Home Writing Tutors Joan Didion’s Essay on The Shopping Center, A Great American Thing

Joan Didion’s Essay on The Shopping Center, A Great American Thing


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This is the first essay Joan Didion ever published in Esquire, originally appearing in the terrific December 1975 issue dedicated to great American things. (Like apple pie.) In 1976-’77 Didion and her husband, John Gregory Dunne, wrote a column for Esquire called “The Coast,” and Didion’s essays for the magazine would later appear in her second non-fiction anthology, The White Album. You can find every Esquire story ever published at Esquire Classic.

They float on the landscape like pyramids to the boom years, all those Plazas and Malls and Esplanades. All those Squares and Fairs. All those Towns and Dales, all those Villages, all those Forests and Parks and Lands. Stonestown. Hillsdale. Valley Fair, Mayfair. Northgate, Southgate, Eastgate, Westgate. Gulf gate. They are toy garden cities in which no one lives but everyone consumes, profound equalizers, the perfect fusion of the profit motive and the egalitarian ideal, and to hear their names is to recall words and phrases no longer quite current. Baby Boom. Consumer Explosion. Leisure Revolution. Do-It-Yourself Revolution, Backyard Revolution. Suburbia. “The Shopping Center,” the Urban Land Institute could exult in 1957, “is today’s extraordinary retail business evolvement . . . the automobile accounts for suburbia, and suburbia accounts for the shopping center.”

It was a peculiar and visionary time, those years after World War II to which all the Malls and Towns and Dales stand as climate-controlled monuments. Even the word “automobile,” as in “the automobile accounts for suburbia and suburbia accounts for the shopping center,” no longer carries the particular freight it did then: as a child in the late Forties in California I recall reading and believing that the “freedom of movement” afforded by the automobile was “America’s fifth freedom.” The trend was up. The solution was in sight. The frontier had been reinvented, and its shape was the subdivision, that new free land on which all settlers could recast their lives’ tabula rasa. For one perishable moment there the American idea seemed about to achieve itself via F.H.A. housing and the acquisition of major appliances, and a certain enigmatic glamour attached to the architects of this new-found land. They made something of nothing. They gambled and sometimes lost. They staked the past to seize the future. I have difficulty now imagining a childhood in which a man named Jere Strizek, the developer of Town and Country Village outside Sacramento (143,000 square feet gross floor area, 68 stores, 1000 parking spaces, the Urban Land Institute’s “prototype for centers using heavy timber and tile construction for informality”), could materialize as a role model, but I had such a childhood, just after World War II, in Sacramento. I never met nor even saw Jere Strizek, but at the age of twelve I imagined him a kind of frontiersman, a romantic and revolutionary spirit, and in the indigenous grain he was.

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A Safeway Stores display case in Denver, 1977.

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I suppose James B. Douglas and David D. Bohannon were, too.

I first heard of James B. Douglas and David D. Bohannon not when I was twelve but a dozen years later, when I was living in New York, working for Vogue, and taking, by correspondence, a University of California Extension course in shopping-center theory. This did not seem to me eccentric at the time. I remember sitting on the cool floor in Irving Penn’s studio and reading, in The Community Builders Handbook, advice from James B. Douglas on shopping-center financing. I recall staying late in my pale blue office on the twentieth floor of the Graybar Building to memorize David D. Bohannon’s parking ratios. My “real” life was to sit in this office and describe life as it was lived in Djakarta and Caneel Bay and in the great châteaux of the Loire Valley, but my dream life was to put together a Class A regional shopping center with three full-line department stores as major tenants.

That I was perhaps the only person I knew in New York, let alone on the Condé Nast floors of the Graybar Building, to have memorized the distinctions among “A,” “B,” and “C” shopping centers did not occur to me (the defining distinction, as long as I have your attention, is that an “A” or regional center has as its major tenant a full-line department store that carries major appliances, a “B” or community center has as its major tenant a junior department store that does not carry major appliances, and a “C” or neighborhood center has as its major tenant only a supermarket): my interest in shopping centers was in no way casual.

I did want to build them. I wanted to build them because I had fallen into the habit of writing fiction, and I had it in my head that a couple of good centers might support this habit less taxingly than a pale blue office at Vogue. I had even devised an original scheme by which I planned to gain enough capital and credibility to enter the shopping-center game : I would lease warehouses in, say, Queens, and offer Manhattan delicatessens the opportunity to sell competitively by buying cooperatively, from my trucks. I see a few wrinkles in this scheme now (the words “concrete overcoat” come to mind), but I did not then. In fact I planned to run it out of the pale blue office.

My interest in shopping centers was in no way casual.

James B. Douglas and David D. Bohannon. In 1950 James B. Douglas had opened Northgate, in Seattle, the first regional center to combine a pedestrian mall with an underground truck tunnel. In 1954 David D. Bohannon had opened Hillsdale, a forty-acre regional center on the peninsula south of San Francisco. That is the only solid bio I have on James B. Douglas and David D. Bohannon to this day, but many of their opinions are engraved on my memory. David D. Bohannon believed in preserving the integrity of the shopping center by not cutting up the site with any dedicated roads. David D. Bohannon believed that architectural setbacks in a center looked “pretty on paper” but caused “customer resistance.” James B. Douglas advised that a small-loan office could prosper in a center only if it were placed away from foot traffic, since people who want small loans do not want to be observed getting them. I do not now recall whether it was James B. Douglas or David D. Bohannon or someone else altogether who passed along this hint on how to paint the lines around the parking spaces (actually this is called “striping the lot,” and the spaces are “stalls”) : make each space a foot wider than it need be—ten feet, say, instead of nine—when the center first opens and business is slow. By this single stroke the developer achieves a couple of important objectives, the appearance of a popular center and the illusion of easy parking, and no one will really notice when business picks up and the spaces shrink.

Nor do I recall who first solved what was once a crucial center dilemma: the placement of the major tenant vis-à-vis the parking lot. The dilemma was that the major tenant—the draw, the raison d’être for the financing, the Sears, the Macy’s, the May Company— wanted its customer to walk directly from car to store. The smaller tenants, on the other hand, wanted that same customer to pass their stores on the way from the car to, say, Macy’s. The solution to this conflict of interests was actually very simple : two major tenants, one at each end of a mall. This is called “anchoring the mall,” and represents seminal work in shopping center theory. One thing you will note about shopping-center theory is that you could have thought of it yourself, and a course in it will go a long way toward dispelling the notion that business proceeds from mysteries too recondite for you and me.

A few aspects of shopping-center theory do in fact remain impenetrable to me. I have no idea why the Community Builders’ Council ranks Restaurant as deserving a Number One or “Hot Spot” location but exiles Chinese Restaurant to a Number Three, out there with Power and Light Office and Christian Science Reading Room. Nor do I know why the council approves of enlivening a mall with “small animals” but specifically, vehemently, and with no further explanation, excludes “monkeys.” If I had a center I would have monkeys, and Chinese restaurants, and Mylar kites and bands of small girls playing tambourine.


North Glenn shopping mall in Colorado, early ’70s.

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A few years ago at a party I met a woman from Detroit who told me that the Joyce Carol Oates novel with which she identified most closely was Wonderland.

I asked her why.

“Because,” she said, “my husband has a branch there.”

I did not understand.

“In Wonderland the center,” the woman said patiently. “My husband has a branch in Wonderland.”

I have never visited Wonderland but imagine it to have bands of small girls playing tambourine.

A few facts about shopping centers.

The “biggest” center in the United States is generally agreed to be Woodfield, outside Chicago, a “super” regional or “leviathan” two-million-square-foot center with four major tenants.

The “first” shopping center in the United States is generally agreed to be Country Club Plaza in Kansas City, built in the Twenties. There were some other early centers, notably Edward H. Bouton’s 1907 Roland Park in Baltimore, Hugh Prather’s 1931 Highland Park Shopping Village in Dallas, and Hugh Potter’s 1937 River Oaks in Houston, but the developer of Country Club Plaza, the late J.C. Nichols, is referred to with ritual frequency in the literature of shopping centers, usually as “pioneering J.C. Nichols,” “trailblazing J.C. Nichols,” or “J.C. Nichols, father of the center as we know it.”

In each of them one moves for a while in an aqueous suspension not only of light but of judgment, not only of judgment but of “personality.”

Those are some facts I know about shopping centers because I still want to be Jere Strizek or James B. Douglas or David D. Bohannon. Here are some facts I know about shopping centers because I never will be Jere Strizek or James B. Douglas or David D. Bohannon: a good center in which to spend the day if you wake sad and fearful in Honolulu, Hawaii, is Ala Moana, major tenants Liberty House and Sears. A good center in which to spend the day if you wake sad and fearful in Oxnard, California, is The Esplanade, major tenants the May Company and Sears. A good center in which to spend the day if you wake sad and fearful in Biloxi, Mississippi, is Edgewater Plaza, major tenant Godchaux’s. Ala Moana in Honolulu is larger than The Esplanade in Oxnard, and The Esplanade in Oxnard is larger than Edgewater Plaza in Biloxi. Ala Moana has carp pools. The Esplanade and Edgewater Plaza do not.

These marginal distinctions to one side, Ala Moana, The Esplanade, and Edgewater Plaza are the same place, which is precisely their role not only as equalizers but in the sedation of anxiety. In each of them one moves for a while in an aqueous suspension not only of light but of judgment, not only of judgment but of “personality.” One meets no acquaintances at The Esplanade. One gets no telephone calls at Edgewater Plaza. “It’s a hard place to run into for a pair of stockings,” a friend complained to me recently of Ala Moana, and I knew that she was not yet ready to surrender her ego to the idea of the center. The last time I went to Ala Moana it was to buy The New York Times. Because The New York Times was not in, I sat on the mall for a while and ate caramel corn. In the end I bought not The New York Times at all but two straw hats at Liberty House, four bottles of nail enamel at Woolworth’s, and a toaster, on sale at Sears. In the literature of shopping centers these would be described as impulse purchases, but the impulse here was obscure. I do not wear hats, nor do I like caramel corn. I do not use nail enamel. Yet flying back across the Pacific I regretted only the toaster.

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