Thursday, July 26, 2012

Into the Cities

For the past week I've been reading Kenneth T. Jackson's classic Crabgrass Frontier: The Suburbanization of the United States. This morning, I read a chapter called "The Drive-In Culture of Contemporary America," which was about how the automobile eventually changed the landscape of the nation, as highways and services adapted themselves to a suburban landscape geared toward the car. Led by Sears, Jackson notes, "Large-scale retailing, long associated with central business districts, began moving away from the urban cores between the world wars."

This was the beginning of what Greg Brown describes in his song "The Poet Game":

I watched my country turn into a coast-to-coast strip mall
And I cried out in a song.
If we can do all that in thirty years
Then please tell me you all
Why does good change take so long?

"The multiple-store shopping center with free, off-street parking represented the ultimate retail adaptation to the requirements of automobility," writes Jackson, citing St. Louis's own Hampton Village (1941) as one of the earliest such enterprises.

Near the end of his chapter, Jackson nods to the rise of the enclosed shopping mall. His award-winning book was published in 1985. Since then, of course, even some enclosed shopping malls have fallen upon hard times—think of Crestwood Mall, Jamestown Mall, and Northwest Plaza—superseded to some extent by the car-friendly big box stores.

Just now, though, I read an article in the New York Times that seems to suggest we may have turned a corner back toward the urban core, that the population is turning back to the cities and that big retailers are following.

... retailers are now willing to come into cities on the cities’ terms — with all the zoning headaches, high rents and odd architecture — because that is where the growth is. Most large American cities are growing faster than their suburbs for the first time in almost a century, according to a Brookings Institution analysis of census results released last month, largely because young adults are choosing urban apartment life. That population shift, along with Internet competition, have made the car-focused, big-box model less relevant.

Is this happening in St. Louis? The Brookings Institution report notes that St. Louis's decline slowed in 2010-11. In my own small bubble of friends and acquaintances and bloggers, it certainly feels like there's a real movement back toward the city.

The suburbs, to be sure, are not languishing. The big box stores' parking lots are still packed, the malls are still thriving (think of the Galleria, South County Mall, or West County Mall), and new subdivisions are still going up out in the hinterlands.

Still, it is nice, for those of us who love the city, to envision it as a unique, thriving place at the center of the sprawling megalopolis, a place where people can live, work, play, buy what they need, invest in and repair the glorious architecture and infrastructure of the past.

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