Two criticisms of “The Death and Afterlife of the Mall”

I enjoyed watching “The Death and Afterlife of the Mall” from The Atlantic. In a little over five minutes, the video presents a short history of the shopping mall and its impact. The connection between malls and suburbs is hard to argue; few other institutions or settings better exemplify post-World War II suburban life.

At the same time, I had two quick critiques of the ideas in the video.

  1. The overarching narrative of the video suggests malls are part of a larger mistaken American project. Early in the video, James Fallows says, “After World War II, there was this misguided ideal of the suburban goal for American life with people moving away from cities.” Later in the video, I believe it Fallows saying, “The dream of modern life is not a mall-centric, car-centric dream anymore.” These are both contestable statements. As of today, a good portion of Americans still appear to like suburban life (or at least dislike the alternatives more). Perhaps we have reached peak suburbia but this does not necessarily mean the American Dream has significantly shifted to more urban or denser communities. Furthermore, the dream of suburban life has deeper roots than just the post-war era and will likely hold on for decades more.
  2. Are all malls dead? Many are in trouble. Yet, there are two big caveats to this. A number of malls are pursuing redevelopment projects ranging from adding restaurants to public facilities to residential units. Depending on the particular project, the mall footprint may still be prominent or the shopping element may never disappear even as the use of space changes. A second caveat is that shopping malls in wealthier areas may just survive and even thrive as rival malls close down. Americans still like to shop, they still drive a lot, and they occasionally like to venture into spaces where other people are there.


USA Today says American Dream costs $130k per year

Living the American Dream isn’t cheap, according to calculations from USA Today. Here is what went into the cost:

•Home ownership is central to the American dream. So, we took the median price of a new home ($275,000), subtracted a 10% down payment, then projected the annual cost of a 30-year mortgage at 4% interest. We also added annual maintenance costs of 1% of the purchase price. Total: $17,062 a year.

•We used the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s April 2014 figure of $12,659 for a moderate-cost grocery plan for a family of four.

•In May, AAA estimated it would cost $11,039 a year to own one four-wheel-drive sport-utility vehicle.

•The Milliman Medical Index pegged annual health insurance premiums and out-of-pocket medical expenses at $9,144.

•We used various estimates for the costs of restaurants and entertainment; one family summer vacation; clothing; utilities; cable or satellite; Internet and cellphone; and miscellaneous expenses (see table).

•Total federal, state, and local taxes were pegged at 30% for households at this income level, based on a model developed for Citizens for Tax Justice.

•USA TODAY calculated current educational expenses for two children at $4,000 a year and college savings (all of it pretax, we assumed) at $2,500 per year per child, based on various rules of thumb.

•Finally, the maximum annual pretax contribution to a retirement plan for people under 50 is $17,500. That’s slightly less than 15% of this American dream household’s annual earnings, in line with financial planners’ recommendations.

Total: $130,357.

It sounds like a lot — and it is in a country where the median household income is about $51,000. Add one more child and another vehicle and you could easily reach $150,000.

I can see some places where costs could be trimmed, particularly with the car and a more minimalistic approach to retirement savings. I wonder if the emphasis here should be on the overall cost – which is high and the article notes it can vary quite a bit from region to region – or the assumptions about what the middle class is about. I was recently looking at a classic sociological study Working-Class Suburb written by Bennett Berger in 1960. There is a point in the book where Berger juxtaposes the suburban critic frowning at the ills of suburban life and the suburbanite who is happy with his relative comfort of a car, refrigerator, house, and little patch of lawn. In the decades since, expectations about the good life have increased, as Juliet Schor showed in The Overspent American. If Americans need $130,000 a year to have the basics, many of which are good things, then is being middle-class something completely different today?

McMansions just a symptom of sprawl

Reflecting on a recent case of building a wall along the edge of a suburban property, a Bakersfield, California columnist suggests the wall is a larger symptom of sprawl:

And now we’re a nation of cul-de-sacs and dense residential mazes that, except for the most ambitious among us, are navigable only by automobile. Wonder why the U.S. is the most obese nation on earth? Look no further than a culture that favors cars to walking shoes and cherishes the illusion of privacy over the interactivity of community.

The design of our cities is killing us. We drive a mile to a supermarket that’s just a quarter-mile away as the crow flies. We buy McMansions on the outer edge of the city’s metro footprint and drive 10 miles to work, sending up emissions we needn’t have produced. And we recruit city councilmen to help us block off walking paths near our houses because we’re tired of seeing people actually out and about on our streets.

So many of our societal ills can be traced to a Calle Privada mindset. Half-acre lots with three-car garages on longtime ag land instead of smaller homes closer to work. Municipal tax dollars devoted to new roads, new sewers, new traffic signals and new utility infrastructure instead of public safety and the maintenance of what we already have. And homeowners who barricade their streets instead of developing neighborhood bonds that encourage cooperation, build trust and hinder crime. Cinderblock walls don’t do much to facilitate any of that.

This is an example of what the critique of McMansions is often about. Note that the houses in sprawl themselves don’t get much attention in the argument above. We see that they are on large lots, half an acre, with lots of garage space. But, the bigger issue is what the sprawl in which McMansions are a part. Here are the problems with sprawl, as suggested above:

(1) the infrastructure is costly;

(2) driving is required;

(3) it is bad for the environment;

(4) and it inhibits neighborliness and the development of community.

Those who don’t like sprawl suggest it is a whole system of public investment and choices. Americans may like their large, private houses but there are costs associated with it. Opponents of sprawl tend to assume that if homeowners and policymakers knew these costs, they would make different decisions. That hasn’t exactly happened yet…but the term McMansion is certainly part of the critique of sprawl.

Australian commentator: movies don’t depict the suburbs

A writer in The Daily Telegraph suggests that Australian films have not told the stories of typical, suburban life:

Yet it’s not the working class who are neglected.

In fact, according to our films, these are the only people who inhabit Australia.

For all the frustration that exists among moviegoers as to an over-representation of bleak morality tales, it’s this unspoken class warfare that goes unchecked.

From salt-of-the-earth drovers to down-on-their-luck-gangsters, we’re traditionally very fond of our battlers. It’s the prospect of venturing near a McMansion, 4WD or flat-screen TV that seems to paralyse our finest scriptwriters.

The aspirations of families in tree-lined suburbia all too rarely catch the eye of local filmmakers. Perhaps it’s all a bit common.

We pride ourselves on telling real tales, but we don’t want to get too real…

We have been too busy wallowing in the down-and-out to delve into where and how most of us actually live.

An interesting take. I have had the impression that Australia is more suburban than other industrialized nations but it is difficult to find data to back this up. (I spent about 25 minutes searching the Australian Bureau of Statistics website and it appears that at least part of the issue is how the Bureau defines suburbs. While the American Census Bureau essentially says suburbs are the spaces between central cities and rural areas, it appears that Australia tends not to make these clear distinctions. There may be Inner Sydney and North Sydney and Outer South Western Sydney but they are all part of Sydney.) We do know that in late 2009, the average new Australian home was bigger than the average new American home.

More broadly, this doesn’t seem to have been a problem in American media and entertainment. Whether we look at novels or TV shows or movies, the suburbs are a common setting. We could argue about whether these depictions of suburban life are accurate. There is a long history of suburban stories serving as suburban critique: the characters are often portrayed as being unfulfilled, shallow, and unsophisticated. Additionally,  the “typical” TV sitcom or movie family tends not to be that typical: their homes are fairly large, money or subsistence issues rarely come up, and the family always end up in wacky situations.