Undermining Profit

I was in a downtown meeting, and someone complained that a conference on 'civic revitalization' he attended was held in a shopping mall. The organizers said "look: pedestrians & commerce! What can we learn here?" They similarly promoted the notion that downtowns must study supermarkets, fast-food restaurants, sweatshop economics, and branding & advertising campaigns.

This isn't new territory: downtowns have been trying to become brand-name chainstore shopping malls for 50 years. And yet, even the inventor of the modern US mall realized what a horror he'd unleashed, and spent the rest of his days trying to bring back the local community market.

The biggest problem is that these are machines for making money, not for doing good. They are even purposefully unpleasant. Go into a brand name store today and you'll be assaulted by snooty, forceful, heavy-handed sales tactics, working hand-in-hand with disorienting interior design. Because it sells more. Because shoppers are basically nice people and pliable victims.

The opportunity for community developers here is obvious -- the more real, honest, good-natured, communal, deep, coherent and alive you can make a project or place, the more likely it is that you can rescue people from the mauls of the malls.

Greg Bryant

October 12, 2004