Malls and Main Streets: Two Sides of the Same Coin?
Say the words mall and main street and two very different images come up. I’m going to guess the former image involves neon signs, fountains and Sbarro, while the latter may also include a fountain, but a barber pole and Sheriff Andy Taylor. Well, until recently, when popular acceptance of new urbanist principles created a hybrid of the two in many areas, which is a revival, not a hybrid.
Much of my urbanism is informed by a love for the traditional enclosed mall. And like the love I have for my city, it is a tough love. After all, it depends on whether I really need to buy a bunch of clothes, or a Cinnabon, since that’s all that seems to exist at these structures these days. Once upon a time though, I lived for the weekend trip to The Disney Store and Waldenbooks. I find more comfort these days on “main street”, called Elm Street here in Greensboro. I like that there are multiple types of businesses, fresh air, and a culture of people just coming to hang out and fellowship, not just spend money on objects.
Yet, the truth is that I could probably stick to my budget and do all my ordering of things on Amazon and have a good time at an-all inclusive beach resort. Retail is retail is retail right? As long as there’s a product and an exchange of currency, all forms of shopping are the same right? Why then, should I (and in turn you) be concerned with the keeping of our shopping districts, no matter the form?
First, because for so many communities, even the reviled inclosed mall creates community. Many people have shied away from malls, citing too many_______ people (Fill in the blank however you please). However, for those ______ people, the mall does keep them out of trouble , provide a source of employment, a safe place to walk, and of course clothes and Cinnabons. Also, for small business owners, older enclosed malls and strip centers provide cheap office and storefront space that can help them create a livelihood, and in turn, create opportunities for their families and the greater community.
Other older malls have reinvented themselves as churches, libraries, schools, indoor farms and food markets. Likewise for main streets in smaller towns and cities that were once areas of empty shells and blight, but have been brought back to life. A bonus for the main streets is that many of the buildings were built in an era where quality was king and time was taken to create structures that not only last, but have lots of architectural character.
Secondly, dead real estate is dead real estate, no matter the location. As we learned in Retrofitting Suburbia and the Sprawl Repair Manual, even if it started as sprawl, going back to fix it can re-ignite the community and keep a neighborhood from going into further decline. Going back to imagining things, I see a montage of main streets going from the heyday of the mid 20th century, to the late 20th century abandonment and neglect, to the indie stores and street festivals and new apartments of today. If we can fix main street, we can fix the enclosed mall and make it a proper community center too.
Third, not everyone will understand or find benefits in online shopping. It’s still best to try clothes on and handle fruits and vegetables before you purchase them. I remember the one time I bought shoes online, I ended up with major blisters and a weird gait on a day where walking really mattered (my graduation day from NC State). Plus, who can deny how well a human touch can make even the worst product the best in the world.
Lastly, even though I’ve said that the mall is probably dead, I also believe it does matter who owns the corner store. Retail is a strange animal, but where would we be without it? This is where I give props to the homesteaders who seem to have answered that question. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, onward and upward to Target and IKEA.
Kristen Jeffers is The Black Urbanist. She holds an MPA with a concentration in community and economic development from the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. She writes to bring together the community members with its designers, planners, policy-makers and visionaries. She's been obsessed with cities since her childhood, when she started taking trips on the floor with maps, toy ...