Monday, January 06, 2014
THE CURIOUS CASE OF THE WASHINGTON POST AND THE CLOSING OF WHITE FLINT MALL
Welcome to The Dark Side of White Flint, an ongoing series about the not-so-wonnerful, wonnerful, wonnerful side of urbanizing the suburbs of Montgomery County.
After ignoring the first phase of demolition at White Flint Mall last year, a curious thing happened: the Washington Post published a story about the "last Christmas" at the North Bethesda shopping mecca. What made it "curious?" The story didn't strictly follow the Post's notoriously pro-development company line (the Post and Post Co. actually have financial interests in several properties around the DC area, including their downtown headquarters. Acceptance of "smart growth" propaganda in the region is essential to maximizing the potential profits of those properties in DC, along the Alexandria waterfront, and in Southern Maryland).
In fact, the story was a bit of a backfire, for those who believe the suburbs and indoor malls are "over," and "a mistake," and should be paved over as dense urban areas. A backfire, because the details on the mall's architecture, opening and golden era sounded so much better than what's to come: another cookie cutter urban town center. One reason this turned out to be pretty good article, is that the reporter herself has her own nostalgia for the 1980s, as those who have read Jen Chaney's longtime work in the Gazette and Post are already aware. The article mentions that a photography volume of classic American malls is in such demand, the publisher can't print enough copies. The conclusion the reader comes away with, is that the end of White Flint Mall is a sad turn of events, not something to celebrate.
Even the Post photos indirectly made a pretty devastating point about how White Flint will change between today and the future. Two pictures that accompanied the piece showed the pleasant view and very nice architecture of the mall, as seen from Rockville Pike. Most significantly, they showed something else that will soon be in short supply at the site: a clear, blue sky. Inch after square inch of picture-perfect blue sky dominated both shots. Are you ready to trade green space or open skies for parking dungeons and concrete canyons? Shopping convenience and a variety of price points for expensive boutiques?
If not, expect to feel some Astroturf "grassroots" peer pressure, and hear ridicule.
After Chaney's report caused larger numbers of current and former area residents to learn of the mall's fate, buzz about the sudden but well-planned "decline" of White Flint Mall is at an all-time high.
Wait a minute! How do we win back the public, and make them believe that the "new" White Flint will be better than the mall?
Ridicule! And so the Post's Monica Hesse took a different tack in Saturday's Style section. According to Hesse, the problem isn't a developer pulling the plug on a successful mall with jammed parking lots to replace it with a mini-Manhattan. No! The problem is you!
And so begins her propaganda feature, "SAD LIBS" (because this is so serious, it needs to be said in ALL CAPS).
In the process, Hesse earns a fact-checking 4 Pinnochios, "Pants on Fire" score for inaccurate statements. Reversing from what the Post article had just reported December 22, Hesse says, "White Flint Mall is rumored to be closing." Rumored? It's not only going to close, it's going to be demolished!
The upshot of SAD LIBS is that if you think malls, big box stores and the suburbs are good, you're actually wrong, and you just need to get over it. You're one of a dwindling few who remain. And if you let Hesse "walk yourself through the feelings," you can let go of those decidedly-unhip feelings before your peers catch on to you. You wouldn't want your friends to find out.
So Hesse ridicules you. Who knew that, in your quest for trees, green space, decent schools, convenient shopping, free parking, and safe, quiet neighborhoods, you were actually just on a wild goose chase for "the meaning found within mundanity?"
Hesse concludes in 4 Pinnochio fashion: "In a way, time and progress are responsible for this closing." Aside from those standard canards employed by developers, and the few calling for urbanization of the American suburbs, the fact is, that is completely false. White Flint Mall was fully-leased just two years ago, according to the mall itself. When dining at the restaurants, I had to park far away from the building to find a space. The gusts of time and progress are not buffeting White Flint Mall; simply a desire by the landowners to roll the dice on urbanizing the suburbs, with bigger profits in mind. Were "time and progress" the cause of the traffic jam entering Westfield Montgomery Mall this Christmas? Were "time and progress" behind the wheel of all those cars filling the parking spaces there? The rumors of the American indoor mall's demise have been greatly exaggerated.
Her SAD LIBS concludeth thusly: "The end of _______________ represents a certain kind of progress." It's a certain kind alright. But is it progress?
"We can lament it," Hesse counsels, "but we can't stop it." Says who? If suburban residents don't think the county should be paved over, and forests clear-cut, for Soviet-style apartment blocs, they can stop it. They can stand up, speak out, and vote politicians out of office.