Is there a word for a revelation that’s been sitting in plain sight the entire time? Other than “Duh!”, I mean. Something German, probably. A strongly curated news feed and a steady stream of dead mall videos have been informing my work in progress. It’s also pulled out some deep memories of my childhood, and made me realize that the state of the world isn’t new. This isn’t something that just suddenly happened in the last couple of years, or even the past few decades. It was always burning.
As I was growing up in the 1970s, the downtown area was functionally extinct. There were a lot of empty storefronts. One of the major department stores was in a gorgeous building that probably dated from the 1920s or 30s. It has been two or three stories above ground, plus a finished basement. There was a grand staircase. By the time of my childhood they’d consolidated to the ground floor and the basement. The staircase had been blocked off by ham-handedly shoving fixtures in front of it. Later that basement was closed off, and by my teens the store was gone.
There was a theater downtown that had once been a vaudeville venue. People talked about how gorgeous it had been, back in the day. It was faded and crumbling by the time I came around. As a teenager I went there to see a movie, and a chunk of the painted plaster ceiling fell in. Fortunately I was seated toward the back, under the closed-off balcony. This was something people supposedly valued, home to cherished memories, and it was openly decaying.
It Was Always Burning
We went to the Poconos a few times, to resorts that had clearly seen their heyday in the 1940s and 50s. Paint was peeling. Weeds were winning. There were photographs of the famous musicians and comedians who had played the ballroom, even though no one of note had been booked recently. My grandmother would tell stories. Older members of the staff would reminisce. I was supposed to appreciate the history, while understanding that I had missed out.
A lot of people back then attributed the decline to the rise of malls. It’s the same sort of logic that ascribes the dead mall phenomena to the internet. Things aren’t that simple. When I was growing up a lot of my friends planned to work with their father or uncles or older brothers in factories. Those plants had been there forever, and it was assumed they always would be. By the time I reached high school a lot of those places had shut down, and unemployment was a serious concern. It was always burning.
No one had disposable income to go shopping, or take vacations, or even go to the movies. There was only so much to go around, and retail space was oversaturated. Maybe the town could support a few movie theaters, but not twenty screens. There may have been a customer base to keep a couple of department stores thriving, but not a dozen or more. It was supply and demand, and somehow we keep expecting the demand to rise and meet the supply. That’s not how it works. That’s not how it’s ever worked. Yet we continue to make the same mistakes, attribute them to the wrong causes, and fling ourselves headlong into the downward spiral.