Sunday, April 2, 2006

Paradise at the suburban mall

   It was a typically beautiful spring Saturday in Florida yesterday: highs near 80, azure skies, light breezes swaying the palm trees.  Oddly enough, I ended up briefly visiting the mall – the “upscale” International Plaza in Tampa.  It is the kind of place that I, most intellectuals, and the new urbanists tend to hate.  Isolated, surrounded by parking lots the size of small countries, full of cookie-cutter national clothing stores, in an ambience of vapid pop music.  And what was going on this seemingly depressing pod of west Tampa? 
   Life was going on.  Despite the lovely weather, the indoor mall was teeming with shoppers, walkers, fast-food-eaters and teenagers hanging out.  Despite the fact that Tampa is not America’s most affluent city, this mall of expensive clothes and accessory shops seemed to be doing a bonanza business.  Faces of all ethnicities appeared to be enjoying a Saturday afternoon at the mall. 
   Didn’t they know that they weren’t supposed to be enjoying this?  Didn’t they know that cultural critics call such malls vapid and soulless?  Didn’t they appreciate that the stores have no local flair and are owned by giant national and multinational conglomerates?  Why weren’t they demanding to walk outside, along city streets, as the new urbanists tell us we prefer?  (Well, the fact that there is almost no city-street shopping in Tampa may have something to do with it.)  Why weren’t they revolting over the land use and transportation policies that supposedly have destroyed our downtowns and forced us to drive to rootless malls such as these?   
   It could be, of course, that the typical American enjoys the mall experience, and that its dominance in American social life reflects consumer demand more than unwise government policies.   
   Like hundreds of others across the nation, the suburban mall in Tampa has replaced Main Street (it was called Franklin Street in Tampa and it’s now mostly a ghost street).  And it is not simply because people prefer not to walk; from some parking spaces to distant stores in the colossal Tampa mall, many shoppers were probably walking more than they had all week.  The mall provides the citizen with most of the joys of the old Main-Street-on-Saturday experience:  strolling along, looking in shop windows, occasionally stopping to buy, taking time out for a lunch or soda, and, most of all, of course, people-watching.  I saw more young people in the mall than I usually see for weeks away from my college campus.   
   Why do so many people prefer the mall to Main Street?  The answer comes in part from an unusual section of International Plaza called “Bay Street.”  An uncovered appendage of the mall (giving it a humid, South-Beach ambience, albeit much more controlled), Bay Street is designed as a nightlife area – chic bars, elegant restaurants, and a handful of specialty shops, done up in typical Floridian-paradise architecture.  And it seems that nearly every affluent young Floridian within 50 miles piles into Bay Street on Saturday night.  While it is not as well-known as the party-all-night Ybor City section of Tampa (an old Cuban part of town that is now the top nightlife stretch for the 22-year-old drink-and-dancers), Bay Street attracts a somewhat more mature crowd – 32-year-olds with good jobs, dressed for show.  One aspect of the experience at first puzzled me – despite the enormous parking lots just outside the entrance, the valet parking was doing a brisk business.  Why?  Watching a river of black Cadillac Escalades pull up and disgorge, I realized that the male drivers wanted to show off to their dates, and that both men and women didn’t relish the idea of walking more than about 300 feet in their soft loafers and stiletto heels.  Bay Street is only about two blocks long.   
   Yes, it is packaged entertainment, and its patrons seem to love it.  Unlike, say, an evening along the streets in Ybor City, patrons of Bay Street know that they will never have to step over someone’s empty beer cup (there is of course a fleet of cleaning people), they won’t encounter a lone drunk while turning a dark corner (Bay Street is small enough that there are people everywhere), and that everything they want has been packaged “just so” for them.  Unlike a real street, the experience is controlled and predictable.  Intellectuals may carp and complain, but real citizens aren’t listening; they know what like and they’re enjoying it.

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