Make-believe Main Street

Lifestyle centers create public squares in private places. Can a nation undone by sprawl be saved by the Mall?
By DAVID SCHARFENBERG  |  November 10, 2009


ANYTOWN, USA Soft-rock, biscotti, and other things pleasant. Photos by Richard McCaffrey

Wa terFire, bocce, oh my!

The rebirth of downtown Providence has been the stuff of breathless travel writing for more than a decade now. But the city center can still feel vacant. Even seedy. And the rest of Rhody’s Main Streets? Well, they’ve seen better days.

Quaint villages like Wickford, in North Kingstown, remain strong. Newport has survived the worst crimes of urban renewal. But you don’t have to look hard to find the places left behind.

Downtown Pawtucket and Woonsocket are shadows. Cranston’s Rolfe Square is moribund, even with the recent resurrection of a long-dormant neighborhood theater. And in Westerly, a similar theater sits vacant.

For too many Rhode Islanders civic life, circa 2009, is uncentered.

Now, though, a new and curious sort of gathering place is taking root — in Cranston, Johnston, Westerly, South Kingstown, and across the country. It is the “lifestyle center” and it looks, at first glance, like the Main Street it would replace.

There are street lamps, benches, and plazas. Shops on the street level, and office space and apartments above. There are summer concert series and wine tastings. And Santa Claus makes an appearance at Christmastime.

But the phenomenon is, at bottom, a grand contrivance. A bait-and-switch. The new public square, you see, is really a private space. A branded community. The mall gone outdoors.

Saint Nick is there to drive sales. The view from the condo complex is of Cold Stone Creamery. And leave those anti-war signs at home. Protest is bad for business.

It is enough to make Jane Jacobs groan from the great beyond. Or is it?

Can right-thinking folk, put off by the Disneyfication of downtown, really spurn a green, walkable space in the heart of suburbia? Is community in the name of brand loyalty better than no community at all?

Can a nation undone by sprawl come together again at the mall? It is a question, it turns out, that goes back decades.

The lifestyle center has its roots in the nation’s first suburban shopping center — the Country Club Plaza, an open air development in Kansas City that dates to 1923.

The brainchild of developer J.C. Nichols, the plaza was the centerpiece of his Country Club District, an expansive planned community erected in the early decades of the 20th century along the Missouri-Kansas border.

Even then, forward-thinking types were lamenting the emergence of suburban sprawl. And Nichols saw the district as an antidote to the flimsy and ephemeral. He was, he said, “planning for permanence.” And permanence he got.

Nichols built sturdy homes on curving streets. Carved out space for churches and schools and parks. Filled his shopping center with statuary, fountains and Spanish Colonial architecture. And like the lifestyle center developers who would follow, he went about the careful construction of community feeling.

There were field days and birdhouse-building contests in the district. And Nichols deployed the Easter Bunny and a Halloween witch to whip up business for the plaza’s shops.

But the Country Club District, which inspired planned communities like Cranston’s Garden City in the decades that followed, offers a mixed legacy.

Nichols dotted his shopping plaza with apartment buildings, but most who repaired to the pedestrians’ paradise arrived by car. This, like its progeny, was a green development with a heavy dose of gray.

And the Country Club District, as its name would imply, was not for all. The plaza had a certain democratic feel. And Nichols built some relatively affordable housing for sol-diers returning from World War II.

But restrictive covenants, which set minimum sales prices for the bulk of district homes, kept ownership out of reach for most. And the rules excluded at least one demographic quite explicitly. “Ownership by Negroes,” they read, was “prohibited.”

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