John Mark Reynolds- Contributor
Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey
Honors Institute, and Associate Professor of Philosophy,
at Biola University.
Praise of Strip Malls
Or See You Saturday at the Interstate Theater
[John Mark Reynolds] 9/29/03
When speaking to a group of academics, liberal or conservative,
sneering at strip malls is always a safe way to get a laugh.
Strip malls are ugly, mean, low-brow, horrid. But I repent for
ever having ridiculed them.
One day, while looking at our local strip mall, I realized that
strip malls are wonderful. This is a hard admission. It is difficult
enough to be a Republican and a philosopher. Harder still to
be a traditional Christian and a philosopher. Admitting that
I have the temerity to like Southern California popular culture
may be the last straw. The American Philosophical Association
may expel me. But nevertheless, I am coming out of my minivan
and admitting that I love strip malls.
My own local plazas on a Friday night are a source of never-ending
delight. You can get decent Chinese food, better Mediterranean
food than I have ever eaten in Athens, and the best hamburgers
in the world. There is ice cream in every flavor known in the
civilized universe. In fact, a good definition of civilization
might be the ability to buy rocky road ice cream in under twenty
minutes from the first twinge of craving.
There are movie theaters from the first run to the super inexpensive,
all with surround sound and comfortable chairs. Strip malls are
clean in a way that the charming markets of old Europe will never
know. Most contain grocery stores with wide aisles that overload
my eyes with color. I can get a latte and a Krispy Kreme doughnut
while shopping at my local strip mall store. This is civilization
and I am content.
Electronic stores in strip malls told me long ago why the Taliban
were doomed. There are more electronics in the toy section of
the store than existed in all Afghanistan. A nation that can
make a robot bank will not lose to Mullahs on camels. Soon, thanks
to liberation, there will be strip malls in Kabul and there will
be whole stores dedicated just to cell phones there as well.
Try imposing censorship on the nation then! Some strip malls
have fountains with ducks to feed. All of them have park benches
for people watching and there are acres and acres of free parking.
Evidently we are supposed to prefer the sort of shopping experience
one finds in socialistic societies like Britain or Berkeley.
There one finds stores in sagging buildings that cannot be fixed
or replaced because the government will not allow it. The aisles
are narrow, the variety small. Chain stores are forbidden so
uniformity of quality is unknown. Anywhere in the entire world,
one can be sure of a cold diet Coke at McDonald's -- except in
a land without strip malls where no McDonald's exists. There
it is all unknown, which means seldom much good at all.
In places like Berkeley, competition has been suppressed by
government edict, which allows the mediocre to flourish. At least
such places are charming, in a small town sort of way. The effect
of the radical left has been to preserve whole swaths of the
world in a Leave It to Beaver Time warp. It is as if the Cleavers
had been forced to move, the house had run down, druggies took
over, and then celebrated the progressive nature of their society.
This is picturesque, which means a great place to visit but you
would not want to live there.
The snobbery of the rich liberal is behind all of this -- for
he can afford ostentatious discomfort in public places. He
lives in luxury in his private life or never goes shopping
because someone else does it for him. If the only time you
go to a store is to buy trinkets from native healers in an
open air market, then strip malls might look unnecessary. But
if you have to buy diapers every week in bulk and feed three
other growing children, doing the shopping yourself, then any
store with an aisle not wide enough for a double stroller should
be consigned to Dante’s hell.
Even worse is the
conservative who wants to fit in some way with educated opinion
and so learns to sneer at California popular
culture on cue. This is the East coast transplant who often muses
that Los Angeles is not a “real city.” Apparently,
to be a real city requires suffering on the part of the inhabitants.
New York City dirt is preferable to Los Angeles glitter. Even
our sunny weather and breeze tossed palm trees come in for ridicule.
Did I know, one of these sensitive souls asked me, “that
palms are not native to California?” The horror of it all
was that they were brought to California by developers. The beautiful
blue sky, the green tree, the very breeze were cheapened in this
man’s eyes. It was so artificial.
These are the sensitive, artistic souls that will redeem California
from the barren wasteland of strip malls. Somehow a brick in
a building at a strip mall is not as real as a brick in a building
anywhere else. Strip malls are the height of artificial. It is
not clear what buildings are not artificial, but strip malls
really are. Really.
Here is at least one cheer for artificial. Aristotle and the
Greeks had it right about the city. People who do not live in
cities probably think they are gods and live like animals. Strip
malls are built by human beings for human beings. Sometimes they
are lovely, sometimes starkly utilitarian. A strip mall does
what it does well. From hair cuts to dog care, strip malls offer
a microcosm of what is happening in the city of man today.
The strip mall is a very human place. It does not claim to represent
a coming utopia like imposing government buildings. The strip
mall is a servant of the needs of the community reflecting the
tastes and desires of the people of the area. A Korean grocery
appearing in a strip mall is a more certain demographic marker
than any set of numbers.
The Chamber of Commerce
probably wishes to highlight the Getty and all the other cultural
wonders of Southern California. They
are there, and I love them, especially the Huntington Library.
But Florence, Italy is better on that front, much better. Living
daily life is what we do well here in California. It is better
to live in La Mirada, California if you are not wealthy and save
up to visit Florence someday, than it is to live in Florence
and visit La Mirada. We have the world’s best strip malls,
and they make life easier and better in many ways.
This directly confronts
the liberal Rousseau-inspired myth of the purity and special
virtue of living close to nature. Oddly,
this attitude sometimes infects conservatives who give up on
the city and head for the supposed bliss of nature. There is
a scene at the beginning of the seventies escapist film "The
Wilderness Family," where the family, caught in traffic,
decides to escape to nature. Of course, later they are attacked
by nature in almost countless uncomfortable ways. Unseen are
the joys of outdoor plumbing. Given a choice between a traffic
jam and an angry bear, I have always preferred the traffic. Somehow
natural disasters produce character in the film, while the challenges
of living in the city are supposed to drive humans mad. But it
is not a God given duty to tote water in a bucket, and the time
my faucet saves me can be used to play with my children and create
art. It is no accident that the apostle Paul and Christianity
spread from the city to the country. The city is where the future
is, the pagan dwell in the country. If conservatives are not
careful, their retreat to their very own private Idaho will turn
them into the new pagans.
No, a strip mall does not promise paradise. In fact, one of
the best things about strip malls is that you can tear them down.
They are great until they are old and then people get to build
something better. Perhaps part of their disdain for strip malls
lies in the fact that liberals do not like for people to tear
things down. They are parasites and so have to preserve what
previous visionaries and entrepreneurs built in earlier days.
They then assert control over the idea. The only exception to
this are the nightmarish urban renewal plans, where liberals
tear down the few buildings that should be preserved to create
areas no one will ever use -- full of buildings designed by the
people who brought us the Postal Service.
So today I will take my kids for an outing to the local strip
mall in our fine minivan, perfectly designed for such an expedition.
We will wonder about having frozen yogurt, sitting on benches
and people-watching, and then go to a movie for a dollar, a movie
that is still not playing in some parts of progressive Europe.
See you at the strip mall.
2003 John Mark Reynolds