Over the last few years, I have spent a lot of time on the road for work. I’ve driven through a number of different states, finding myself in communities of all sorts. I have found myself following GPS directions that led to an unexpected ferry ride, driven past more natural disaster sites than I can count, eaten at an Italian restaurant founded by native New Yorkers and housed in a gas station outside of Montgomery, AL, and met people striving for justice in communities with unemployment hovering near the 39% range. I’ve spent my time on the road thinking about common threads that tie diverse communities together, and yesterday, as I drove from Kansas to Kentucky, I revisited an idea I’ve had a number of times, and it has to do with a uniquely North American phenomenon: The Outlet Mall.

See, I think Outlet Malls serve as a number of things: symbols of the aspiration to be “middle class”, symbols of a small community’s aspiration to be prosperous, and indicators of demographic shifts, consumer taste, and the actual economic viability of those hopeful (or once hopeful) communities.

On my drive, I drove past three of these malls–one that was very, very new, and two that have closed since I began making this drive fairly regularly in 2007. All three were in small communities teetering between suburbia and “the country”: close enough for customers from the city to make the drive and far enough away to buy land cheaply.

I think, as I’ve hinted in my amateurish analysis, that these malls, open or closed, tell us something: about what it means to be American, about what it means to mix status, materialism, aspiration, risk, and false–or at least, only temporarily realized–hope.

Everybody likes a deal, after all.

some sloppy thinking here, but maybe the beginning of an essay/memoir thing


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