on malls and newspapers, or virtualization and the new economy

I have always been fascinated by how different areas live through historical moments in different ways and at different times. I can’t pretend to know too much about England, having never lived there, but apparently malls or shopping centers are still a new phenomenon, hence this piece (courtesy Dan Hill’s excellent City of Sound) from the Guardian, declaring outrage at the death of the traditional city at the hands of the mall.

It’s weird to see the British replay the mall panic that gripped American writers on urbanism in the 1980s. Even before the economic collapse, mall construction had ended in this country. Online sales appear to have had something to do with that, according to Business Week. Offering little more than an unappetizing display of product, old-style enclosed malls couldn’t compete with the more pornographic gratification of purchasing on the Internet and began dying off at a rapid rate as construction ceased. For a time, as the Business Week article suggested, lifestyle centers such as Los Angeles’s the Grove stemmed the bleeding, but now, with the economy in decline, Newsweek suggests that even those are doomed. So the British need only wait, No-Stop-City isn’t coming anytime soon. The fancy will pass there as it did in the U. S.

For some, the death of the mall is welcome evidence of the terminal illness of the suburbs. Soon, we are told these abominations will descend into the misery they deserve, becoming the next slum. A fitting end for all those dumb middle class dreams! In its stead will rise a creative city, clean, safe and fun, filled with a happy, shiny creative class of knowledge workers.

Now this is obvious nonsense, which is why it’s remarkable it’s still being touted. I’ve long  criticized the neoliberal advocacy of the city as nothing more than the latest mantra for the same developers who built the suburbs to take advantage of. Where they’ve won, in cities like San Francisco or Manhattan the city as it once was has ceased to exist, replaced instead by a diseased tissue of wine bars and mall stores, filled with hipsters touting smart phones. Gone is real diversity, replaced by a pleasant, mildly multiracial mix of individuals pretending to be classless. Gone is the city as a place of production. Industry and its attendant horrors of lowbrow culture, pollution, and class strife moved offshore long ago. Recent immigrants, illegal immigrants, poorly paid service workers, the unemployed, and even the homeless have been moved into inner-ring and exurban suburbs where they won’t trouble the city’s tax base. After all, when nobody defends the suburbs, they become a convenient place for all the dreck we wouldn’t want in the city (or in the carefully secured suburbs in which other clusters of the mega-rich live) anyway. Curiously, this was just the same strategy that the Situationists, embraced as heroes by the advocates of the new city, sought to stop before Paris was turned into, in Peter Eisenman’s vivid image, a stuffed animal.         

So stands the happy new creative city, purged of its problems, home to the global élite and to the creative class, the unalienated knowledge workers of network culture. Just clean up the historic districts and add some condos and Bilbao-effect urbanism and you’re ready to go.  

Well maybe not. The creative class and with it, the new city, are in trouble. If the new economy of fall, 2008 hasn’t been enough of a wake-up call, look at what’s happening to newpapers. Just last year, the New York Times abandoned its old, crusty digs in Times Square for a fancy new headquarters design by Renzo Piano. I suppose that the management thought that with the Times being one of the most identifiable and trusted brands in knowledge production in the country, a little slick architecture would bring it out of the dark ages and into the new economy. Nicolai Ourousoff, the Times’s architecture critic suggested as much in his review. But Ourousoff finished his otherwise enthusiastic review with a cautionary observation, noting that journalists were concerned about the future of the paper under pressure from the Internet: 

Journalism, too, has moved on. Reality television, anonymous bloggers, the threat of ideologically driven global media enterprises — such forces have undermined newspapers’ traditional mission. Even as journalists at The Times adjust to their new home, they worry about the future. As advertising inches decline, the paper is literally shrinking; its page width was reduced in August.And some doubt that newspapers will even exist in print form a generation from now. 

Now, in a move that seems more like a beleaguered homeowner trying to keep up with its mortgage with a home equity loan, the Times is trying to borrow up to $225 million against its headquarters to deal with cash flow problems. See here. No doubt you have already heard of the spectacular bankruptcy of the Tribune company, parent of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Is the Times building the 2000s equivalent of the AT&T building? 

This is a death spiral. If newspapers cut the quality of journalism further (at the LA Times this is almost unimaginable), they will lose what readership they still have. If they do away with print, they will lose more advertising and have little to distinguish themselves from portals. It’s not going to be easy for them. Now I think it’s of great significance—and not that welcome— that the lights are dimming on this key institution that emerged with the new class structure of the 19th century, the very institution in which publics really formed. Moreover, it suggests that the creative class is far from a solid economic base for cities. Let’s take another example. How about the music industry. Consumers hated it and, when they found out that they could trade music for free on the Net, left it to rot. Since 1999, the industry has lost 29% of its revenues. The recent growth of cities as based not so much on the creative class as on finance and on wild, speculative investment. Real estate in Manhattan was little different than in Clark County, Nevada. 

Goodbye mall, goodbye creative city. Imagine the New York Times building a decade from now. The company is long gone, bought up by by Slate and located downtown where the bad memories don’t linger. The skyscraper is half-empty, its floors rented out to temporary labor agencies and their ilk, its façade accumulating a thick layer of diesel soot from the buses of the Port Authority Bus Terminal across the street, ersatz mall and gateway to suburbia. What’s next? Maybe a better question is, what’s left? 

 

I have always been fascinated by how different areas live through historical moments in different ways and at different times. I can’t pretend to know too much about England, having never lived there, but apparently malls or shopping centers are still a new phenomenon, hence this piece (courtesy Dan Hill’s excellent City of Sound) from the Guardian, declaring outrage at the death of the traditional city at the hands of the mall.

It’s weird to see the British replay the mall panic that gripped American writers on urbanism in the 1980s. Even before the economic collapse, mall construction had ended in this country. Online sales appear to have had something to do with that, according to Business Week. Offering little more than an unappetizing display of product, old-style enclosed malls couldn’t compete with the more pornographic gratification of purchasing on the Internet and began dying off at a rapid rate as construction ceased. For a time, as the Business Week article suggested, lifestyle centers such as Los Angeles’s the Grove stemmed the bleeding, but now, with the economy in decline, Newsweek suggests that even those are doomed. So the British need only wait, No-Stop-City isn’t coming anytime soon. The fancy will pass there as it did in the U. S.

For some, the death of the mall is welcome evidence of the terminal illness of the suburbs. Soon, we are told these abominations will descend into the misery they deserve, becoming the next slum. A fitting end for all those dumb middle class dreams! In its stead will rise a creative city, clean, safe and fun, filled with a happy, shiny creative class of knowledge workers.

Now this is obvious nonsense, which is why it’s remarkable it’s still being touted. I’ve long  criticized the neoliberal advocacy of the city as nothing more than the latest mantra for the same developers who built the suburbs to take advantage of. Where they’ve won, in cities like San Francisco or Manhattan the city as it once was has ceased to exist, replaced instead by a diseased tissue of wine bars and mall stores, filled with hipsters touting smart phones. Gone is real diversity, replaced by a pleasant, mildly multiracial mix of individuals pretending to be classless. Gone is the city as a place of production. Industry and its attendant horrors of lowbrow culture, pollution, and class strife moved offshore long ago. Recent immigrants, illegal immigrants, poorly paid service workers, the unemployed, and even the homeless have been moved into inner-ring and exurban suburbs where they won’t trouble the city’s tax base. After all, when nobody defends the suburbs, they become a convenient place for all the dreck we wouldn’t want in the city (or in the carefully secured suburbs in which other clusters of the mega-rich live) anyway. Curiously, this was just the same strategy that the Situationists, embraced as heroes by the advocates of the new city, sought to stop before Paris was turned into, in Peter Eisenman’s vivid image, a stuffed animal.         

So stands the happy new creative city, purged of its problems, home to the global élite and to the creative class, the unalienated knowledge workers of network culture. Just clean up the historic districts and add some condos and Bilbao-effect urbanism and you’re ready to go.  

Well maybe not. The creative class and with it, the new city, are in trouble. If the new economy of fall, 2008 hasn’t been enough of a wake-up call, look at what’s happening to newpapers. Just last year, the New York Times abandoned its old, crusty digs in Times Square for a fancy new headquarters design by Renzo Piano. I suppose that the management thought that with the Times being one of the most identifiable and trusted brands in knowledge production in the country, a little slick architecture would bring it out of the dark ages and into the new economy. Nicolai Ourousoff, the Times’s architecture critic suggested as much in his review. But Ourousoff finished his otherwise enthusiastic review with a cautionary observation, noting that journalists were concerned about the future of the paper under pressure from the Internet: 

Journalism, too, has moved on. Reality television, anonymous bloggers, the threat of ideologically driven global media enterprises — such forces have undermined newspapers’ traditional mission. Even as journalists at The Times adjust to their new home, they worry about the future. As advertising inches decline, the paper is literally shrinking; its page width was reduced in August.And some doubt that newspapers will even exist in print form a generation from now. 

Now, in a move that seems more like a beleaguered homeowner trying to keep up with its mortgage with a home equity loan, the Times is trying to borrow up to $225 million against its headquarters to deal with cash flow problems. See here. No doubt you have already heard of the spectacular bankruptcy of the Tribune company, parent of the Chicago Tribune and the Los Angeles Times. Is the Times building the 2000s equivalent of the AT&T building? 

This is a death spiral. If newspapers cut the quality of journalism further (at the LA Times this is almost unimaginable), they will lose what readership they still have. If they do away with print, they will lose more advertising and have little to distinguish themselves from portals. It’s not going to be easy for them. Now I think it’s of great significance—and not that welcome— that the lights are dimming on this key institution that emerged with the new class structure of the 19th century, the very institution in which publics really formed. Moreover, it suggests that the creative class is far from a solid economic base for cities. Let’s take another example. How about the music industry. Consumers hated it and, when they found out that they could trade music for free on the Net, left it to rot. Since 1999, the industry has lost 29% of its revenues. The recent growth of cities as based not so much on the creative class as on finance and on wild, speculative investment. Real estate in Manhattan was little different than in Clark County, Nevada. 

Goodbye mall, goodbye creative city. Imagine the New York Times building a decade from now. The company is long gone, bought up by by Slate and located downtown where the bad memories don’t linger. The skyscraper is half-empty, its floors rented out to temporary labor agencies and their ilk, its façade accumulating a thick layer of diesel soot from the buses of the Port Authority Bus Terminal across the street, ersatz mall and gateway to suburbia. What’s next? Maybe a better question is, what’s left?