The widespread use of cars is one of the factors that made this transformation possible. When I was a kid we pretty much walked to all the stores we shopped at. Once in a while we would make a pilgrimage to downtown Brooklyn, or even less frequently to Manhattan, but this was the exception. The neighborhood provided food stores, bakeries, service establishments like laundromats, dry cleaners, clothing stores, shoe repair shops, liquor stores, drugstores, beauty salons and barber shops. For special items we would get on the train and go to the A&S Department store in downtown Brooklyn or maybe Macy's or Klein's in Manhattan.
The first real mall I can remember was Green Acres off Sunrise Highway in Valley Stream at the beginning of Nassau County in Long Island. For city dwellers, this was the equivalent of travelling to Uzbekistan. When one of my friends got his driver's license and we ventured to make this trip, I had the feeling I had entered Shangri-La. The place was dazzling...an endless line of marble, glass, and neon as far as the eye could see. They had an ocean of parking spaces, something no Brooklyn driver had ever witnessed. There was music piped in and even places to eat. Surely we had crossed over into some mythical shopper's paradise.
New Jersey is arguably the heaven-on-earth for mall lovers. They have good roads, plenty of suburban land and customers with serious cash in their pockets. If you've ever driven around the state you know there must be a law that requires a spacious mall to be built in every town. Just ride north to south along Routes 1, 3, 9, 17, 18, 34, 35, 36 and you can shop till you drop. It's not just the quantity of malls but the size and splendor. One of the best is the Jersey Gardens Mall built in a faltering industrial zone that was suffering economically. Along with Ikea, the Swedish retailing giant, this mall transformed the area, bringing in hotels and restaurants to serve locals as well as travelers from nearby Newark airport with time on their hands.
No doubt we have reached the point of diminishing returns as far as how many malls can be supported. Many have vacant stores and a few have closed altogether. Ironically, as some inner-city neighborhoods like Red Hook and Williamsburg make strong comebacks, so too are local stores reestablishing their presence as shopping alternatives. Many residents of these areas can't afford to keep cars and are looking for places near their homes. I like this trend because it gives mom and pop operations a second chance. With our economy struggling we need opportunities for entrepreneurial types to make a buck, and a return to shopping locally helps that goal.
I doubt malls will ever go away completely; they have become a part of the American way of life, destinations unto themselves where people go to hang out, even if they have no intention of shopping. Just one final thought...the newest, biggest, fanciest store in our mall...Victoria's Secret! (Why do you think all those guys are walking at 7 in the morning?)
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