Thursday, August 19, 2010

Empty Things

I talked about memories in the last blog, the tastes of foods and the smells of the chlorine water wafting up from the indoor pool at the college, filling the air with a warm humid touch (well, I would have had I wanted to). We all have those memories, things we pasted into our brains as children. Places that I visited often as a child, that once seemed magnificent and wonderful, now seem mundane. I remember going to Crossroads Mall in Oklahoma City with my grandmother (my dad's mom, Mema. My other grandmother couldn't stand shopping). It used to be one of the biggest malls in the nation, 9th I think, at one point. The glass ceiling arched overhead, as if some artificial sky, keeping us dry and warm. The small fountains that surrounded the stairs and escalators, moving in a single file line, like ants, toward the magnificent plume of a fountain in the middle of the mall. Where coins would be thrown, and wishes made, and the water would tower up to the second floor before hurtling downwards. The McDonald's food always seemed better there (imagine, a McDonald's! inside a mall!). The long rows of clothing stores and other chain establishments meant nothing, really. It was the size of the place. It was the toy isles at Montgomery Wards or maybe Toys R Us just outside the mall. What a gigantic cathedral to human consumerism, exalted and revered.

And later, in college days at Milledgeville, GA, our friends would go to nearby Macon, where the Macon Mall was the largest in the state. You had to walk through J.C. Penny to get to the other side of the mall. It had a Disney store (much to the glee of Brandy, one of my friends that always drug us along), and a full parking deck which made it easy to go through the Parisian's door, past the green manikins, a sip at the water fountain, and into the mall itself, toward EB or Waldenbooks. How many days when, a year or two after, I would arrive in Macon for my classes, and, depressed from being in those classes, would run to EB and purchase any number of Magic the Gathering cards to take up time in the classes, as purchasing them made me feel better. And then eating at the Applebee's across the street. Always Fajitas. It was a destination, an evenings outing, with maybe a movie at the end. How special those days were. How long ago in times of economic prosperity. And now, both malls stand vacant, as empty shells of human happiness, echoing through the shelves of closed shops.

My family went to the Macon Mall a week or so ago, to meet up with relatives driving to South Carolina from Texas. After our breakfast at Waffle House, we drove around the mall, now filled more with a police precinct and armed forces recruiters than shoppers. There were entire sections of the mall without stores, and it made me sad, that the once vibrant structure was now so still. It reminded me of the day I drove around Dekalb County, handing out fliers for Teacher Appreciation Day at Borders, and finding on my outdated map schools, and then driving to see them boarded up and empty on days when they should be alive with children. What if one of my schools became that way?

Upon returning home, I wondered, what would become of those malls that are now afflicted with the economic downturn? So, upon doing research, I found, a site that keeps tabs on empty shopping malls. I looked back at Oklahoma's list, and was shocked to find Crossroads on there as well. It was dying a slow death just like Macon was. What would we do with these now slumbering giants?

For most malls, I would use them as I have seen in my dreams before. Let's turn them into Community-based learning centers, much like the Forums in Ancient times. Take the Macon Mall, for instance. The Macon mall has three colleges nearby (Macon Tech, Macon State, and Mercer). Combined with the Bibb Co. school system and the private schools which are a big part of the county, the Macon mall could be refit to house classrooms, conference rooms, lecture halls, as well as shops and restaurants that would make it financially profitable. The main anchor stores could be gutted and made into athletic centers and gymnasiums, and the outside area could be landscaped to allow for park space and outdoor activities. Now, of course, with the economic state as it is, this probably isn't possible right now, but it might be doable in Oklahoma for some of those malls (there's one in Midwest City that is dying.) They could also be used to house vocational and technical classes that could teach the unemployed to learn new skills to become more competitive in today's market. I've always felt a need to have someplace in a community where people can continue their education, much as the old opera houses and lecture halls were in the 1800's. Some place that Emerson or Thoreau would feel at home in, or even perhaps Plato, debating philosophy inside a comfortably A/C'd building. It's simply a dream of mine, but maybe one day it will happen. There are too few centers of education and culture in the world these days. Perhaps in the world of empty shopping malls and vacant boxes, one can be constructed.

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