A few years ago I wrote an issue of FaithLink, “Just Shopping” (Nov. 27, 2005). We raised the issue of box stores that expand to larger facilities but leave behind empty buildings that sit vacant for years. (My hometown has a Wal-Mart super store but the former store has been unoccupied for years.) A difficult issue! Economic well-being sometimes involve facility expansion, but what happens to the disused place? Earlier I researched a similar theme for the FaithLin issue, “Saving Main Street” (June 11, 2000).
The topic is larger than just box stores. Drive through many small towns and you’ll encounter vacant store fronts in the business district. If the stores become occupied, the business may be just a shadow of the place’s former self, for instance, a nice small-town clothing store that had sold good brands for an appreciative clientele becomes a thrown-together antique mall. That’s not always the case, and some amount of commerce may be better than a completely disused store. You also see deteriorating commercial buildings in many communities; they’ll never house anything and will someday be torn down.
A haunting building that I once encountered was an old church. The words M. E. CHURCH were set into the concrete steps in front. The paint had worn away so that the building was mostly bare wood; it leaned slightly, the glass of the windows was long gone, and an auger was backed up to one of the sanctuary windows. Not far away was a brick building that, I was told, had been a bank that closed during the Depression. It was vine-covered but structurally solid. The small village was a few miles off “the hard road” but, nevertheless, had been an economically busy community at one time. At least the church was in use, although as a storage place for corn.
The other day I purchased and studied two books, Vanishing America: The End of Main Street: Diners, Drive-Ins, Donut Shops, and Other Everyday Monuments by Michael Eastman (New York: Rizzoli, 2008) and Approaching Nowhere by Jeff Brouws (New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 2006). Both books of photographs documented disused and abandoned landscapes, including buildings in disrepair, deteriorating signage, and ugly landscapes of urban, small-town, and rural areas.
Now, if you’re like me …. you want to look through these books again and even to go exploring deteriorating landscapes yourself! What is the appeal of such places?
Familiarity is part of it. In his classic book Topophilia: A Study of Environmental Perception, Attitudes, and Values (New York: Columbia University Press, 1974), Yi-Fu Tuan writes, “Familiarity breeds attachment when it does not breed contempt. We are well aware of how a person can become deeply attached to old slippers that look rather mouldy [sic] to an outsider” (p. 99). If you’re from a particular kind of location, your emotional response to a landscape may be very positive even though the landscape may not be attractive at all. Tuan quotes another author to describe a nearly mystical response to unappealing environments: “I still remember walking down the Notting Hill main road and observing the (extremely sordid) landscape with joy and astonishment. Even the movement of traffic had something universal and sublime about it” (p. 99).
Tuan also writes, “Intense awareness of environmental beauty … is least affected by received opinions and it also seems to be largely independent of the character of the environment. Homely and even drab scenes can reveal aspects of themselves that went unnoticed before, and this new insight into the real is sometimes experienced as beauty” (p. 95). I experienced those feelings as I leafed through Eastman’s and Brouws’ books; these aren’t attractive scenes, necessarily, but there is a lonely appeal to them, a poignancy of human habitation that has changed because, after all, economy changes and our human needs change.
I enjoy a book called Small Town America by the photographer David Plowden (New York: Harry N. Abrams, 1994) in which he chronicles locations and business districts with a melancholy appreciation for the way modern America has bypassed smaller communities. His earlier, angrier book, The Hand of Man on America (Riverside: The Chatham Press, 1971) also decried the loss of distinctive environments, but I found myself disagreeing with him on which of his pictures depicted ugliness and which depicted unexpected beauty in the homely and drab. He loved a soon-to-be-razed railroad depot that I thought dark and hideous, while he criticized a tourist landscape that I found attractive both in its ugliness and its glum evocation of its original 1950s era.
What I struggle with, and haven’t resolved, is the contradiction between the strange attractiveness that abandoned and disused landscapes can have, and the real and painful economic failures, the economic expansions, the waste, and the failures of stewardship that lead to discarded places. David B. Jenkins explores this paradox in his book Rock City Barns: A Passing Era (Chattanooga: Free Spirit Press, 1996), in which he loves the old, faded barns but sadly realizes that their quaintness and deterioration indicate the passing of vital eras of American family farming.
And now… let me change gears and recall an old commercial landscape not far from where I live. My daughter and I drove to the dentist office the other day. We happened to follow car that had a pink pig antenna topper.
That made me think of the few years that my folks put a bright orange Styrofoam ball on our antenna because we had such trouble finding our car at a favorite shopping place. The place was the Sav-Mart on old U.S. 40 (i.e., Collinsville Road, a bit west of its intersection with Illinois 157, which in turn had been U.S. 66). It was your basic “big store” in the early 1970s days before K-Marts and Wal-Marts become more common. Sav-Mart’s parking lot was packed with cars on Saturday afternoons!
I think of this place with fondness because it was my primary source for LPs. Records listed for $5.98 back then but Sav-Mart’s price was $4.53. (Why do I remember this?) While Mom and Dad shopped elsewhere in the store, teenaged me checked out the selection: Grateful Dead, Jefferson Airplane, Cat Stevens, Alice Cooper, Jethro Tull. The store had an excellent selection of records. I always hoped that hyper-thrifty Dad wouldn’t become involved in my shopping, because he’d see bargain-bin records for $2 and sternly wonder why I didn’t buy those. “They’re just as good!” he’d say. After we’d shopped, the three of us went outside and tried to spot the tiny orange ball on the low horizon which would identify our car in the many rows of other cars.
During that time, Sav-Mart was the grand finale of our Saturday shopping trips. We’d go to downtown St. Louis’ Stix, Baer and Fuller and Famous Barr stores to shop in the morning and early afternoon. Then, as we headed east on I-70 toward our hometown, we’d get off at Exit 6 (Illinois 111), turn east on Collinsville Road. That was the former alignment of U.S. 40. Along that road, we’d shop the Grandpa’s discount store and the Sav-Mart store, and sometimes even the Venture store. Grandpa’s was a good store, too. I remember inspecting Ray Manzarek’s 1973 LP “The Golden Scarab” and debating whether to purchase it.
One of my last memories of these shopping trips is sitting in our car at the fast food place across from Sav-Mart. (I can’t remember if it was Burger King or Burger Chef, the forerunner of Hardee’s). As I ate my cheeseburger, I looked at the Mahavishnu Orchestra LP that I’d just purchased, and wondered if it would be good. I wasn’t very experimental with my LP acquisitions (I didn‘t buy Manzarek‘s excellent album, for instance, during that earlier trip), but in this case I’d read an article about John McLaughlin’s amazing guitar playing.
At about that same time, 1974 or so, an enclosed shopping mall, St. Clair Square, opened a few miles south on IL 159, and our shopping trips shifted there. I’ve love to know how long Sav-Mart lasted, although I vaguely remember that I passed by, years later, and it had become a liquor outlet. You might trace and reflect upon the history of commercial and economic trends, as I have here, but who’d bother recording the history of a particular box store? (I’ve fond memories of another discount place, no longer operating, in another direction from my hometown: the Dobb’s store on U.S. 51 in Central City, Illinois, where I purchased my first Moody Blues LPs.)
Sometimes I get off at Exit 6–or, if going the other direction, at Exit 11–and drive along the Collinsville Road. The Cahokia Mounds site is also along this route. Venture, Grandpa’s, and Sav-Mart are no longer open, though the buildings are still there and used for other purposes. It occurs to me that at least two economic processes were at work in my experiences: the business districts of small towns like mine (and downtown departments stores in large cities) could not compete over the long haul with discount stores, and eventually those stores could not compete with large enclosed malls. A third process would be the “flight” of the white and black middle-classes from communities such as those near the Sav-Mart.
A lot of everyday, 1970s memories from a pig antenna topper! Actually I thought of some of these memories a few weeks ago as I sorted my old LPs in order to donate several to an area book fair. Since I don’t play them anymore, I selected a few for their special memory value and relinquished the rest. (I’ve been through this process two or three times already during the past few years in the ongoing effort of managing our belongings.) I definitely saved a few that I remember, with reasonable certainty, that I purchased on one of these grand Stroble family shopping trips of yesteryear.