Consuming the City

Commerce is a fundamental function of the city, if not the primary reason for urban life.  What else is the city but a giant machine for making money?

This winter the LA Forum examines the infrastructure of this money machine.  Commerce, of course, is an exchange of both goods and services, implying not only purchases but also production.  Yet increasingly the city features only one side of this equation – consumption.  Indeed, as is stated by Rem Koolhaas’ Harvard Project on the City, “the voracity by which shopping pursues the public has, in effect, made it one of the principal – if not only – modes by which we experience the city.”   The experience of the city as shopping is more often than not combined with multiplex cinemas, rendering consumption a type of entertainment as much as film.  For Angelinos, the pre-eminent examples are Universal CityWalk, Old Town Pasadena and Third Street Promenade, where the concentration of people and activity indicates a healthy commercial district.  But insofar as these are packaged and managed environments visited on Friday or Saturday night, urban life has become a product we consume as much as latest offering from Sony Pictures, Banana Republic or Crate & Barrel (or Prada, if your pocketbook allows).  We consume the city.

If the rhetoric and hype (and to a greater or lesser extent, the facts on the street) is to be believed, Hollywood and Downtown LA are poised to become the next urban entertainment districts of this type.  To achieve this, both locations must transform from one kind of place to another.   As any observer of gentrification knows, the moment high-end shopping begins to arrive in a neighborhood, its character begins to shift.  The proliferation of brand-name stores and purpose-built malls consumes the very features that make the place unique and desirable.  Retail consumes the city, not just by colonizing territory, but also by converting street trends into commodities – cities are the places where retail trends are created, which are then packaged and sold internationally.

Although the monumental Harvard Design School Guide to Shopping covers these characteristics, the Koolhaas-directed study does not seem to recognize the full extent to which this regime of shopping has generated other means for consuming the city.  As consumption has eclipsed production as the primary urban activity, we no longer think of urban centers as places we work, learn or even live – business, industrial, educational and residential districts have been largely removed from the current repertoire of urban design possibilities.  The result is a dramatic diminishment in the generative tools for design and policy.  This is particularly so in the Prop 13 fiscal world of California politics, where retail taxes fuel city budgets, which amplifies the predatory behavior of shopping.  In an effort to (literally) land the latest major retail establishment, municipalities frequently engage in bidding wars with each other, leveraging tax incentives and other public subsidies as weapons and enticements.  It is an end-game scenario in which cities and neighborhoods in effect cannibalistically consume themselves while being consumed by retail itself.  Meanwhile, a housing crisis has been steadily building in California, and the over-production of commercial retail space has consumed both land and public dollars that should be directed towards housing.  The city consumes itself.

The catastrophe of a policy of quick retail tax fix is clearly demonstrated by the decaying shells of failed shopping environments.  Ever focused on the new trend, retail real-estate is a disposable product, built not to enhance the long-term order and sustainability of the city, but to satisfy ten-year consumer trends and financial investment horizons.  Abandoned or devalued, the detritus of the shopping regime is empty commercial centers in the first-ring suburbs, disinvestment in the inner city, and an abundance of third-rate mini-malls everywhere.  The ultimate white elephant is the vacant regional shopping mall, the subject of the LA Forum’s “Dead Malls” competition.  It appears retail consumes itself, or at least abandons its young.

This edition of the LA Forum’s newsletter explores these themes, and provides a framework for understanding the issues and experience of retail design and property in the city.  Tom Marble provides an introduction to this subject with a “white paper” describing design guidelines for shopping malls, while Michael Bohn and I each consider future prototypes for the mall in Southern California.  John Southern examines the transformative effects of retail on Hollywood, whereas Sonia Rivas describes Broadway’s vibrant retail culture, so far resistant to gentrification.  Functioning like urban anthropologists, Mimi Zeiger unearths the multiple historical layers of Chinatown and Cristina Polyzoides documents her own social life in a mall.  These essays in turn create a context for the finalists of the “Dead Malls” design competition, a manifestation of the Forum’s interest in the current status of shopping infrastructure in Los Angeles.  The ideas of the competitors signal a hope that the consumption of the city is not necessarily a zero-sum equation, but might form the basis for reinvention and renewal.

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