Monday, August 8, 2005

Mall City - Part Two

I have the image and concept of the shopping mall in my mind this week, having just spent six days within one mile of a major northeast mall in Burlington, Massachusetts--one with particularly high end stores and restaurants, I might add.

Shopping malls are one of those things I love to hate. I only visit them a few times a year and usually with my teenage daughter in tow whose taste proclivities demand the shopping range that a mall allows. I tend to get clothes on sale at GapKids or Children's Place for our two boys or the occasional kitchen item--ok, a complete consumer rampage as at Crate & Barrel last week--and used to drop in at any given Clinique counter for the annual requisite tube of "Honey Ginger" lipstick until they discontinued the shade about five years ago. My "big store" preference tends to be Target but I'm digressing from the point.

I like the convenience of a Target, an Old Navy or a larger mall complex but "not in our town, dear". I am glad that we live within an hour's reach of these larger consumer areas. I am glad to visit but glad to come home to our town with no stoplight. Perhaps it is hypocritical but I figure if a town is stupid enough to allow rampant sprawl in all directions, I may as well partake once in a while. Is it comforting to go to virtually any part of the country and find the same store, the same franchised restaurant? Yes and no. The malling of America has led to such a bland, homogenous response to life. As long as we are comfortable in our Abercrombie & Fitch (my daughter doesn't believe they used to be a high end fishing store) and have our Starbucks latte in hand, we don't need to fear anything. It is all one ballywick, really: suburbia, mall sprawl, eek. Where is our American regional character going?

I think one reason I am comfortable in malls on that rare occasion is because I grew up in one. Summit Mall in the rural fringes of Akron, Ohio (then the township of Fairlawn and now the City of Fairlawn) was one of the first indoor malls in northeastern Ohio. It was built in the early 1960s, perhaps the year I was born. Inside, at the gathering of its three axis points, was an amazing display of fountains with colored lights. The sound and the smell was a soothing thing for a toddler in a stroller and as we got older we were allowed to toss pennies into the pools. My mother brought us to the mall on rainy days--we were the original "mall walkers" before such a thing was advertised. I would eventually walk alongside my brothers tandem stroller while my mother herded us along, taking in the sites. We didn't always shop but when we did we went to Buster Brown or Sears for shoes and clothes, respectively (I used to have nightmares about the Buster Brown kid and his dog--both rather demonic looking pasted on the inside sole of my shoe), O'Neill's for "nice outfits", Halles or Polsky's for linens and various housewares.

The last thing I remember doing at Summit Mall was when my Aunt Mary took me to O'Neill's in the summer of 1980, at my grandpa's behest, to outfit me in a suit "to greet the president of Wheaton College on my first day of freshman year". It was a sweet, if not somewhat archaic, gesture that I will never forget. We chose a lovely Evan Picone gray flannel suit--the skirt had a kick pleat--a white blouse and black velvet pumps with a bow (very Talbots) and a matching black velvet clutch and even though it was 1980, the suit could have passed for something Nancy Drew may have worn in the 1930s. [Of course, the first day of school was 95 degrees and at least that in humidity--so no wool suits. I never did wear that suit until my first "real" job at the National Trust for Historic Preservation's northeast office in Boston. I still have the entire outfit, even though I long ago outgrew it.] All of these major stores left the Akron-Cleveland area when they went bankrupt in the 1970s and 80s. At one time, they had large city block-sized stores in downtown Akron, where we used to see their Christmas windows each holiday season.

Polsky's, I think it was, had the most marvelous in-store bakery. My mother would buy the occasional chocolate eclairs and at holidays--even something as benign as St. Patrick's day--she would buy cut-out cakes and cookies appropriately dipped in fondant and lavished with colored sprinkles or icing. These big stores also had large escalators and vast houseware departments where I liked to play "house" (of course) in the configured suites of furniture.

This mall was only a few miles from our house and by the early 1970s there were several more in the Akron area. They indeed, despite their glamour and excitement for a young child, sucked the life out of the remaining downtown Akron businesses as the Pretenders bemoan in their hit "My City was Gone"**:

THE FARMS OF OHIO
HAD BEEN REPLACED BY SHOPPING MALLS-
AND MUZAK FILLED THE AIR
FROM SENECA TO CUYAHOGA FALLS
I SAID, HEY, HO WAY TO GO OHIO

I think Chrissie Hynde must be a "punk preservationist" of sorts. Most of the farms are all gone now, even more than when she lamented Akron's changes in the early 1980s, and are rapidly being sucked up by metro sprawl--especially in the northeastern part of Ohio. If our farms are all gone, even where there is no sprawl, where are we going to get our vegetables and fruits...and milk? Chile? California truck farms? Certainly not at the mall.


**MY CITY WAS GONE by Chrissie Hynde and the Pretenders

I WENT BACK TO OHIO
BUT MY CITY WAS GONE
THERE WAS NO TRAIN STATION
THERE WAS NO DOWNTOWN
SOUTH HOWARD HAD DISAPPEARED
ALL MY FAVORITE PLACES
MY CITY HAD BEEN PULLED DOWN
REDUCED TO PARKING SPACES
HEY, HO - WAY TO GO OHIO

WELL I WENT BACK TO OHIO
BUT MY FAMILY WAS GONE
I STOOD ON THE BACK PORCH
THERE WAS NOBODY HOME
I WAS STUNNED AND AMAZED
MY CHILDHOOD MEMORIES
SLOWLY SWIRLED PAST
LIKE THE WIND THROUGH THE TREES
HEY HO - WAY TO GO OHIO

I WENT BACK TO OHIO
BUT MY PRETTY COUNTRYSIDE
HAD BEEN PAVED DOWN THE MIDDLE
BY A GOVERNMENT THAT HAD NO PRIDE
THE FARMS OF OHIO
HAD BEEN REPLACED BY SHOPPING MALLS
AND MUZAK FILLED THE AIR
FROM SENECA TO CUYAHOGA FALLS
I SAID, HEY HO - WAY TO GO OHIO

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