Monday, January 5, 2015

Are malls main streets?

Malls and main streets are often mentioned in the same sentence, so the relationship needs to be sorted out. I have been thinking about the proposition that a mall is to a department store what a main street is to general store. This is possibly true, but it is insufficient to get at the difference. As I've noted in earlier posts, main streets, as centers of commerce and social life, have to be understood as a box, circle, line and the America people. Malls don't function on all of those dimensions. And, thinking about it that way, I am really really happy that we don't refer to the American people as "The Mall." Malls, because they are a monoculture created for shopping, are ecologically fragile. What makes main streets work, among other factors, is the manner in which they are embedded in cities. Malls, by contrast, are ringed by parking lots and can't possibly be interwoven. That doesn't mean that they might not be useful. When it comes to variety, there's more stuff at Home Depot than at the neighborhood hardware store on my neighborhood main street -- sometimes I need to go to Home Depot. But I can't walk there and I don't know the guys there and I don't catch up on local gossip when I go there. It is interesting to read in the NY Times that quite a number of malls are dying, especially those for middle-class shoppers, those who've been hit hardest by the recession, and are still waiting for the recovery. But, in the meantime, the 1% have taken so much of everything, recovery for the rest of us is slipping further away. Short Hills Mall will survive, Livingston Mall will struggle. In sum, malls are malls, not main streets. Both have their uses. Main Streets occupy a better niche for long term survival.

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