeline as their automated car conveys them through the blank intervals between "was there" and "will be there.")

Calvin and Hobbes, 1992

We have Silicon Valley to thank for rescuing us from these oppressively bland landscapes we've cultivated and would clearly prefer to not bother with—by making them even more irrelevant to us. Now the shops come to us. Our friends come to us. The movie theaters and arcades come to us. Wherever we are. Whenever we want. All in abstracted form, of course—but the very purpose of abstraction is expediency, is it not?

The regional malls and power centers sundered the corner shops and mom-and-pop department stores of prewar suburban towns because of their massive sizes (permitting them to put more product on the shelves, carry a wider variety of items, and accommodate more shoppers) and locations (easily accessible via the automobiles that residents of the scattered postwar suburbs were practically required to own, and surrounded by "vacant" land that could be converted into acre upon acre of parking space). The combined and reinforcing impacts of single-use zoned neighborhoods, the usurpation of local businesses by franchises, and the automobile becoming residents' primary medium of interaction with the physical world between their homes and places of business/leisure resulted in a gradual and prolonged rupturing of our attunement to place and its particulars.

Into the arena arrive the internet and the smartphone. Once again, the ascendant victors in the capitalist battle royale are triumphant because of their advantages in terms of size and location. (Among other things, of course.) But now they win because they've abstracted their size and transcended location. As it turns out, an insubstantial entity occupies infinitely more volume than a merely big one, and a location that's easily accessible is far less convenient than one that's nowhere. An Amazon distribution center is as large as a shopping mall, but the Amazon a consumer confronts is small enough to fit in his or her pocket. And its location is literally everywhere, anywhere the public can get wireless service. Transactions are conducted between the user and the software, not between a human customer and a human clerk. If or when Amazon gets its drone delivery system up and running, the lucky Prime subscribers won't even have to suffer the bodily presence of a mail carrier at their doors.

As online commerce redirects people and their credit cards away from the shopping centers that terraformed postwar America, Silicon Valley simultaneously intervenes to replace the mall in its function as a commercially-owned community setting. Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, et al. are untethered from physical space itself, and yet the "venues" themselves remain for-profit enterprises. In our improved future, we inhabit corporate space regardless of our physical location—and our physical locations become matters of transit times between nodes on the GPS rather than places we fully inhabit and know.

It took the automotive revolution to allow commerce to finally snap the last cable binding it to community. Likewise, the separation of the meeting place and marketplace from habitable, three-dimensional space awaited the digital revolution.

When novelist Gary Shyeygnart bought an iPhone in 2008, "The first thing that happened was that New York fell away around me. It disappeared. Poof." The phenomenon isn't just limited to New York. We're taking our eyes off everywhere. We're divesting from place (topos) itself as our affairs become ever more fragmented and, paradoxically, more centralized.

If the directional vector of the forces guiding and amplified by suburbanization was towards atomization, homogenization, and the abstraction of/estrangement from physical space and its contents, then despite the damage the twenty-first century impulse has inflicted on the most visible agents of this transformation, what we're seeing is simply the next logical step of The Process. Further refinement. A sloughing off of dead skin in accordance with the organism's continuous growth. More and better, forever.

The dead mall in Ledgewood, New Jersey stands as a fossil study of the prior stage: somebody's droll idea of Point B.

3 comments:

  1. What next, I wonder. *watches fireworks while playing pokemon go*

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  2. I was back home in San Jose this past week for a funeral, and while there I made time to visit Vallco, the mall that had been the commercial center of my childhood and adolescence. It'd been on the wane for years - Valley Fair, a three-story goliath complete with food court just a couple miles down the road, had always been more successful - but now it was practically dead. There is one store inside it that still operates, an optometrist. Even the McDonald's attached to the main building is shuttered, though the AMC theater is still going and the bowling alley that occupies the space that had once been an arcade seems to still be in business.

    But what I found remarkable was that right across the street the office buildings that had always been there had been taken out, replaced with high-end apartment buildings and townhouses, and high-class restaurants and eateries that are either non-franchises or so exclusive they don't have the same ubiquity as a McDonald's or Wal-Mart.

    It's all part of a revitalization plan called 'Main St. Cupertino,' and it hasn't touched Vallco at all. It's as if the land or building of the zombie mall is considered poison, and the new life making a go in the same area needed that street as a buffer.

    The one exception is that the former anchor store for Vallco (I think it might have been a Nordstrom's, but don't quote me on that) is now something called The Bay Club, with a Starbucks inside. I didn't investigate that place to see what exactly it is (department store is my guess) or how it's doing, but it had the same 'new and trendy' vibe as the rest of Main St. Cupertino. Maybe the reverse blight just needs time to spread and consume Vallco proper.

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