Tuesday, November 30, 2010

Ode to Orange Julius: I have seen the future and it shops

Growing up in suburbia, the local Mecca to consumerism was the Millcreek Mall—the socio-cultural haven between school and home for most teenagers in Erie, PA (and the tri-state area). The urban legend surrounding the Millcreek Mall was that it was owned by the Mafia and built in the shape of a gun, which was nonsense, but, after reading Lizabeth Cohen’s “From Town Center to Shopping Center”, it did confirm my long-suspected beliefs about the shopping mall’s sinister aims. As Cohen states, “The landscape of mass consumption created a metropolitan society in which people were no longer brought together in central marketplaces and the parks, streets, and public buildings that surrounded them but, rather, were separated by class, gender, and race in differentiated commercial subcenters. Moreover, all commercial subcenters were not created equal” (pp. 220-221).
Similar to Mark Siwiencicki’s piece on how historians and sociologists overlooked late-19th and early-20th century male consumption, Cohen points out that “historians have paid far less attention to the restructuring of American commercial life in the postwar period than to the transformation of residential experience” (p. 190), and argues that, as suburbanites found themselves freed from the cityscape by the speed of the automobile, “merchandisers…built stores along new highways…that consumers could easily reach by car” (p. 191)… and, over the highway horizon line, pastures with cows grazing were being replaced with strategic cash cows grazing off of consumer convenience. Cohen points out that this convenience gave consumers “the ability to drive and park easily, more night hours, improved store layouts, increased self-selection, and simplified credit like the charge plate” (p. 202). However, this convenience came at a price on several different levels.
For starters, shopping centers were replacing the urbanized marketplace of most downtown areas in cities across America as the commercial nexus between retail business and suburban consumption: “shopping centers idealized—almost romanticized—the physical plan of the traditional downtown shopping street, with stores lining both sides of an open-air pedestrian walkway that was landscaped and equipped with benches” (p. 195). Suburban shopping centers also offered a palatial alternative to the ‘anarchy and ugliness’ of the city market’s inefficiencies, visual chaos, and provinciality” (p. 195). Inner city mom’n’pop shops were worried and with good reason. Nationally, “retail sales in central business districts declined dramatically between 1958 and 1963, while overall metropolitan sales mushroomed from 10 percent to 20 percent” (p. 202); however, city merchants fought back.
Coalitions of small city businesses started to materialize and “mobilized the authority and resources of government on their behalf” (p. 205) by passing ‘blue laws’ which prohibited shopping centers to be open on Sunday. These coalitions didn’t stop there though; “the second way that downtown business people sought to harness the power of the state in fighting the shopping centers involved the use of federal funds for urban renewal” (p. 206). Both, the National Housing Act and the Federal Highway Act were conceived to help ‘rehabilitate’ the city’s retail sprawl; again, this wasn’t enough. Cohen inserts that “federal dollars failed as a remedy” (p. 207).
The reason for this failure—and this is where it gets sinister—“as the segmentation of consumer markets became the guiding principle in postwar commerce, no amount of revitalization could make a city whose population was becoming increasingly minority and poor attractive to the white middle-class shoppers with money to spend” (p. 207). Furthermore, the big businesses behind shopping centers had their own agenda, “When developers and store owners set out to make the shopping center a more perfect downtown they aimed to exclude from this public space unwanted suburban groups such as vagrants, prostitutes, racial minorities, and poor people” (p. 199). Thus, as more white middle-class families fled the city lifestyle for the insular stressless life of suburbia, they took along with them their racial and class-based elitism too. As Cohen dubs it, these ‘exclusionary socioeconomics’ invited the shopping-mall developers to satiate, quell, and play upon the suburbanites’ elitist fears, building them directly into the design of their centers for mass-consumption.
Furthermore, women were also placed in an awkward, confining position. As Cohen explains, “shopping centers were created as female worlds” (p. 213), which only reinforced the stereotype that consumption was a purely feminine activity and that it was a woman’s duty to consume. Although “female authority was…enhanced by shopping centers” (p. 214) and thus “bore witness to a wife’s or mother’s control” (p. 214), women were still at the mercy of their husbands. As charging became the standardized way to purchase items in the shopping center, women’s roles as consumers were only reinforced since “qualifying generally depended on husband’s or father’s income even when women earned money of their own” (p. 216).
As women sought part-time employment in the shopping centers, department stores had another set of lascivious motives in mind. This time around, they underhandedly tried to outmaneuver labor unions and deprive women of “job security, wages, benefits, and working condition of unionized downtown workers” (p. 217).
I always knew there was a darker side behind all of the easy-listening muzak, octagonal-tiled banality, and glass-block chic when I worked at the Millcreek Mall back in Erie.  I think it had to do with all the coins that were thrown into the fountains—people’s wishes—collected then pocketed by the shopping mall’s powers that be. That was the giveaway that there was more to the story. Lizabeth Cohen shed some light on the outlandish conspiracy theories I’d formulate as a teenager while on my fifteen minute break, sitting on a mall bench …slurping an Orange Julius.

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