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John Mark Reynolds- Contributor

John Mark Reynolds is the founder and director of the Torrey Honors Institute, and Associate Professor of Philosophy, at Biola University.

In 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.

copyright 2003 John Mark Reynolds



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