America's long love affair with malls reaches new heights. / Shane Gorski
Scott Beauchamp,  April 23, 2015

The Mall of American Progress

America's long love affair with malls reaches new heights. / Shane Gorski
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Malls may not be an American monopoly, but America’s not really thinkable without them. They’re where we come together, octogenarian mall walkers and teen Goths alike, as we aim for that perfect, elusive balance between over- and under-stimulation. They’re our own controlled-climate variation on the outdoor European arcade; only in the multipurposed American mallspace, you don’t simply exchange money for goods: you exercise, see movies, attend concerts, go to school, and worship God. They’re our culture’s vapid response to the depletion of the commons. And their increasingly empty and abandoned carapaces mottle the American landscape like munition-citadels in the war between consumerism and community.

If the war metaphor seems too dramatic, consider the name of latest big American mall project to announce itself: The Grand Canyon Escalade Project. An “escalade” is a form of military attack that uses ladders to scale a wall.  (Though civilian American consumers probably know the word as a synonym for “gargantuan Cadillac SUV.”) And the Grand Canyon is, well, the Grand Canyon. The Grand Canyon Escalade Project is a proposal to build a mall on the eastern rim of the world’s largest canyon. It’s also a handy metaphor for everything debauched, short-sighted, and self-infatuated about our consumer culture: a belligerent outpost of gaudy merchandise, perched on the very cusp of the void. It doesn’t make much economic sense, it doesn’t make much environmental sense, and it’s an exercise in rapaciousness that represents the worst of American attitudes about unbridled growth.

The Escalade Project has been in the works for some time. The moneymen behind the project call themselves the Confluence Group, LLC, after the confluence of the Colorado and Little Colorado Rivers, where the mall will be built. According to James Joiner’s dispatch on the development in the Daily Beast, the mall will occupy 420 acres “of remote land” and offer a wide array of “retail shops, restaurants, and hotels on the upper rim.” The lowest level of the project would continue to tickle the shopping and appetites of mall visitors, while also offering “stadium seating to take in the views, a museum, visitors center, and elevated river walk.” An IMAX theater will wow moviegoers for whom the splendors of erosion across the millennia may not sufficiently diverting. Meanwhile, the stubborn holdouts who still want to experience the canyon floor beneath their feet will at least be able to do so in the comfort of a people-moving tram. Hiking and donkey-packs are, like nature itself, just a series of needless trials for the single-minded shopper.

The Confluence Group isn’t the only significant regional backer of the Escalade Project. Another key player is the Navajo Nation, which, much to the consternation of some of its members, is promoting the as a claiming it will provide thousands of jobs. Others aren’t so convinced. A group of people opposing the project, calling themselves Save the Confluence, stress that the river confluence is a sacred site to 18 American Indian tribes. Renae Yellowhorse, who has lived on Navajo land her entire life, recently led a New York Times reporter to the precipice of the canyon and surveyed the land below, saying, “This is where the tram would go. This is the heart of our Mother Earth. This is a sacred area. This is going to be true destruction.”

And pace the advocates of commercial development everywhere, at all costs, this doesn’t necessarily promise to be creative (or even merely profitable) destruction. Malls are not guaranteed moneymakers. Crestwood Court Mall, the local mall in my suburban St. Louis hometown, where I would go as a teenager to eat Panda Express and buy discount CD’s as all the music stores slowly closed, is now a “ghost mall,”—a mordant coinage that’s become distressingly common along the American interior. Indeed, the desiccated caverns of Crestwood Court are something of a Grand Canyon unto itself. Crestwood was the first mall to open in the St. Louis area in 1957; now it’s an eerie one million square feet of shopping space, completely devoid of shoppers, stores, and products. It is, fittingly enough, now part of an art project called “Contemporary Ruins.”

The empty, dead mall has become a ubiquitous part of pop culture. Movies like Gone Girl and Tim and Eric’s Billion Dollar Movie have employed ghost malls as spooky and/or comic backdrops. There’s even a website devoted to the exploration of ghost malls.

And the retail decline evoked in all this ominous imagery is real enough. According to numbers reported by the New York Times, 94 percent of American malls were still economically viable in 2006; today, that rate is down to something just shy of 80 percent. They’re being carved out from the inside, with almost 20 percent of malls being at least 10 percent vacant. The trend continues unabated, in what D.J. Busch, a senior analyst at Green Street, calls a “death spiral.” Filling a million square feet or more of retail space, and keeping it filled, while even more big box stores and malls are built just neighborhoods away is quite a tall order.

Still, boosters of the Escalade Project insist that they enjoy the time-honored commercial advantages conferred by a prime location: it’s on the edge of a national park in the middle of a relatively undeveloped landscape. But in broader environmental terms, that means that things might be even worse if the mall does survive. Saying that it’s going to be “bad for the environment” is a bit like saying that being shot in the head would “impair thinking.” The pressure that the influx of visitors and the population boom of permanent residence would put on the already scant water supply could be catastrophic. The rivers are already strained and dirty from overuse. The group American Rivers recently named the Colorado River, which already serves 35 million people, the most endangered river in the United States. As Bob Irvin, president of American Rivers, recently told the New York Times, “Building this suburban development there would have an impact on the lifeblood of the national park. It’s a threat to the groundwater supply of the Colorado River.”

On top of the project’s all-but certain disastrous impact on the region’s severe water strain and waste issues, there’s also the pending repeal of twenty-year ban on uranium mining near the proposed building site. Where’s J.G. Ballard when you need him?

The Escalade Project embodies and amplifies the worst aspects of the American myth of progress. It’s cheap, of course—and stunningly heedless of the sacred meaning of the site to the region’s original inhabitants. But it’s also disrespectful to our own humanity. The Grand Canyon isn’t just “beautiful” in the sense that a travel brochure or IMAX exhibition might glibly characterize it. It’s sublime, in the way that Edmund Burke famously defined the notion as an otherworldly compound of astonishment and terror. As Burke argued, the full impact of the sublime should overwhelm our minds, and lift us out of the stupor of everyday life: it is, he wrote, “productive of the strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”

As the callow progress of the Escalade Project has made all too clear, we’ve all but lost our ability to recognize, and properly revere, the sublime. Instead, we’ve traded it for food courts, tram-conducted group tours, and emojis. In his introduction to Oakley Hall’s magisterial novel of the myth of the American West, Warlock, Thomas Pynchon observes that “we are a nation that can, many of us, toss with all aplomb our candy wrapper into the Grand Canyon itself, snap a color shot, and drive away; and we need voices . . . to remind us how far that piece of paper, still fluttering brightly behind us, has to fall.

Scott Beauchamp is a writer and veteran who lives in Maine. His work has appeared in The AtlanticRolling Stone, and the Village Voice, among other places.

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