I don’t know how much anyone here knows of Batavia [New York]—I’m afraid we keep our little light well hidden under the bushel—but I will skip lightly over the first 160 or so years of our history and say only that it is rich, mythopoeic, beguilingly strange, as befits the cradle of the Anti-Masons, the first third party in American history.
Batavia was a prosperous little city, manufactory of combines and tractors and shotguns. English and Scots and Germans were the early settlers, coexisting uneasily with the late 19th-century polyglot influx of Italians and Poles. I’m a mongrel, a mixture of several of these streams—though my beloved late Italian grandmother insisted that we were “northern Italian—almost Swiss.” So in my book I gave myself license to write freely, even raucously, of the ethnic conflicts that once cleaved Batavia—but also gave it a good deal of its spice.
In some ways we were a typical small American city but in other ways we were “Batavia”—our own place. We did not yet bow down before the new American royalty: Burger King and Dairy Queen.
Then, as Joseph Heller would say, something happened. Urban renewal. My old boss Senator Pat Moynihan once said, when driving through Auburn, New York, which was decimated rather as Batavia was—I would do my Moynihan impression but I’m afraid I teetotaled at the reception—”in the 1950s, with a progressive government and newspaper, you got into urban renewal and destroyed everything of value in your town. If you’d had a reactionary newspaper and a grumpy mayor, you might still have it.” (Try to imagine any U.S. senator today saying something one ten-thousandth as perceptive.)
Batavia’s urban renewal was an act of parricide, really, unequalled this side of Rumania, where the vampiric Ceausescu once waged war on pre-communist architecture with all the decorum of Vlad the Impaler. Our city fathers rushed headlong into this mad program whereby the federal government paid Batavia to knock down its past: the mansions of the founders, sandstone churches, the brick shops of Main Street—the whole damned—or, rather, blessed—thing.
Batavia tore out its five-block heart and filled the cavity with a ghastly mall, a colossal failure built in the aptly named Brutalist style. We are used today in urban-planning texts as a case study in disaster.
The economist Martin Anderson had published The Federal Bulldozer, his scholarly demolition of urban renewal, in 1964, when so much of our city might still have been saved, but we never got around to reading that book.
Apart from the noble Landmark Society of Genesee County, organized opposition to this destruction—this wholesale vandalism—was meager. For this was “progress,” the American religion, the true and only god of the Greatest Generation, to borrow a phrase from Tom Brokaw’s ghostwriter.
. . .
If you wanna change the world you’ve gotta do it within your own ambit. Within your own circle of love. Anything grander—more far-reaching—and you’re dealing with people not as flesh and blood but as constituents, as soldiers, as abstractions, as faceless numbers on a bottom line. You wind up shipping them off to war or herding them into housing projects—always for their own good, of course. I’m not saying shun politics, but from my angle of vision, the healthy imperative is to decentralize, to devolve power to the most human scale levels: to the small community, the urban neighborhood, the family business, the individual. That will be the source of our renewal.
One in ten employed Americans works in retail. Those jobs are going away.
. . .
Heritage Park Mall is a tomb, a crumbling and boarded-up monument to a particular weird moment in American history when we did that most American of all things: attempt to perfect a community by rebuilding it from scratch. With its shops and restaurants and public spaces, and its proximity to banks and offices, the American shopping mall was the reincarnation of the downtown business district, moved indoors where it could be air-conditioned, efficiently policed, and surrounded by a sprawling Salton Sea of asphalt to provide ample parking. The old downtown died most places, and, now, the new downtown is dying, too: At the highwater mark, there were about 5,000 malls in the United States, and there are now 1,100, at least 400 of which are expected to close in the next few years. In the 1980s, developers built an average of 60 malls a year — and more than 100 in some years. Now, cities from San Bernardino, Calif., to High Point, N.C., are dealing with the husks of these dead retail behemoths.
. . .
A dead mall is a problem. It’s a blight and an eyesore, for one thing. Heritage Park is boarded up, and sometimes the grass is allowed to get a little tall. There are financial problems as well: Heritage Park Mall used to produce more than $1 million a year in revenue for Midwest City; what little commerce still exists on the property (there’s a Pelican’s Wharf restaurant detached from the mall proper but on the lot) produces about $70,000 a year. That’s a big hit: Sixty-five percent of the ad valorem taxes generated by the property had been earmarked for the schools. And while the mall isn’t producing much revenue, the city still has to police it and protect it against fires. (Fire marshals tend to take an especial interest in boarded-up, abandoned buildings with large, open interior spaces.) Replacing those lost tax funds has not been easy: In a sprawling metro area such as Oklahoma City, there’s a new municipality every couple of miles in the exurban stretches, meaning that businesses that left the mall but set up shop elsewhere often did not do so within the boundaries of Midwest City, which is festooned with a lot of signs offering residents the advice (economically illiterate but popular) that they should “buy local.”
The more common sign says For Lease.
Because the thing is, it isn’t just the mall. Heritage Park is bounded on three sides by commercial properties with a lot of vacancies. The shopping center to the north is between a quarter and a third vacant, and the tenants in the occupied spaces — Ron’s Burgers and Chili, New York Nails, an animal hospital, People’s Church and its nearby PC Kids center, a physical therapist, Hearing Aid Center, Midway Clinic, Rupert Thomas OB/GYN, a tanning salon, and an Edward Jones — all have something in common: They are in businesses that require physical presence. (Yeah, you can trade stocks online, but that isn’t exactly what Edward Jones does.) Amazon is in all sorts of businesses, but it is not yet offering to watch your kids or minister to your labradoodle or your reproductive plumbing or your immortal soul. On the other side of the mall, there’s a blood-plasma donation center two doors down from an Arby’s — if you are in search of the Eliotic objective correlative for despair, there it is. The shops that are thriving are like the jobs that are thriving: They are difficult to outsource.
And shops and jobs go together: One in ten employed Americans works in retail. Retail salesman is the single most common job in the United States, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. And while much has been made of the decline in old-line industrial jobs that carry a certain nostalgic charge, there are 17 times as many retail jobs as jobs in automobile manufacturing, 100 times as many retail jobs as steel jobs, and 210 times as many Americans working in retail as in coal mining — not just miners, but all coal-mining jobs, from CEO on down. Shop jobs mostly are not especially high-paying (though they sometimes are), and they tend to be held by workers who for various reasons — sometimes lack of skill and education, but also things such as the need for flexible scheduling or physical limitations — often do not have a great many desirable options. People sometimes scoff: “Yeah, creative destruction is great — we’ll just tell all those unemployed steelworkers to become software designers!” But the fact is that steel mills and mines and factories employ a great many highly educated and highly skilled people, from engineers to machinists, and they are a lot more likely to be able to find good new jobs than is the 48-year-old mother of three who works four days a week at the local Sears. That job may not provide enough to support a family of five, but it may very well pay enough to take care of the mortgage and the electricity bill — for two-income families, those modestly paid retail jobs aren’t about pin money.
Those jobs are going away.
. . .
And what about the people who used to work in all those stores?
The first job of Oklahoma City’s Heather Boulware was at a TG&Y, which middle-aged residents of the southern half of the United States may recall as “Toys, Guns, and Yo-Yos.” It was what our grandparents would have called a general store. “It was like a Super Walmart without the groceries,” she says. She started working there when she was 15 years old. Hers was a common experience: She was earning a little money — “a whopping $3.35 an hour” — which she invested in the things kids invest their money in: “I got paid every two weeks, and I’d buy books and go out with my friends. Some of it, I saved up for Christmas presents for my family.” TG&Y offered its employees a discount, and another benefit that made Boulware the heroine of Christmas morning: “I worked there the Christmas that Cabbage Patch dolls were huge. We got a shipment, and they let me hold one back for my little sister.” Now that she is an adult with children of her own, she understands that what she was actually investing in was learning how to have a job. “I had to be accountable,” she says. “I had hours, had to be there on time, had to be clean and dressed appropriately. And I had to interact with people in a way I hadn’t before: In a job like that, you have to answer questions, and if someone is kind of mean to you or critical, you can’t stomp off and cry. I wasn’t a kid at work — I was an employee.”
But there are fewer opportunities like that today, and there will be even fewer in the near future.
. . .
It often has been observed that the real value of a first job is not the money earned in that job: The real value of the first job is that it leads to the second job, and the third.
. . .
But the decline of retail will mean fewer stores and fewer starting jobs at those stores, constricting the path from unskilled hourly worker to richly remunerated manager. Fewer people will have the opportunity to learn and to demonstrate those basic elements of personal accountability — keeping a schedule, making peace with difficult customers — that Heather Boulware spoke about.
Those dead malls are a visible testament to what the decline of retail means to American communities: blight, lost taxes, public nuisances. But there is an invisible testament, too: It is not so much a matter of jobs lost in the present but of jobs that never come into being in the future. What all those teenagers and low-skilled workers need isn’t a $15 minimum wage but a foothold, a way to enter what is after all the world’s most productive economy and begin the process of advancement. For the kids headed to Stanford and Silicon Valley and Wall Street, the way ahead is, for the moment, fairly clear. For the dead-average 17-year-old who intends to — maybe has to — move out of his parents’ house next year and into a life of self-sufficiency, who not long ago might have gone down to the local Sears or Circuit City or hardware store and started a new job 24 hours after asking for it? That way is less clear./blockquote>