Living at the Mall

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Providence Place Mall, Providence, R.I.

No, I'm not talking about your holiday season returns. Matt Yglesias has an interesting post today about bringing urban style living to the suburbs by constructing housing attached to malls. I myself would find living inside or in close proximity to a shopping mall pretty dispiriting. In college, I wrote a magazine article about a group of artist-activists in Providence, R.I. who were protesting that city's construction of an immense shopping mall smack in the heart of its dilapidated downtown. Next door were new, mall-branded luxury apartments and condos, which I regarded with the deep aesthetic disdain only a college student can feel. But a visit back to Providence this October forced me to reconsider my assumptions about the mall and its impact on the city. Rather than putting mom and pops out of business, as had been the earnest liberal fear in the 1990s and early part of the current decade, the mall, by attracting suburbanites to Providence, has spurred the rehabilitation of downtown. The side streets, once rife with empty store fronts, are now home to more than a handful of locally-owned clothing boutiques, bookstores, furniture shops, and the like. The mall actually accomplished everything its neo-liberal defenders promised it would, revitalizing urban life in Rhode Island.

But the same cannot necessarily be promised in the suburbs, where malls really do shut down local businesses and detract from street life. Housing in or near the mall will provide a walkable lifestyle to those who can afford it, but the larger community won't be granted the same benefits, because towns of 30,000 people are usually too small to support both a mall and a downtown shopping district, especially if they are a little further afield from the city than are the Bethesdas or Silver Springs Matt writes about. Most suburbs, after all, are not contiguous with cities. So is living at the mall a large-scale solution to suburban driving culture, and one that is sensitive to the economic needs and sustainable development of smaller communities? I don't think so.

cross-posted at TAPPED

image used under a Creative Commons license from Flickr user Mr. Ducke

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