Beyond Borders--Mapping the Terrain
Power Centers R Us:
Suburban Terror &
The Rise of the Strip Mall
Isolation, Ignorance, Powerlessness in Suburbia
We live in the era when the migration of America's privileged population has re-versed its white flight to the suburbs to the gentrification of cities. In doing so the attitudes towards these settlements have changed, and where it was once fashionable to lament the tragedy of inner cities, it is now open season on the supposed cultural wasteland of suburbia. In this imagination the shopping mall has become the emblem of the great, wide suburban landscape where lies the great, wide middle of America. But this glib grouping of terms, which prevails in the mind of the revitalized urbanite, is in error.
The pedestrian shopping mall was, and still is, an urban idea; its origins of design and function are found in the arcades, bazaars, and public markets, eventually leading up to the department storeall of them shopping centers for urban life. Most suburban malls have even made earnest attempts at echoing their urban ancestors. Their benches and trees are intended to resemble promenades and parks; the food courts are a vision of old-world plaza cafes; even the architecture of many suburban shopping malls, buildings of different sizes layered on top of one another, gives recourse to the texture of an urban downtown. The fundamental urbanity of the shopping mall is that, after all, it is a pedestrian mall. Once the car is parked, the shoppers are forced onto their feet with everyone else, as the earth-crawlers they once were, and forced to navigate the traffic of people as in a city. The shopping mall's overall appearance has developed into something radically different from its downtown market predecessorwhat with its TGI Fridays, TJ Maxxes, JC Pennys, Mervyns's, Sunglass Huts, Olive Gardens, Zales Jewlers', Best Buys, Cinnabons, GNCs, Champs', and Beds Baths and Beyonds, all of them surrounded by fields of parking lotsbut its basic concepts of design are urban. They are gated cities, even with their own guards, but cities nonetheless, and actual, unique cultures, from mall rats to soccer moms, have been nurtured in their civic spaces.
As if to forge its own suburban identity, a different type of shopping center has developed in the last fifteen years that represents suburbia's aesthetic, ethos, and, ultimately, its potential for horror. As if these shopping centers were actually a revolt against their urban-conceited brethren, they are called power centers. Power centers are comprised of a single mammoth parking lot that faces one long strip of stores, hence their colloquial term strip mall. Typically there is a covered sidewalk that separates the stores from the attendant lot, but the mall is most definitely not pedestrian. If you stand at one end of the power center and look down the sidewalk you will note it is not meant for walking up or down, but to cross, either into a store, or back out to the parking lotit functions more as a very wide curb. For the most part stores enjoy their tenancy in strip malls, but apparently they do complain about the oppressively long architecture as it discourages cross- shopping (the act of shopping at one store, seeing another store on the horizon, and impulsively deciding to shop there as well). If there is any cross-shopping done at power centers, many shoppers will get back in their cars and drive the distance of the parking lot to shop at another store in the center. It sounds foolish, but some power centers, the most severe of the strips, stretch a half-mile from end to end.
In suburbia the power center has all but usurped the dominance of the shopping mall. The report Developing Power Centers, prepared by the Urban Land Institute, marks the turning point in the late 1980s. In 1987, 64 new pedestrian shopping malls opened in the United States; in 1991, 36 malls opened; and in 1994, only 4 new malls opened their doors for business. However, according to the National Research Bureau Shopping Center Database, which counts power centers and pedestrian malls alike, an average of 700 new shopping centers have opened each year over the last decade. Shopping center construction has not halted, it has changed face. So, in 1994, when only four pedestrian malls completed construction, 731 strip malls opened. In 2001, the United States boasted about 750 pedestrian malls nationwide and close to 43,000 strip malls.
Power centers were given the formidable name because they are built with at least one large tenant in mind, usually a grocery store, drug store, or specialty store like Circuit City or Jo Ann Fabrics. Strips of smaller shops and eateries flank either side of the largest store, but it is the power of these large tenants that draw people to the power center, hence the name. The large tenants are also called anchor stores, for the gravity they provide, and if they exceed 100,000 square feet like Wal Marts and Targets, they are considered to be super anchors. Most anchors are also specialty stores like Toys R Us, Barnes and Noble, and Office Max, stores that claim to have anything you could possibly want in the toy, book, or office supplies category, respectively. For this reason they are also deemed category killers for their power to wipe out any competition, not only at their own power center, but for miles around, as if a bomb had been dropped on the psychological landscape of the consumer. (I did not discover if a super anchor would then be called a super killer, but logic would allow it.)
Power centers were first built in California in the late 1980s, and quickly won the favor of both the public and developers. For the public, anchor stores most often represent the everyday needs of food, home appliances, and other necessities of living, not the luxury items of shopping mall department stores. It comes as no surprise that the super anchors are discount stores like Wal Mart, K-mart, and Target. When consumers drive onto the parking lot of the power center, they are sniffing out bargains and taking care of business. It's the basic language of capital, and since their dollar is a smart dollar at a discount store, the shopping experience is empowering. The developers like the power center because they don't have to deal with composing a small city out of the dust, as with a shopping mall. The power center is a single long building divided into stores, where the greatest concerns are plumbing and parking. In contrast, a developer of a pedestrian mall has to worry about security, food courts, resting spots, mood lighting, overhead music or no overhead music, etc. climate control in every sense of the term. Pedestrian shopping malls are meant to inspire thoughts of how lovely this place is, I must be a marvelous person for shopping here, in the same way consumers are meant to feel marvelous if they find themselves shopping in Manhattan's Upper East Side, Chicago's North Loop, or San Francisco's Nob Hill. The power center has no such cultural imperative.
According to the Urban Land Institute, the rise of the power center coincides with another phenomena of shopping center evolution. Underlying the economics and demographics favoring power center development [over pedestrian mall development] is a simple real estate market reality: the primary drivers of retail construction today are retailers, not developers. The pedestrian mall developer is cousin to the city planner, someone who is given license to design a vision of a place that everyone will enjoy, a locus amenus for consumption, a place that is both pleasant and efficient for buyer and seller. The developer of the power center is more like the manager of a construction site, as the vision of the place is almost entirely dictated by the thrift of the tenants.
The power of the power center is strictly economic, but the most powerful effects on its environment, as with any architecture, will be cultural. The victory of the strip mall over the pedestrian mall is evidence of suburbia designing itself, rather than accepting the urban models. Now that suburbia has empowered itself with an identity of its own, the shopping center standard will be, appropriately, the power center. Some shopping malls have even renovated themselves to become power centers in this age of suburban maturation. The question now is what kind of character suburbia is maturing into.
The character of the pedestrian mall cultivates the suburbia found in Kevin Smith's film Mallrats, a picaresque comedy about lovers' quarrels, chance encounters, and misadventures in an anonymous mall. In this film every character starts out in their respective houses where conflict is created between them. For one reasonor another they all end up at the regional shopping mall where they are able to face each other, settle their disputes, and make for a happy ending. In this plot, conflict is created in privacy and resolved in the quasi-public space of the mall. This contrasts with the anti-community theme of the power center found in Eric Bogosian's play, Suburbia, adapted to film by Richard Linklater. This suburbia tells the story of the terrified inner lives of characters who live and work (or don't work) at a series of strip malls. Bogosian's characters all have intellectual or artistic ambitions, ambitions to endow themselves with a sense of individual power. Some are even able to act on these ambitions, which naturally releases them from suburbia, but those who cannotact on these ambitions, or have acted and failed, are magnetized to the strip malls. Their quest for individual power is overwhelmed by the gravity of the power centers surrounding them. The power center does not provide shelter or amusement to these characters, as does the pedestrian mall in Mallrats, it only gives them a sinkhole to be drawn into.
Moreover, all power centers have names, but unlike shopping malls, they are not obligated to announce them and most do not. Power centers do not salute a single flag at the front of the parking lot, nor do they express themselves as a unity. So while you might have known that Northgate was the Mall That Started It All because of its innovative design, my research could not discover who the first category killer was. (It could quite possibly be Toys R Us!) This anonymity magnifies the secrecy of suburbia, that people live in identical houses but do not converse, that they drive around each other with little regard for the place where they live, that they are organized around unnamed powers, and express little concern for the idea of a shared culture.
The possibility of terrible isolation, ignorance, and powerlessness in suburbia, conditions encouraged by the power center, was made apparent by the recent DC-area snipers. It is not unusual to hear that suburbia can be a horrible place, but only recently was the everyday landscape of suburbia imagined as a place of actual horror. The snipers did not prey on citizens living in the inner city of Washington DC, where people are on guard, but in the surrounding area, in suburban turnpikes, auto dealerships, gas stations, and power center parking lots, where people are easy targets. The expansive parking lots of Linens `N' Things and Home Depot became as threatening as a city's alleyways and poorly-lit parks; among the wide-open power centers, people were being murdered at random. My mother's family lives in a Virginian suburb of DC, and she described the climate as unbearably tense. At one point she told me over the phone, people are starting to get really jumpy around here, a condition that seemed to be entirely unfamiliar to the place.
Because there was no particular pattern to the murders, everyone in suburbia felt he or she could be the next victim. The egalitarian ideal of suburbia was translated into one of absolute dread, as if terror was hidden in its landscape. One Washington Post story quoted a former FBI profiler as saying, [The sniper] wanted his group of victims to represent America, and I think he succeeded in doing that. Because they targeted any man, they really targeted every man. It was well documented how the sniper took advantage of suburbia's design in regards to being able to make easy getaways. But also of note is that he found suburbia, in its current age of the power center, to be well-built for such oblivious and fearful isolation.
Brian Goedde is currently an MFA candidate in
the University of Iowa Nonfiction Writing Program. His
essays have appeared in The New York Times, Popular
Music (UK), Oakland's Urbanview, and Resonance,
among other publications. He is an Associated Member of
the Seattle Research Institute and a former Richard Hugo