Dec 23, 2010

Strip malls for forever

The thing I forget most about America, as different from what I miss most or least (which is what people ask about), is the strip malls.

Driving through Tennessee, this time, and North Georgia and both Carolinas, and through Indiana, last time, and Ohio and Pennsylvania, they're everywhere, endless and placeless. They stretch into the cities, with a few marks of urbanization or gentrification, a flicker against the never-ending same, and out again, through the suburbs with suburb markers and out along the rural interstates where they turn to country, but are still just strip malls, passing passing passing.

They all have names, all the strip malls, though no one knows them. Nondescript, generic names, they're real estate place-holders put up on signs no one reads.

And they go forever, all more or less the same, block after block and center after center, stores different but also the same, the same different ones than the ones that were there last time. They're hard to remember, mostly. They just sort of fade and we only notice them if they're somehow for a moment more -- an excess or an odd pair or a sign that's more wrong. One said, HAIR & WIGS, and I noticed. One said, WORLDS LARGEST FIREWORKS STORES, which I thought was odd, by chance to see, until I realized STORES was plural and this was a chain and there were more, and then I saw them at every stop and stretched out, scatter, through the state. But besides that, they just pass. Flickering by.

There are, I suppose, two aesthetic responses to the strip malls. One is to not see them. They are so ugly, so brutal and blunt in their normalization, their invisible naturalized state, that they have to not be seen to be what they are. The other is to hate them, despise them in their gaudy, horrible ugliness. To want something better. Which is right, I think, but is also, here, caught up in cultural distains and secret class distinctions hidden as taste, and that's a different set of invisible, naturalized ugliness to that.

A third response, that might be possible, would be to see the strip malls as Edward Hopper saw his cities. As slightly watery, melancholic spaces. Places against which we live, them dilapidated and faded, us, alone.

I don't know that I've seen anyone do that with strip malls. I don't know if anyone has taken those documentary photographs or written that story, set in or against the endless same that changes, slightly, with the rhythm of the flicker of lights through the slats when you cross a bridge, this place that isn't suburbia even, isn't a place, really, but goes on, on, on.