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CULTURE: Small Town Dreams


(Let us take a hiatus, pour a small libation and eulogize the mall, that hermetically sealed shopping capsule that isolated the pampered consumer from the unpleasantness of, say, rain and unfiltered sunlight. To those of us brought up in strip shopping centers, a real enclosed mall was like some vacuum-packed, air-conditioned Mediterannean bazaar that had had its cacophany of voices gentled by recorded music. Remember your first mall, its promises of endless possibilities, of protection from the elements? Remember the food court and its unending array of foodstuffs? Take a moment. Remember them now. But we have moved on. Farewell, mall. We loved you, but no more.)

The genius of the lifestyle center is its appropriation of the elements of downtown that people miss. Like the PT Cruiser, a station wagon designed to remind people of an old-fashioned motorcar without actually resembling one, a lifestyle center is designed to remind us of a pleasant shopping district in a small town without being one.

To truly resemble a Mayberry-style Main Street (which really existed, by the way; I spent a lot of time on one in Oklahoma, and Farmville, just an hour away, retains much of its Main Street, though it now obsesses over furniture like a town of Martha Stewarts), the lifestyle center would need a lot of tweaking. Cars, for one thing: A true Main Street has traffic. And cross streets, to create individual blocks and to let Boy Scouts walk little old ladies across them. And a theater that shows one movie at a time, preferably a “Godzilla” matinee, and is overrun by a popcorn-tossing mob of preteens.

No, the whole lifestyle-center model is not copied from real life; it is copied from Disneyland, which is to say it is a copy of a copy. As such, its edges have become blurred and sanded down. It will be an idealized, green and pleasant place, this lifestyle center, but it will not be a Main Street.

Some people say that because of this the whole idea of a lifestyle center is bogus. It has no authenticity. Its retailers aren’t Main Street’s mom-and-pop independent operations but sleek outlets of megacorporations like Abercrombie & Fitch, Ann Taylor and American Eagle Outfitters (that’s just the A’s). Indeed, they say, these corporations killed off the real Main Streets.

So? Blaming the death of Main Street on big corporations is a case of blaming the messenger. We don’t really want small-town retail: By voting with our feet and our dollars, we’ve pretty clearly shown that that particular battle was over long ago. How many of us actually shop at a single-outlet store rather than the Gap? There’s a reason for that, and it has nothing to do with advertising budgets.

People who turn their noses up at imitations like the lifestyle center are the same sorts who proclaim their love of authenticity, by which they usually mean dirt and surly service. Look, there’s a reason good restaurants put their trash cans in the back alley: We want to be protected from real life’s messes. We want to visit clean, well-lighted spaces because the rest of life is not that way. Most of us prefer to wander well-constructed imitation Main Streets rather than trod the dirty, noisy real thing.

We want the ideal, not the real. And that’s the genius of this country — the way it seeks out the things people love, polishes them, buffs out their individuality and sells them back. Our lives may be gnarled and pitted with disappointments and compromises, but now our dreams are sleek and well-designed and color-coordinated.

We don’t live in towns anymore, and there is no center. But who can blame us for wishing there were? It’s a lovely dream, and we can stay in it as long as we want. At least, as long as the credit card holds out. S

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