A specter is haunting America — a specter of plummeting commercial real estate value.
The other day, I ran to the local university bookstore to grab a small gift for a friend. I hadn’t been there in over a year, but I’d read reports of “renovation” in the local newspaper. In my infinite naivety, I imagined improvements along the the lines of taller, statelier bookshelves, and perhaps a comfy black leather chair or two — you know, like the kind of appurtenances they had in Borders before its governing powers discovered they’d inadvertently made their stores into flophouses and therefore decided to snatch them away.
What greeted me, however, was something quite unexpected and dismaying: Gone were the books, and in their place hung racks of overpriced logowear and other licensed merch (an astonishing variety for a school that doesn’t even belong to the NCAA), shot glasses, and red and brown “butt shorts.” Modest Mouse was playing loudly over a discretely mounted sound system near a café surprisingly like Starbucks, situated where the foreign language dictionaries used to to repose, grave and majestic, a tower of mute babel. Clusters of students eating, laughing, or pretending to study were everywhere. The impression was immediate and exact: I was no longer in a university bookstore. I was at the mall.
The sad truth is I had experienced this before, at another university miles from the one near which I now live. The bookstore of that institution was torn apart, denuded of anything resembling books, and it featured, of all things, a Clinique counter. It was a blow to witness the transformation, certainly. At the time I thought, it’s a state university in the boom-and-bust American southwest, so perhaps the administrators are strapped for cash. The university bookstore I walked into the other day, however, belonged to an institution hoary and ivy-covered, with the names of the great and the good etched into its lintels — one of those elite, private schools that charge an arm and a leg to attend. It really should have no excuse for such a drearily banal and denatured bookstore. But there it nonetheless stands, shining and new, reeking of lattès and toasted bagels, with nary a book in view.
Certainly university bookstores are not alone; the “mallification” of America has been happening almost everywhere these last ten years. You can’t even walk into a doctor’s office without feeling the pressure to purchase some sort of unnecessary doo-dad. Smart Traveler recently featured an article detailing the mallification of the country’s airports. “Anyone who’s flown in the past 10 or 15 years has no doubt noticed the ‘mallification’ of the world’s airports,” the article reports, “with retail stores and restaurants popping up in ever-greater abundance and sophistication. It’s no longer uncommon to see high-end designer storefronts blur by as you sprint through the terminal to your flight.”
Haussmann’s Paris was a safe, clean and well-lighted place — kind of like Phoenix, Arizona under Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s regime.
No longer can you fly unmolested save for the usual nuisances that accompany travel — delays, screaming children, turbulence. Your only obligation is no longer to stare out some plate-glass window at the plane being prepped for takeoff and then do it all over again through a smaller window, gazing at fluffy clouds while munching a package of peanuts or two. Because waiting you at the end of your journey is neither a bunch of family members, nor the eerie peace that permeates the between-place places which airports and train stations once were, but an endless gauntlet of familiar retail outlets eager for you to spend your hard-earned vacation dollars before you even set foot in your actual destination. Before you’ve had a chance to recover from your five-dollar Bloody Mary and a dose of stale air, you’re faced with a barrage of junk from China, each and every item begging for your consideration, infringing upon your private thoughts and concerns.
Between 1852 and 1870 Baron Georges-Eugène Haussmann straightened the crooked, medieval alleyways of Paris. He demolished entire neighborhoods, tightly clustered enclaves which he determined were ripe for revolutionary activity. He wanted to create a new urban space that was more friendly to upstart cafes and shops. Industrialized London was his inspiration. And the Haussmannization of Paris was a success; in the new widened streets and boulevards, public services were easier to conduct, as was police surveillance; the new layout of the city made it easier for troops to fire on rioting crowds and their barricades. Haussmann’s Paris was a safe, clean and well-lighted place — kind of like Phoenix, Arizona under Sheriff Joe Arpaio’s regime.
But in becoming such a place, it also lost something of the liberty of life among formerly crabbed legacy infrastructure. Discussing the poet Charles Baudelaire in his essay “The Paris of the Second Empire in Baudelaire,” German philosopher and critic Walter Benjamin writes that “since the French Revolution, an extensive network of controls had been bringing bourgeois life ever more tightly into its meshes.” In Baudelaire’s time, these network of controls consisted of registering “the departures and arrivals of coaches in public places [and counting] letters and stamps” until soon the whole country “down to the smallest plot of land” was in the government’s registers. The city of Haussmann was no longer a place for strolling or idle converse. Instead, it became an arena for easy — and easily monitored — commerce, much like our mallified spaces today.
And in making Paris into a more easily surveilled artificial paradise, Baron Haussmann prefigured things to come. Economic geographer David Harvey writes in Paris, Capital of Modernity that Haussmann “needed to build a myth of a radical break around himself and the Emperor … because he needed to show that what went before was irrelevant; that neither he nor Louis Napoleon was in any way beholden to the thinking or the practices of the immediate past.” His modernization project Haussmann intended as nothing less than a legitimation epos, written in brick, timber and stone, whose story is one of Promethean struggle against cultural backwardness. The astute hearer of this tale would recognize in it an admonition: Those who cling to outmoded ways would learn, as Harvey so pithily puts it, “that there was no alternative to the benevolent authoritarianism of Empire.”
The endgame for such benevolence is, of course, the “totally administered life” Max Weber, Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer variously warned of. The mallification of all shared spaces, from airports to campus bookstores, sure seems like one more step in this direction. According to the ideology of the shopping-mall aesthetic, every bystander or traveler is a potential consumer. Our previously unique and interesting spaces have been Haussmannized into vast boulevards of cheaply-made goods, wherein government officials and market researchers conspire to keep us shopping so that we may always be disgorging both precious dollars and vital demographic data, the blood and lymph of the contemporary body economic.
Instead of garish storefronts begging to rearrange the contents of our minds, we will instead have their empty husks to haunt our thoughts.
But the prospect of a nation of “zombie buildings” is threatening to undermine all of this: The November 16, 2009 edition of The Huffington Post reports that “Many banks that cater to regional and community developments were largely unscathed by the residential mortgage meltdown. But now they are facing huge numbers of possible defaults by builders who erected thousands of office towers, condominiums and shopping centers with the easy credit available five years ago. With few tenants, those developments are turning into what industry insiders call zombie buildings.” Instead of garish storefronts begging to rearrange the contents of our minds, we will instead have their empty husks to haunt our thoughts. Airports and university bookstores turned malls will not return to being just airports and bookstores, but rather empty storefronts. We’ve been robbed of the last few spaces that possessed a singular (albeit in some cases a postmodern) romance. What to do in — and with — this new landscape remains the pressing question.
Ylajali would love to hear from you. Drop her a line at hansengenbub [at] gmail [dot] com.
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