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The Parable of the Shopping Mall

In town after town across America these days one can physically see the economic mantras of an entire generation turning to boarded-up wasteland before one’s eyes. Shopping malls, which changed the American landscape within the course of a generation, are dying week by week.

Take the Bayshore Mall in my own town of Eureka, 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. A friend of mine who opened a coffee stall, wore a tie – purchasing it from Ralph Lauren which opened an outlet. 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 moulders, embodying the misfortunes of General Growth – the second largest mall owner in the U.S. – whose stock trades now for 55 cents, down from $44 last May. General Growth  has now ousted its CEO, John Bucksbaum, (who is related to Ann Bucksbaum, wife of the New York Times’s Thomas Friedman, world’s wealthiest pundit. In 2006, the value of General Growth Properties  was estimated at about $2.7 billion. Last October 8, Business Week headlined an article “General Growth Properties Staggers Under Debt Load” (of $27 billion).

Some major retailers, like Ralph Lauren’s Polo, have long since fled from Bayshore Mall. 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 which 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 who sit in the warmth with modest snacks and while away the hours.

Laura Flanders and Alexander Cockburn. Photo: Tao Ruspoli.

Across the past 40 years some 200 cities built pedestrian malls. Today, only 30 remain. Drive around any town and one can see strip malls in similar decline, their parking lots nearly empty, boarded stores in the retail frontage like a mouth losing its teeth, as the lights of Circuit City go out and Linen ‘n Things, Zales, Ann Taylor and Sharper Image retrench or collapse entirely.

Out of crisis comes opportunity, one that’s been discussed for some years by movements such as 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 to the ground, like the Belle Promenade, on the west bank of the Mississippi in New Orleans. Eureka’s too poor a town to do that. But a mall can be refashioned into a more congenial quartier, one blessed with easier parking.

In the same way that coastal cities like Boston finally realized the asset of nineteenth-century quaysides with their warehouses and customs depots, today’s failed or failing malls can be reconfigured, converted to mixed use, with residential housing, public spaces and constructive social uses. In the Bayshore even now I see groups of the mentally ill being brought along for an outing in a place that’s sheltered, still physically safe, and equipped with bathrooms, and plenty of space with chairs or benches where they can relax.

In many towns one can imagine that 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, Timothy Geithner, Larry Summmers 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, from Laramie, Wyoming, was installed as head of the Justice Department’s Anti-Trust Division when FDR swerved to the left amid the slump of 1937. No greater foe of the corporate cartel than Arnold ever worked in government service in Washington.

In an early chapter, “The Folklore of 1937”, Arnold describes 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.

But, Arnold wrote, “The medieval physician could see no profit in saving a man’s body if thereby he lost his soul. Nor did he think that any temporary physical relief could ever be worth the violation of the fundamental principles of medicine. The remedy for fever was the art of bleeding to rid the body of those noxious vapors and humors in the blood which were the root of 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 FDR 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 the malls to the commanding heights of the economy, let the Reconquest begin.

March 16, 2009.

More articles by:

Alexander Cockburn’s Guillotined! and A Colossal Wreck are available from CounterPunch.

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