Monday, May 10, 2010

Celebrating Suburbia

Suburbia imitates our downtown Our Downtown imitates sububurbia

I peruse through the catacombs of Mlive, I came across a few articles that intrigued me. The first was an article on downtown security guards being hired by local businesses to give people from the suburbs a visible sense of security, despite the fact that the layoffs did not reduce downtown police coverage, and the crime stats downtown mirror those of the suburbs. I appreciate having extra eyes on the street no matter what the crime levels are, but I far are willing to go to cater to "those unused to an urban environment?"

This desire to lure the elusive suburbanite by creating a more mall-like atmosphere in America's down towns has been going on since the middle of the last century, when malls began to truly compete with traditional urban commercial districts. Decades ago the an awning was constructed over the sidewalks, and music was piped in to give the downtown shopping experience that "strip mall feeling". Over the years Saginaw has been closed to through traffic , "Downtown Sale" events promised great deals and perhaps the biggest flops: Two sub-urban style shopping centers were constructed in the city center, resulting in Windmill Place, and The Water Street Pavilion.

And of course, we built a heck of a lot of parking.
And of course, to build this parking, we had to demolish blocks and blocks of buildings.

The second article that I discovered covered the 40th birthday of the Genesee Valley Mall (A topic which has been discussed on here before) It discusses the changes the mall has made since opening in 1970, as well as the relative success it has had by diversifying its tenant base. What I found fascinating, however, was that in the malls first few years of operation, the list of shops very much resembled what you would find in a traditional downtown. The mall had a grocery store, a butcher, a bank, as well as a slew of shops that relocated from downtown Flint. In the following years, as the mall, and the surrounding area sprawled, the shops inside became more retail based. Reflecting that great suburban past time of building areas that serve as one use "pods." As my mom said "I have no idea why we ever needed so many shoe stores."

In recent years, it seems, Genesee Valley Mall has realized that such a specific one use approach is difficult to sustain. With newer, shinier shopping centers opening in places like Brighton, Grand Blanc, and Fenton, the slew of shoe stores are following. In a strange twist, this has caused the local mall to take (probably unknowingly) take a page from the traditional downtown handbook. In fact Genesee Valley went so far as to actually construct a large Main Street style knock off called "The Outdoor Village" and rent a space to, of all things, a university. (sound familiar?)

So how should we interpret the fact that these two places are imitating each other? Will downtown keep sub-urbanizing until its unique urban fabric is completely gone? Does the newish approach by the mall represent a cultural shift in the way we define place?

I'm sure the Mlive commenters will have a colorful answer or two.

1 comment:

  1. What I find most interesting in this very interesting perspective is...and I truly mean no's naivety. It's refreshing, humorously charming and highly dangerous.

    First, the mall has been dying--everywhere, in the suburban fringe and urban transplants--for over a quarter century. The Sherman Oak Galleria--the quinticential mall in so many 80's and early 90's movies--is a shadow of its former self and is actually mostly office space. Genesee Valley is no exception--it's changed dramatically and swiftly over the years.

    Second, they were never based on contemporary downtowns. The architect Victor Gruen, the father of American malls, actually designed them as open-air shopping centers and they were built as such until the late 50's. He based them on the sort of "traditional" small town mainstreet and the general idea remained, even after they became enclosed.

    Third, in an effort to stave off their death, and in a small coup for the burganing Congress for the New Urbanism that helped them rise to their current standing, malls started returning to their open-air, "traditional" small town roots. With the CNU behind the wheel, the newly christened "lifestyle center" was born. (Actually, just reborn.) They did take it up a notch, making the outdoor and fake town feel to never-before-seen levels. Genesee Valley's 'Outdoor Village' is a mediochre (in design and success) attempt to follow suit and they did it deliberately, it was no accident.

    So, while the details of your entry here are a bit muddled, the overall genius of it--the suburbanization of America (whether it's in the suburbs or ex-urbs or downtown)--is all there.

    So, to address your last paragraph:

    1) They're not imitating each other, they're imitating the romanticized version of "traditional" urbanism which gives us what I and others call, 'Cappuccino Urbanism.' (Sweet, unfulfilling, and made exactly the same way everytime.)

    2) Yes.

    3) Kinda. (It's not new or even newish.) We've been building fake, cheap knock-offs, facades, false histories and representations of place for centuries, but especially in the late 20th century. But, in fits and starts, you can find genuinely vibrant and real places most everywhere, but they're usually not where we've explicitly tried to build them.