In the beginning, there was Downtown. Where everything's waiting for you
. Or, at least, it was.
For us on 1960s Long Island, "downtown" meant, usually, a series of streets in the Village of Hempstead, where most of the big New York City department stores had branches. A&S, Arnold Constable, Bonwit Teller- plus specialty stores for music, shoes and other sundries. By the time I left Long Island in the mid-70s, it was essentially all gone, as Macy's told Gimbel's, "Hey! Let's build big stores on a big plot of land in the middle of a huge parking lot!"
Which they did, and, eventually, so did Alexander's, and Penney's, and hundreds of others, eventually enclosing the connections between them into the first mall of my experience. I remember Roosevelt Field when it still had a supermarket at a far end, and, somewhere near it, the only Walgreens I ever saw in this state until maybe 10 years ago. Although cobbled together, it certainly fit the then-model of retail: enclose, engulf, entrap. No clocks anywhere. Muzak carefully piped in to soothe. Store selections designed to keep you happily shopping; that mall's Woolworths didn't last long, but endless shoe-horizon varieties of feet boutiques did.
Downtowns mostly died. Some tried aping the concept; Rochester converted a bunch of its old-school downtown department stores into Midtown Plaza, the first downtown indoor mall in the country, complete with a food court and even a Wegmans. (Danny left in the 90s, the last department store not long after, and the whole thing was torn down a few years ago.) Buffalo urban-renewed something similar across Main Street from its one remaining flagship store; that AM&A's has been dead since the early 90s (there's still an advertising poster of a Super Bowl-era Bills kicker on one of its outer walls), and Main Place Mall across the street has maybe ten stores and a couple of restaurants in and out of its still-surviving food court.
But the stranger thing to witness, these days, is how the killer malls are now being killed in even prime suburban locations.
I was in one of them earlier this week, in a relatively upscale suburb just east of Syracuse. Shoppingtown. ("Supertown!,"
the 70s ad campaign for it used to boast when I'd visit the 'Cuse for work.) Not much about it remains super; it still has its Sears and its Penneys and its Macys (formerly a Kaufmanns, before that a Sibleys, and before that whatever local institution got merged into the ADG/Federated food chain), but the connecting halls are cavernous and frighteningly quiet. Unlike downtown storefronts, which exude their emptiness with FOR LEASE signs and papered-over windows, malls have this frightening ability to make empty places disappear. They're wallboarded over, with decorative panels, or COMING SOON displays that sometimes keep COMING for years. Move along, nothing to see here.
The little non-anchor commerce remaining bears no resemblance to my (or your father's) Chess King and Auntie Ann's pretzel shack. Chair massages, nail salons, even chiropractors now take up residence in those formerly hot halls of retail. Laid-off entepreneurs hawk their life-savings-draining franchises of Tub Fitters and Crankee Candles, hoping maybe they'll make one sale today. The only remaining lifebloods from the mall days are the food courts (and even they are trending to more local, ethnic fare than the Mickey D's and Orange Julius chains of the past) and the movie theaters. Many of those, especially the smaller ones, dwindled out of existence from the 80s on; Shoppingtown still has a Regal 14, but probably because it had plenty of room to retrofit one on. We're lucky in that the closest mall to us, which only had three screens, converted them to art-house status a good 20 years ago, and there's a good market for such films around here.
So where have all the shoppers gone? Gone to boxes, every one.
Today's task was to replace my mouth guard; I've worn one for a year or so after teeth-grinding started doing serious overnight damage. The leading local sporting goods chain sells a perfectly serviceable one for 20 bucks, and I managed to misplace mine in the flotsam of travel the other day, so it was back to Dicks.
That's both the name of the sporting goods store and
a description of the thinking that went into building these big-box strip plazas that have done in most of the malls of our earlier adulthood. They grow like topsy along major state thoroughfares, often close to the enclosed malls of the 60s-80s era, but not necessarily. In this town, they mostly reside along the state highways making up Amherst's western and eastern boundaries: Niagara Falls Boulevard and Transit Road, respectively. That's not coincidental; developers find that zoning boards are less picky about things when half the traffic, half the noise and half the police problems are going to wind up as That Other Town's problem across the street, and so they've proliferated in those places.
Unlike the original mall concept, which was almost Soviet-style in the central planning of the floor plans, store designs and spacings and parking, the modern-day big-box strips are gleefully Conspicuous Capitalist in their runamuck approaches to all of these. In the strip mall I went to today containing Dicks, two majorly competing shoe stores- one Famous, one at which you might Pay Less- are plopped right next to each other. You'd never have seen that in any Galleria or Marketplace of the past. They also tend to blend from one development to another, often built, if not currently owned and/or managed, by competing developers, and the traffic patterns getting in and out of them are the portrait of insanity. SUV-driving, mobile-yammering Stepford wives plow down the middle of the three-lane exit before deciding which lane to get into. "DO NOT ENTER" signs at one-way access points are considered silly suggestions and are routinely ignored. And, yes, I see people going back to those SUVs, packing their plunder, and then driving four rows across the parking lot to get to the next big box on the hillside.
(Don't even start with me about the Canadians, as they are our unique local pleasure. Between the driving, which by law in Metro Toronto requires a doctor's certification of sociopathic behaviour, and their quaint custom of changing into their new clothes and tossing the old ones and the boxes in our parking lots to avoid customs duties on their purchases, they are a rant unto themselves.)
Food courts? Hellz to the no; Applebeezes and Moezes and quicker faster fooders occupy outparcels around these behemoth complexes. Movie theaters, if in this universe, are huuuuge,
usually with an IMAX tower and more screens than a season of Bills passes. Put them all together and it's a wonder anybody ever leaves the house to shop, eat or watch a film anymore.
I know I've had my
fill for one week. Tomorrow, I hope to report on a movie; it's in a small theater in a small plaza on our town's border with Buffalo. And that's the way I like it, uh huh uh huh.
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