malls and the post-suburb

From a 1998 article in The Atlantic by Robert Kaplan, the same guy who wrote The Ends of the Earth, a book about the growth of megacities and the dominance of staticly “developing” city-states. Here he’s been talking about the ‘polycentric urban pod,’ or post-suburb, as a form of city-state.

BEFORE you leave Newport Beach, go see the Fashion Island Mall,” Macheski suggested.

“But I’ve seen malls before,” I told him.

“See this one — it’s really affluent and evolved. Believe me, it’s worth it.”

It was. From Macheski’s office I drove past two more office campuses and then into a large parking lot. I ascended a wide stairway and entered the mall — an outdoor labyrinth of crowded pedestrian streets punctuated with large clay pots full of bright-red geraniums, and storefronts that mixed neoclassical and baroque styles with red-tiled roofs. There was a fountain shooting pellets of ice, and jewelry carts made of hand-tooled wood painted in rich earthen shades standing in the middle of a sidewalk that was laid with brilliant tiles. The geometric sweep of marble, sea-green wrought iron, and terra-cotta partially obscured by bougainvillea vines made for a brilliant mixture of late-twentieth-century abstractions and nineteenth-century intimacy and rusticity; I was as impressed as I had been when I saw the great squares of medieval Bukhara and Samarkand. I stood in an atrium made of pink and cream stone, veined marble, terra-cotta, what looked like malachite, and chrome alloys. Here postmodernism, the architectural style characterized by eclectic juxtapositions, was fully articulated. Malls in affluent pods of the Midwest may soon look like this.

One of the things I’ve described about the US as something I’ve been happy to get away from is “mall culture.” When I said that, I was thinking of Short Pump Town Center, in Henrico County, VA, about 20 minutes west of Richmond.

As I said it, I was aware of a certain irony, which is that the 2003 construction of Short Pump Town Center was actually kind of thoughtful about fostering a sense of “downtown-ness;” and that although when the blueprints rolled out it was in the middle of nowhere, its construction actually did lead to a bunch of other things, commercial and residential, being built there, and in effect did kind of turn it into a “town center.” Though perhaps minus anything civic. I hate it from a Richmond-centric point of view, probably for its lack of history and terribly managed traffic flow and boujieness, but what of the people who actually live and work out there?

A huge portion of the people who moved to Short Pump after the mall grew were affluent immigrants, mostly from India and Pakistan. I mention this because it touches on what Kaplan’s talking about in this article. The idea of the US soon ‘shedding its skin to reveal an international civilization,’ to paraphrase. The mall Kaplan’s described above is in Orange County, one of the most diverse and affluent localities in the US.

I am trying to consider all this in terms of why I wanted to live in DF. Haven’t quite arrived at anything yet, but I’m working on it. I know it has something to do with the way the world is changing.


One response to “malls and the post-suburb

  1. Pingback: the garbage man/mexico’s bitchin service sector « ill camino real

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