Malls

Kimberly's picture

The panoramic asphalt photo you see above is of the empty, deserted K-Mart next door to my apartment building.

Back in the nineteen seventies when I was a little girl, there was one mall we went to called Yorktown. Yorktown was the only mall within a twenty-minute drive. Built on what used to be the town cemetery, Yorktown's expansion has required bodies to be moved several times. People who have read my books might recognize Yorktown's body-moving adventures from River's Heart, where Ann the vampire uses the disturbed land of a cemetery razed for a mall to hide the body of her latest victim.

I distantly remember a time when a new mall was added in the Yorktown area, a new outrage sprung to meet it. Developers were once forced to battle for rights to move the bodies and I think there was a protest or referendum or two arguing that cemetery ground should not be broken for a developer's latest scheme. The developers decidedly won the war against the preservation of memory. It is s now at the point where no relic of the Yorktown cemetery exists. The area where Yorktown, now renamed, is a tangled cluster of flat-roofed buildings and giant parking lots. There is no walking possible except from one's car into what seems like thousands of malls. To try and walk down any of the main roads that lead into or out of the area is to take your life into your hands. There are no sidewalks, terrifying bridges where getting out of one's car would result in being immediately smashed into a human pancake and vaulted into another artery of heavy traffic, and almost zero public transportation save a Pace bus that has one purpose: to deliver shoppers unto the mall. If the original Yorktown Mall was a tumor, that thing has metastasized and deposited itself in every organ and lymph-node of what I assume was once a bucolic patch of farmland.

When I was about ten, Yorktown Mall was already failing. The main reason it fell on hard times was not lack of interest in shopping. By the time I was twelve, an area within a couple of miles from the house I grew up in was completely obliterated for not one but four sprawling strip malls. This new mammoth proliferation of huge, flat-roofed buildings and asphalt ate an area of former prairie where every kid who lived there for the last hundred years had ridden his or her bike at least once. Within a year, the bike trails were no more. Along with them went every butterfly, bumblebee, and songbird who sought refuge among the scrubby grass and wildflowers. I remember thinking at the time as a nine-year old child that if we really needed a huge mall in our area (we didn't, as Yorktown was only twenty minutes away) then why couldn't it be built vertically? Couldn't we all agree to build a single, multistoried mall, leaving the ample "leftover" land as bike trail prairie? I had seen Water Tower Place, a mall in Chicago that was seven stories high. Water Tower Place was very pleasant. Riding the escalator or elevator through the levels was part of the fun. I believe one of the elevators had a glass bottom just for thrill seekers. Sadly, a problem a nine-year old could figure out proved unsolvable for the grown-up buffoons who created the strip mall mess that still stands two miles away from the house I grew up in. Like the Yorktown area, it is a terrifying place to walk in and crossing the street requires the danger-evasion skills of Indiana Jones. To add insult to injury, within a decade the mall was suffering economically. There simply weren't enough shoppers to buy the glut of increasingly Chinese-made flotsam the stores carried. There's only so many bedsheets, cheap clothes, and plastic toys one person can stand, apparently.

Nowadays the place where kids used to ride their bikes is the same brand of wasteland almost all suburban Americans are intimately familiar with. To the modern suburban American, the demoralizing concrete vista is a way of life. There is no shortage of empty yet well-lit and air-conditioned retail spaces, all with signs stuck on their front windows advertising the name and number of a giant corporation and the words FOR LEASE. One would think the laws of supply and demand would force prices of these spaces down to the point where the average person could afford to open a practical store, such as for, oh, I don't know, food? It seems the vaunted ability of the free market to regulate itself has hit a brick wall far more sturdy than the prefabricated ones you can buy in the home improvement store.

The street I live on is a horror show of wasteful, ugly buildings with no rhyme or reason. Cars, not people, are the despots here. Crossing the street so you can go from fast food joint to muffler shop is downright impossible. I had my friend from Sweden take a Google maps tour of the place and he pronounced it unlivable. He's right. Because I am a walker, I find reasons to walk down this ugly, desolate waste of resources my town calls an avenue. Even in light of the staggering waste and vacancy rates that are nearly fifty percent, a common sight is to see new ground being broken for a new-construction strip mall or a rare, tiny patch of prairie with a "FOR SALE OR LEASE" sign attached.

I entertain myself by imagining the future for the ugly, wasted spaces around me. The empty malls and dramatically underused office parks of today seem destined to become the slums and salvage yards of tomorrow. The people of my generation and the ones briefly before it will become the objects of contempt and disgust. As we can all see quite clearly, the economy is on a long slide towards another reality that does not involve a bunch of people driving around in cars buying stuff they don't need. Because the demonic Rotarians and developers of today made the mistake of having zero foresight, their own grandchildren will find themselves digging up acres of asphalt to burn in makeshift fireplaces as they squat in the former electronics and home decor depots. Where some developer sees a mystical bottom line, I see a future junkyard where refugees bust up walls to get at metal pipes because the 10,000 mile supply lines of cheap metal ores is a thing of the distant past.

If it were up to me, I'd confine land developers to labor and re-education camps as we got down to the business of how we are going to transition away from an oil-addicted economy. I am not in charge, however, so we'll continue to have a great big Walmart-supplied party where there is thirty-one square feet or retail space per person and forty percent unemployment. (I'm sure people will be utterly shocked to learn the US lies about the numbers of unemployed persons by only counting the people who make actual unemployment claims as "unemployed".)

The country rubes who used to stroll the farmland stolen from the Native Americans would have never imagined their modest town cemetery would become a horizontal city of oil-fueled, carpeted junk stores only accessible via motorized cans of tin and plastic. In their wildest dreams, they wouldn't presume their own descendants stupid or insane enough to keep building new malls when the old malls were still sitting there, waiting for tenants that never came. Yet when the yokels of Yorktown designated a chunk of highland for the bodies of their deceased, they had a rare prescience in deciding the direction of the place for the next few hundred years. It was and still remains a graveyard.