Maybe not. Of life and style

The Ecotone wiki site is a collection of essays on "place" and its meaning to the writers. My other bursts of place-idity:

Books and place
Cats and place
Coming & going
Energy of place
Food & place
Imaginary place
Maps as place
Mythical place
Plants & Place
River and Estuary
Rocks and place
A safe place
Saving place
Sound and place
Secret place
Time and place

Back 1

An artist's rendering of a "lifestyle center," meant to be pedestrian-friendly but surrounded by parking.  From the International Council of Shopping Centers.Cleveland boasts two "lifestyle centers" -- not gay-lifestyle centers, though we have two of those, too -- but commercial-lifestyle centers of the kind developers have been touting recently.

Some algorithm has determined that two is what we shall have, east and west. Presumably this is the same algorithm that determined we shall have no Ikea. The developers say they aren't just shopping centers, though that is what they look like, but places where people will live, or stay in hotels and work at offices.

I was all set to rant about how awful the one I know is, but then my thinking evolved, my brobdingnagian rant fell into a tar pit and died, and something more nimble and less hungry took its place. I had considerably resented the new east-side center, which took over a big natural area and turned it into a parking lot that washes the feet of a cluster of exaggerated neo-Victorian stores with just enough decoration on the brickwork to suggest the 19th century. Phooey, I was inclined to cry, give me the real thing, where I can walk beneath the cornices and the ornaments and the towers and arched windows and see the dust and the rippled glass of the windows and know they are the actual work of frostbitten masons of a century ago, and where I can honor their work by enjoying it.

I know such places, like the Warehouse District in Cleveland itself, and the Armory Square in Syracuse, N.Y., and a handful of others in New England where developers and individual investors have renewed their old buildings to try to attract new customers. They're walk-able and interesting to look at, and generally as expensive as the new construction, but without the parking lots.

Comically, a magazine for developers burbled that our new lifestyle center wouldn't be like all the others, because instead of having standard stores it would have different brands ... but they all sell the same things, since that's what the focus groups have said the customers want, and nobody wants to go out on a limb with a hundred million dollars. They all seem to have Cheesecake Factory stores. Our Cheesecake Factory is decorated in a bizarre Temple-at-Karnak theme with purple walls and bulging pillars that seem to say, "you're not fat, look at THESE! So buy our cheesecake!" How unique.

I guess I hate the idea that gray-suited guys with Powerpoint presentations and market statistics have decided the best way to gather in the public and make money is to offer this, and this, and that in such an environment, with certain vistas and certain attractions for the eye and the dollar. They do it well, so that when I visit the mall I feel drawn in in spite of myself, even though I'm repelled by the calculation behind it.

My thinking stepped into the tar pit as I walked among the leaves along the Shaker Lakes near my home, admiring the reddish-brown and tan carpet under the oak trees and thinking they looked like a Victorian woman's wedding dress, meant for wear in the fall, after the crops were in, when there was time for such entertainments as weddings.

Across the street from the lake and its lifted curtain of trees is a girl's school, in a distinctly '50s and '60s modernist style. The blocky brown building's best feature is a huge glassed-in lobby that runs a couple of hundred feet under a zigzag white roof with huge pleats, which look a bit like a nun's headdress. The modernist school supplanted an estate, which in turn replaced an orchard planted by the Shakers. All that remains of the first settlement is a huge stone wall, sometimes in dubious condition and never pretty, that shuts out the main roads.

And I remembered that the natural area the lifestyle center wiped out was formerly the home of TRW, once a defense contractor that we all considered the spawn of the devil in the '60s. (Where have all the defense contractors gone? Does anybody picket Dow Chemical anymore? If they did, would someone come outside and hand around Teflon-coated pot scrapers and explain the explosives are really made in Bangladesh?) Before that it was an estate, like so many other big properties on the East Side.

And I came around to the idea that places -- the peopled ones, at least, are continually renewing themselves, and that where I'm repulsed by the calculated commercialism of lifestyle centers, my daughter merely sees them as cool places to shop. Well, she has more money than I do.

I visited Dallas 20 years ago in the midst of a building boom. All the towers there seemed to have sweeps of green glass. I wonder what they look like now. And I saw Houston in the spring. A friend and I took a walk from the conference hotel to a corner where several tall white buildings loomed, connected by a walkway that made a complete circle overhead, like something out of a fanciful Star Trek set. We looked around for a while for the famous sign but found nothing -- but for the flamboyant architecture, there was no trace left of the place's infamous tenant -- Enron.

If there's any solace to getting old and having to avoid cheesecake, it's being able to see stirrings of movement in the history of one's surroundings. I can't begin to guess where it's going, but it's not painful to speculate, if you keep your perspective, and it may be reassuring to know something's going on.