What, exactly, makes a place?
I’ve been traveling the last few days around South Florida, taking in the huge variety it has to offer: the manicured, historic charm of Coral Gables; the squalor of inner-city Miami; that same city’s flourishing Wynwood arts district; the impenetrable mangrove swamps of the Upper Keys; the shouting billboards of Route 1; the tangle of freeways between Miami and Fort Lauderdale; the touristy streets of downtown Delray Beach; the anonymous expanses of countless strip mall parking lots.
All these are places, but we don’t necessarily consider them equally worthy of consideration as places. I discussed the distinction the other day with my father, who has been living in Seville, Spain, for the last few years, and is in the United States on an extended visit.
He was complaining about the Spanish department store megachain El Corte Inglés, whose boxy, modernist outlets can be found in downtowns around the country. They are architectural abominations in a beautiful city, he said, an affront to the ancient streetscape around them.
I replied that at least they are in cities. In the plaza outside a typical Corte Inglés in Seville, you will find people sitting in the shade, chatting with their neighbors, eating lunch, engaging in the traditional human activities of a town center. The store itself might be hideous, especially in the context of Seville, which is one of the most graceful and lovely cities ever built. But it has not stamped out the life around it. It even adds something to the plaza by attracting large numbers of people.
Compare that to the typical American big-box store, I replied, the kind of building that aspires to nothing and achieves it. The space around it is usually a vast surface parking lot completely stripped of life, human or otherwise, except perhaps for a few sad trees that are nothing more than a developer’s empty gesture toward "doing the right thing."
True enough, he said. But that doesn’t matter, because the parking lot is not a real place.
The problem is this: That parking lot is, indeed, a place, as is the store inside it. It is the only type of public place that many people use on a daily basis in this country. And yet it is completely invisible. It is not meant to be enjoyed; it is not meant even to be endured. It is meant to disappear. To be invisible.
The same can often be said for the store itself. The idea that something as huge as a Costco, say, or a Walmart, could disappear is laughable. But it does. Like enormous, sheepish monsters crouching in plain sight, these stores erase themselves from our perception even as we look at them. And they blot out huge swaths of space around them at the same time. Try to describe the features of the area immediately around the last big-box store you visited. Can’t remember what it looked like? Me neither. It’s hard to recall the individual nuances of a left-turn lane, or a shopping-cart corral.
Why does this matter? Because these are the places where we live out our lives in this country, where we work and play and eat. And yet most people, like my father, don’t see them as places at all. But they exist in space and time, and we exist inside of them, whether we like it or not.
I’ve been thinking about the strip malls and freeways of South Florida as a kind of junk food. These are the empty calories of place and space, filling us up, crowding out the more “nutritious” places where we can interact pleasantly with other humans, enjoy the shade of a tree, or walk along a street. We consume these places without thinking, like potato chips in front of the television, and it is no coincidence that they help to make us fat.
True, there are more malls that are being designed with the aspiration of creating a real place, and many suburbs are changing their zoning to create denser, more walkable neighborhoods. More residential communities are being built to be pedestrian-friendly. There’s been a lot of talk about “retrofitting suburbia,” most notably in the book of that title by Ellen Dunham-Jones and June Williamson. The authors advocate for the creative reuse of the worst dead space in America. And in some places, it’s happening. A dying mall in Cleveland, for instance, is now home to a vegetable garden. That’s great.
But it’s hard not to feel overwhelmed by the acres and acres of this country that have been turned into the ubiquitous nowhere of parking lots and boxy buildings. A few days of driving around South Florida is a good reminder of the scale of the problem we face. As much as we might like to think that what happens in the parking lot and in the Publix and on the freeway is just what we do on the way to our real lives and our real places, that isn’t so. Just like eating a bag of potato chips on the couch, this stuff changes us. This is our life. These are our places.
What are we going to do about it?