Feb. 25, 2009 12:00

The parable of the shopping mall

The parable of the shopping mall

The savage reverses for capitalism, the gaping wounds in its pretensions, comprise the single most salient feature in the world today. Whether in the collapse in the Western banking system, the agonies of post- Soviet economies like the Baltic and Eastern European Republics, the rubble of Indian neo-liberal policies, the economic mantras of an entire generation are going up in smoke.

For the left it should be a time of unrivalled 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 — protected in public space.

Malls, whether in strip or covered form, symbolized a conversion of people from citizens to consumers, the death of Main Street, architecture reduced to utter banality.

Today, mirroring the distress in the mothership of capitalism, its colonies and settlements are in decay. Consider the Bayshore Mall in my own town of Eureka in Northern California — a covered, pedestrian arcade opened in the 1980s, owned by the Utah-based General Growth Company. Located on the edge of Humboldt Bay, though facing the opposite direction towards 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 to be seen. People drove for three hours through the Yolly Bolly wilderness all the way from Redding in the Central Valley to savor its glories. There were stylish concerts in its ample food court.

Today the Bayshore Mall molders, embodying the misfortunes of General Growth — the second largest mall owner in the United States — whose stock trades now for 55 cents, down from $44 last May. Some major retailers, like Lauren’s Polo, have long since fled. Walk east along one of the arcades and you come to a wall of plywood, behind which lies the desolation that was Mervyn’s, a clothing chain that has now 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. Across the past 40 years some 200 cities built pedestrian malls. Today,

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