Saturday, June 21, 2014

Death and Life in Petersburg

This evening I was farting around on Facebook (am I supposed to do the TM thing with Facebook or does everyone just get that?) and noticed that my friend J. from Dayton posted a link to an article about the death of the shopping mall.

"Mall" is a weird word in that it took on new meaning somewhere around 1970.  Before that it was a large, open promenade.  Baltimore had one (well, HAS, it's still there but no one remembers it) in Druid Hill Park;  Richmond has one in front of the big Memorial Carillon.  Most famously, of course, we have the Mall in Washington, which at some point around 2000, people started calling "The National Mall."  Now, I didn't grow up in Washington but I did grow up in Baltimore which is all of thirty-five miles away, and I can tell you that NO ONE who is from this part of the country calls it, or ever did call it, "The National Mall."  It's just "The Mall."

It is particularly frightening but indicative of our, our National Culture--that in recent years people from other parts of the country show up in Washington and want to find the National Mall.  They're aghast when told that they are standing on it, because what they're looking for is a big shopping center.  Fuck the museums, fuck monuments--we want a goddamn Wal*Mart, y'all!

Anyway I never really thought much of shopping malls. I grew up in the faded glory of Baltimore's huge department stores at the Busy Corner (that would  be Howard and Lexington), and when you've shopped in the ten-story wonder that was Hutzler Brothers, the charms of a brown-tiled floor and umbrella-shaped blue-tinted fountains are pretty dim.

When William and Mary elected to give me a diploma (a strategy, I suspect now, to just get me the hell off campus), I worked at one of Richmond's similarly huge and elegant department stores.  Thalhimers had its mall stores, too, but we cast a dim eye upon them, preferring our gigantic flagship at Sixth and Broad.  Malls were for the Little People; Proper Richmonders shopped on Grace Street.  (Our store, like our rival Miller and Rhoads, fronted both Broad and Grace.)

Among our suburban mall stores was one at Walnut Mall in Petersburg.  If you are Virginian, or a student of the War of Northern, I mean, The Recent Unpleasantness, you know of Petersburg.  Sadly for that poor city, no one else does anymore.  Petersburg, if you don't know of it, is a small city about twenty-five miles south of Richmond.  It was once a very wealthy town and has the great architecture to prove it; but its glory days are no longer in the memory of anyone living.  It is large enough to have had a mall, though, and Walnut Mall was its showcase in the early 70s.

Walnut Mall was the first mall I knew that just plain closed.  At the time, we'd closed our Walnut store and opened a newer, fancier store at the larger mall in nearby Colonial Heights.  Even though I was a downtown child through and through, I did grow up in the mall era and so it was just unbelievable to me that an entire freaking mall just up and died.  I took it as a rather sad sign of Petersburg's long descent into oblivion: the poor town was so beat up and ruined that not only was Sycamore street dried up and abandoned, but even its MALL had closed.

Little did I know at the time.  Petersburg, a forgotten ruin that was once the Confederacy's seventh largest city, was a forerunner in a new trend--the death of the shopping mall.  Malls are going the way of the dodo and are being replaced by little fake downtowns out in suburban areas.

There's a second chapter to this, but I've been sucking down gin and tonic for six hours and I'm tired.  Cheers to Petersburg, though--after a century it got to be on the cutting edge again.

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