Saturday, December 10, 2011

The Meaning of Malls

Now that Christmas shopping is here, the roads of the Greater New Orleans area bear daily pilgrimages to the suburban shopping malls. Many of my friends and associates who live inside the city habitually look down their noses at the suburbs, but they too get in their cars and trek out to the malls for much of their buying. There are small, upscale shops in several city locations, such as the corridor of several blocks along Magazine Street uptown. But these trendy mini-mall spots take only small portions of the regional retail business.
The daily drives from the geographic centers to the peripheries are historically interesting because when I was a small child, growing up in suburban Jefferson Parish, we had to drive into town to do all of our shopping. There were few stores then out on the edges of the urban world.  Today, the margins have become the new center.
One of the messages New Orleans and other cities might do well to take from this switch is: gentrify or die. Those trendy little uptown stores are about the only competition the city can offer. For the higher prices and difficulty in parking, the urban strips have to compensate with the ambience of elegant old buildings.  If the inhabitants of cities want their communities to be anything other than decaying concentrations of poverty and crime, they will have to embrace their destiny as historical theme parks.
More speculatively, I wonder if the displacement of the cities by the suburbs is an example of a more general historical tendency toward growth, centralization, and decentralization through relocation of activity to the peripheries. Of course, suburbanization is the direct consequence of the automobile and roadways. But techniques for expanding transportation and communication are always a big part of spatial expansion.  
The movement of shopping to the American suburbs could be a localized version of grander trends. Complex civilizations grew in the eastern Mediterranean, eventually to see their social, political, and economic core shift to Rome. The Mediterranean world, under the leadership of Rome, expanded over a much wider geographic area. As it expanded, the Roman center became a hollowed out symbolic place, with more activity drained off into the vast suburbs of the empire.  After initial decentralization, these suburbs became the civilizations of Europe (Christendom) and Islam. Europe’s expansion gradually resulted in the move of the axis of activity to the peripheral area of North America.  The decline of the city and the rise of the suburb follow this same dynamic, inside of North America.
I believe I won’t go shopping today, either in the little city shops or the malls. I’d rather stay home and speculate.

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