Friday, February 23, 2018

When Malls Saved the Suburbs From Despair

“Okay, we’ll see you in two-and-a-half hours,” the clerk tells me, taking the iPhone from my hand. I’m at the Apple Store, availing myself of a cheap smartphone battery replacement, an offer the company made after taking heat for deliberately slowing down devices. A test run by a young woman typing at a feverish, unnatural pace on an iPad confirms that mine desperately needed the swap. As she typed, I panicked. What will I do in the mall for so long, and without a phone? How far the mall has fallen that I rack my brain for something to do here.

The Apple Store captures everything I don’t like about today’s mall. A trip here is never easy—the place is packed and chaotic, even on weekdays. It runs by its own private logic, cashier and help desks replaced by roving youths in seasonally changing, colored T-shirts holding iPads, directing traffic.

Apple operates some stand-alone retail locations, including a glass cube entrance in midtown Manhattan and a laptop-shaped location on Chicago’s Michigan Avenue. But a lot of the stores are located in shopping malls. The Apple Store is one of the only reasons I go to the mall anymore. Usually I get in and out as fast as I can. But today I’m stuck.

When all is said and done, it turns out to be a strange relief. Contrary to popular opinion, malls are great, and they always were.

The tragic story of the American shopping mall is well-known by now. Victor Gruen, an Austrian-born architect, emigrated to the United States after Germany’s annexation of Austria in 1938. In 1954 he designed the first outdoor suburban shopping plaza, near Detroit. Two years later, in 1956, the Gruen-designed Southdale Center opened in Edina, Minnesota. It was the first enclosed shopping mall in America. In the six decades since, up to 1,500 malls were erected across the country. Then people stopped building them.

Previous few have been erected in the last decade, but plenty have been shuttered, and as many as half of the remaining could close within the next 10 years.* The reasons are many, including economic downturn, the rise of internet commerce, the decline of the suburbs—even just the opening of newer malls, which cannibalize older ones.

Americans loved malls, then they loved to hate them. Good riddance to these cathedrals to capitalism, many think, as they pore over apocalyptic photos of abandoned malls in ruins. This trope runs so deep that it’s begun feeding on itself. The latest example: Bloomberg recently published a bizarre video game, styled like bad 1980s computer entertainment, about the glorious desperation of managing a dying American mall.

Gruen had meant well. He wanted to import the pedestrian experience of modernist, European cities like Vienna and Paris into America, where the automobile was king. By creating places for community in the deserts of suburbia, he hoped to lure people from their cars and into contact with one another. The malls would be for shopping, yes, but also offer food, relaxation, and green space. In his original conception, malls would also connect to residential and commercial space, medical care, libraries, and other public spaces. Even though unrealized, this idea was not that different from today’s New Urbanists, who advocate denser, more walkable mixed-use development in cities broken up by the dominance of the automobile.

Gruen would eventually disavow his creation, expressing disgust for how malls had exacerbated rather than ameliorated urban sprawl—not to mention exporting it globally, infecting the Old World with this land-use virus of the New.

But Gruen never renounced commerce itself. He was a master of commercial design. Before malls, Gruen designed retail shops and storefronts in New York—gorgeous, lithe, glass-fronted facades that renounced the ornate and busy complexity that had preceded them. These shops, designed during the Great Depression when retail sales were hardly easy, were meant to draw customers in, tempt them to stay, and then to make purchases. The Gruen effect, it came to be called. The mall might have turned out to be bad urban planning, but it was never bad mercantilism.

Such is the magic of the mall. Gruen got it right in the 1930s in New York, and in 1956 in Edina, Minnesota, and in the decades after, too, in Dayton, Ohio, and San Bernardino, California, and Fort Lauderdale, Florida, and everywhere else malls appeared. The mall is for shopping. It sounds idiotic to say, or tautological at least. Of course the mall is for shopping. But more specifically, it gives shopping a specific place. The mall separated commerce into its own, private lair, and it did so just as commercialism was running rampant and out of control in the progress-fueled mid-century.

Since I’ve given up my iPhone to Apple, my attention is freed to notice the mall. This one, Lenox Square in Atlanta’s Buckhead neighborhood, counts itself among the survivors. Anchored by Macy’s, Bloomingdale’s, and Neiman Marcus, the mall features upscale shops like Fendi, Prada, and Cartier, along with more accessible ones like American Eagle Outfitters and Foot Locker.

I was a youth in the 1980s and early ’90s, the heyday of the mall as a cultural symbol and a commercial powerhouse. In those days, mall-going really did offer some of the social benefits Gruen had imagined. The American suburbs lack the density of daily encounters that characterizes the modernist cities of Europe, and the mall provided a space where people could amble in thick proximity.

For one part, malls put products in places where they otherwise might not have been accessible. The model for density and walkability is hardly free of commerce, after all, even in the arcades of Paris or the side streets of Vienna. There, flâneurs would be just as likely to acquire a handkerchief or take an apfelstrudel as they would be to bask in the anonymous energy of the crowd.

But America’s vastness made distribution and access to goods more difficult, and just as mass production and consumer discretionary spending were increasing in tandem. Downtown department stores and local general and specialty shops offered primary access to goods and services. Discount stores wouldn’t arrive until later—Walmart’s first shop opened in Arkansas in 1962, and Target’s in Minnesota the same year, but neither spanned the nation until the 1990s. Target grew out of department stores (its parent company owned Dayton’s), and Walmart from a local general store. In that context, shopping malls were way ahead of their time. They offered local access to national or international products and trends that might otherwise have been unavailable.

It may seem odious to call consumerism a kind of cosmopolitanism, but like it or not, after the middle class rose from the soot of industrialism, the spread of ideas became attached to goods. Some of these were questionable, of course. In the 1970s and 1980s, for example, retailers like Chess King and Merry-Go-Round capitalized on short-lived trends for profit, not for culture. But others demand more circumspection. As a teenager during that same period, a philosopher friend of mine bought his first copy of Martin Heidegger’s Being and Time in an Iowa mall’s Waldenbooks, with money earned from a summer of corn detasseling. Like it or not, the mall offered access to a broader world than flyover country could easily access. And unlike the Sears catalog, it did so directly and immediately, live and in person.

These features of mall-going persist today, even as Walmart and Amazon capture the lion’s share of consumer purchasing. Without my iPhone to distract me, I inspect the La Cornue ovens in the Williams-Sonoma and the haute horology in the display outside the Tourneau. I’m not going to buy them, nor any of the goods at the Fendi or Prada boutiques, either. But here they are anyway, occupying physical space alongside my actual body, not just symbolic space online or on television. Others are having similar experiences with goods that are familiar to me to the point of banality, but wholly novel to them. In a clearing outside the Microsoft Store, people try out virtual-reality goggles; nearby, in a strange little Amazon shanty, they try to summon Alexa from inside the Echo devices on display.

The mall makes things real, even if their realness is inevitably yoked to capitalism. That bond is both tragic and liberating, as is all of free enterprise. Goods shackle people in some ways even as they free them in others. As I inspect the Vacheron Constantin timepieces, which can cost $100,000 or more, I wonder how the masses who have abandoned wristwatches will know when their two-and-a-half-hour wait for an iPhone battery replacement has elapsed.

Strange as it may sound, the mall also allowed people to leave commercialism behind, for a time at least, after they were through with it. Consumerism might have run rampant, but it had a safe haven in which to do so. The grotesque design of the mall—low, solid facades surrounded by the dead of asphalt for parking lots—always suggested hazard. It lurked low and threatening. Malls are prisons for commerce, but at least the commerce stays inside them. You can leave again. Like a casino is designed to contain and focus risk, so a mall is designed to do so for expenditure.

Eventually, your own humanity forces you to leave, in fact. Forty-five minutes into my iPhone wait, the familiar dizziness of mall-going sets in. “Mall head,” I’ve always called it. The wooziness of disorientation and recycled air is a design feature of malls and casinos alike; it keeps people around, but it also presses them out. It’s different from the machine zone, the anthropologist Natasha Dow Schüll’s name for the hypnotic, compulsive loop of casino slot machines—or of social-media apps. Unlike the smartphone, eventually, despite it all, the mall spits you out again.

The mall also discretizes commerce, breaking it up into segments. Whether purchases are necessary or not isn’t the point. Rather, the mall classifies human commerce and, thanks to capitalism, thereby human life. Look around in a mall. It’s a taxonomic chart of market segmentation. Pandora for bracelet charms. Payless for discount shoes, but Vans for skate shoes. Sephora for cosmetics. Victoria’s Secret for underthings, and American Eagle for what goes atop. These are the diverse apartment blocks of commerce. Dense but separated, they contrast with the slurry of online shopping at or Online, you don’t ever really know what something is, or what size might be in stock, or whether the item displayed even matches the one you will receive.

Alas, it’s become harder to use the mall this way. Back at Lenox Sqaure, commerce leaks from its boundaries. Almost every shop boasts a sale: 20, or 40, or even 60 percent off. It’s not clear if this is a function of the changing fashion season or of the tenuous mall economy. No matter the case, the message is the same: Nothing here is worth the price on the tag. Comparison shopping with smartphones has become so easy, and pricing and availability seem so arbitrary, it’s easy to feel like you’re getting screwed all the time. Not to mention the incessant badgering of online shopping, with emails from every vendor with whom you’ve ever transacted arriving daily.

Worse, capitalism has shifted commercial activity from the material to the symbolic. People still buy plenty of goods, of course, from books to clothing to makeup. But thanks to the internet, they also trade in ideas, signs, and symbols with increasing frequency and importance. They hope to buy and sell attention. The notion becomes a tweet. The scene becomes an Instagram post. The shopping trip itself becomes a YouTube haul video. The only reason I am not producing similar intangible goods right now is because Apple is in possession of my iPhone.

The mall itself is grappling with the matter. Madewell, a women’s clothing shop, has posted a café-style folding sign in its entrance. “Hot new fits = hot new fitting-room selfies,” it reads. When I open my laptop at the Starbucks, it joins the nearby Abercrombie and Fitch free Wi-Fi, and a terms-of-use screen appears: in big, bold letters, “because we understand the need to ’gram in the fitting room.” Buying is now optional—it’s sufficient to simulate a purchase in order to create an image of its concept, for exchange in the marketplace of ideas.

It’s an understandable quandary. The mall cannot fight material goods’ slow creep into the universe of information. Doing so spells only doom. Across town, the decidedly downmarket North DeKalb Mall has been failing slowly for years. It’s one of the half that are sure to be shuttered; local rumors suggest a Costco might replace it. Among North DeKalb’s many flaws, the entire place has been a cellular-coverage dead zone. Even before its anchor stores and interior shops started closing, the lack of connectivity put the writing on the wall.
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At last, the two-and-a-half-hour separation from my rectangle is ending. I amble past the Henri Bendel and the J.Crew and the Adidas store to fetch the phone—recharged and ready to fuel my own obsession with symbol-making. Even Apple itself has started to realize that its knowledge-economy machines are incompatible with the manufacturing-economy host of its stores. The new Chicago store is among the first of a new design Apple has dubbed “Town Squares,” where people are meant to gather for meetings in “boardrooms” and peruse goods along “avenues.” It’s an offensive idea, of course; the public sphere is so much more than just a shop in which to buy one company’s wares.

And yet, the concept is not all that different from Victor Gruen’s original vision for the shopping mall. A place to gather, a place to shop, a place to relax, a place to live. The mall was and remains horrible in some ways, but useful and even magical in others. It yoked people to commerce, but it also gave them tools with which to manage that harness, to loosen it enough to live somewhat peacefully, even while collared to capitalism.

I can’t help but think that Americans’ days of hating the mall are numbered. When it gets replaced by Apple Town Squares, Walmart Supercenters, and the online-offline slurry of an ever-rising Amazon, we will miss these zoos of capitalism, these prisons of commerce, where consumerism roared and swelled but, inevitably, remained contained.

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Zhitkur Underground Base, Russia’s Area 51

Kapustin Yar was the former Soviet Union’s most sensitive air base, even exceeding America’s Area 51 for the levels of secrecy that shrouded it. UFO Files claimed that it was to present never-before-seen footage of the base, reconnaissance photos and even a virtual tour of its hidden depths.

Kapustin Yar was created as the site for the development of the Soviet Union’s space program after the end of World War II. It lies over 500 miles south of Moscow and about 60 miles east of Volgograd, the former Stalingrad. These days it lies close to the Kazakhstan border, but back in those days, the base was deep inside Soviet territory. It was here that captured V2 rockets and the German scientists that created them were set to work with not only the single task of getting into space before the Americans, but also designing and testing new aircraft, missiles and other weapons systems. The base was deemed so secret that the nearby town of Zhitkur was emptied of its population and levelled because it was too close.

In 1948, less than a year after the famed Roswell Incident, the base’s radar operators picked up an unidentified object. At the same time, a fighter pilot flying close to the base had a visual sighting of a silver, cigar-shaped object. Reporting that he was being blinded by rays from the UFO, the pilot was ordered to engage with it and, after a three minute dogfight, a missile successfully brought down the object. It seems that the UFO fired some sort of energy weapon at the MiG and both craft crashed to the ground.
William J Birnes, publisher of the American UFO Magazine, believed that the alien craft fired a particle beam weapon at the Soviet fighter, but a lucky shot with the missile disrupted the UFO’s anti-gravity field, causing it to fall from the sky. Soviet recovery teams quickly gathered up all the wreckage and transported it to the underground facility at Kapustin Yar, which was ironically named Zhitkur, after the former town not far from the base.

Birnes claimed that MiG pilots were ordered to take any measures necessary to bring down extraterrestrial craft because Moscow was desperate to gain any advantage over the United States, whom they believed had made their tremendous advances due to recovered flying saucer reverse-engineering.
Russia has a long history of UFO sightings, dating back thousands of years. Russian researcher, Paul Stonehill, co-author with Philip Mantle of UFO-USSR, described how in about 950AD, Ahmed Ibn Fadlan, an Arab chronicler, was dispatched by the Caliph of Baghdad to engage in diplomacy with the King of the Bulgars. In the Volga region of Russia, Fadlan described how he and his fellow travellers witnessed ‘aerial battles’ between ‘shapes’ that moved through the clouds. Fleets of objects, flying in formations that resembled people and animals, engaged each other, merging and separating for a long period of time. Stonehill described it as being like something from a modern movie.

On 15th August, 1663, a great fiery disc came down from the sky and began shooting beams of light into the Robozero Lake near Belozersk, about 250 miles east of St. Petersburg.

It moved from the south to the west, vanished and later reappeared for an hour and a half, terrifying the local witnesses. Fisherman were said to have been scalded by the light and glowing fish leaped from the water, as if to escape the fireball floating overhead.

In 1892, an object appeared over Moscow and shot a ‘pillar of light’ down to the ground for 20-25 minutes. It was described as fiery, much like most other Russian UFO reports through the ages.
One Russian event dwarfs any reported anywhere in the world. On June 30th, 1908, a huge fireball raced across the Siberian taiga and exploded over the forest close to the town of Tunguska. Six hundred square miles of tundra was razed to the ground and the shockwave was felt by seismographs around the world.

At first it was thought that a meteor had impacted with the Earth and when the first expeditions arrived twenty years later, they expected to find a huge crater. No crater was found, but the devastation was evident, with trees laid out like matchsticks in a huge, circular swathe from the centre of the blast. From the pattern of the destruction, it soon became apparent that the object had exploded high above the ground, much like the atomic bombs dropped on Japan in 1945, but much more powerful in terms of magnitude.
Most researchers outside of Russia, including Stanton Friedman, were convinced that this was a natural event and nothing to do with aliens or UFOs, but Russian ufologists, such as Nikolai Subbotin of the Russian UFO Research Station, were not so sure. Subbotin explained how the object apparently changed course twice before exploding, something a natural object such as a meteorite or comet cannot do. Then there were unexplained radiation levels in the region and the fact that plant life appears to have been altered because of this radiation.

Stalin himself seemed convinced that the event was related to some sort of weapon, possibly from extraterrestrials, and he set Sergei Korolev, the father of Soviet rocketry, the task of finding answers. Korolev financed a team to travel to Tunguska in fleets of helicopters. They found radioactive metal fragments and an area that has become known as ‘The Devil’s Graveyard’, an area close to the blast site where no plants will grow and animals tend to die. Although Korolev is believed to have told Stalin that he thought the blast was caused by an alien spacecraft, his official report put the blame squarely on a meteorite.
As rumours began to filter back to Washington DC about UFO wreckage from Tunguska, the 1948 crash and other incidents being taken to Zhitkur, it became obvious to America’s intelligence agencies that they needed to find out what was going on. Their spies informed them that the Soviet Union was building huge rockets that could not only carry large, nuclear payloads, but could also reach space. Indeed, their progress became so rapid, that the Soviets were ahead of their own schedules in terms of advancement.
By the time American U2 spy planes photographed the complex at Kapustin Yar, there were at least four ballistic launch sites, fourteen launch pads, a highly-sophisticated radar tracking facility, three long runways and numerous unidentified areas. There were strange, geometric patterns on the ground. Many UFO researchers believe that these designs are to attract UFOs and are patterned after ancient monuments and cereal glyphs.
What the reconnaissance aircraft could not reveal was the underground Zhitkur facility. UFO Files now took us on a virtual guided tour of the base, recreated from descriptions given from Russian ufologist Anton Anfalov. A quarter of a mile beneath the surface, we were led down dark, dank corridors and tunnels, with numerous chambers containing various types of extraterrestrial craft in various stages of disassembly. There were areas where autopsies of aliens would take place and other sections where perhaps engines were being reconstructed. Finally, there are huge hangars containing not aircraft, but large, cigar- or cylindrical-shaped objects.
The advances at Kapustin Yar enabled the Soviets to leap ahead of America in the space race. In 1957, Sputnik I was successfully placed into orbit. A month later, a dog called Laika became the first animal in space. In 1961, Yuri Gagarin became the first man to orbit the Earth. In 1963, Valentina Tereshkova became the first woman to travel into space. In 1965, Alexei Leonov became the first man to ‘walk’ in space. Russia’s cosmonauts also performed the first rendezvous and docking in space. Apart from the Apollo moon shots, the Soviet Union was winning the space race until the space shuttle was first launched in 1981.
One of Russia’s most well-known ufologists is Vladimir Azhazha (sometimes spelled Ajaja). He took us on a tour of a site close to Kapustin Yar where he claimed a UFO crashed. Dowsing with copper rods, he found an elliptical area where he claimed that an alien craft had plummeted to Earth in 1961. He said that animals avoided the area, no cattle will graze there and strange energies affect your pulse rate and breathing.
A local resident, Zoya Shubenkina, corroborated Azhazha’s story about the 1961 crash, claiming she had witnessed it for herself. She said a big, fiery, red sphere flew over her house and crashed in the valley by the river.
Azhazha explained how many Soviet fighter pilots engaged in dogfights with UFOs. Former Soviet Air Force colonel and cosmonaut, a hero of the state, Marina Popovich confirmed that she had personally witnessed aerial battles between Soviet jets and UFOs. One such event she described occurred in 1964. During a training mission, two jets came under attack from a UFO and were forced into a spiral dive. In 1980, Colonel Popovich encountered several unidentified objects while on a top secret mission. She said they were three fireball-like lights and she watched as they moved away.

In the evening of the 7th of August, 1967, Colonel Vyatkin Lev Mikhailovic suddenly encountered an object that was projecting a beam of light downwards. He tried to wrestle his MiG away from the beam, but the left wing touched it and he struggled to regain control. The plane shook and his instruments went haywire. As they flew away, his technician exclaimed that the wing was glowing and after they landed, it continued to glow for a whole week afterwards.

As more and more reports came in from across the Soviet Union, the KGB clamped down, opening up its own file on the phenomenon, known as The Blue File. The Blue File would become the most comprehensive and largest study of UFOs ever commissioned anywhere in the world. It ran from the mid-sixties until the fall of the Soviet Union. One of its latest reports was from 1990, when witnesses close to Kapustin Yar described UFOs in the sky for over an hour. The new freedoms in Russia enabled the producers of UFO Files to obtain ‘top secret’ footage of a supposed UFOs at Kapustin Yar. On June 3rd, 1960, two alien craft allegedly crashed at Kasputin Yar, creating an expanding fireball that caused explosions in the vicinity for over an hour. Figures are seen running from the conflagration, smoke pouring from their clothing. One drops to the ground and lies motionless. One of the UFOs was said to have destroyed three rockets on their launch pads, while the other took out a fuel depot. Once the flames had been doused, the remains of the craft were sent to Zhitkur.
To be honest, to suggest that what was shown in the footage was a UFO is stretching credulity somewhat. All we saw was a big fire. It could have been anything, but the story persists and Stanton Friedman said that he had heard those same rumours about UFOs destroying Soviet rockets in an act of retaliation.
Russia is a land of many mysteries, not just ufological in nature. The programme ended with a report from a US journalist, Kim Murphy of the LA Times, talking about her trip to Russia to investigate a lake that had mysteriously vanished. She wasn’t sure she believed the stories, but when she got there, she found that it was true. An entire lake had vanished, with eyewitnesses saying that a huge whirlpool had formed and the water had vanished like water down a plug hole. What that has to do with UFOs, I don’t know…
Getting back on track, we were told that research is still ongoing at Kapustin Yar, with UFO wreckage being brought to Zhitkur quite regularly and as recently as 1997, when a craft was said to have come down in Poland.
Russian Roswell was another interesting look at the UFO phenomenon. The Soviet Union obviously had a great deal of interest in the subject and, it seems, was prepared to act in an extremely hostile manner towards unidentified craft in their airspace. Was Moscow’s leap into space aided by reverse-engineering alien craft? The evidence would suggest not. Soviet rockets were powered pretty much the same way as American ones i.e. they didn’t get up there by using anti-gravity engines from a crashed saucer. Still, it makes you wonder what secrets might lay in all these underground facilities, not just in Russia, but all over the world.