My husband, daughter and I set off from Brooklyn last June in our two-door hatchback to drive across country to our new home in Portland, Oregon. I’d done the reverse journey (West to East) eight years before and had found the country just as vibrant and stunning as I’d imagined it would be–full of broken down palaces, mini-malls and pinprick towns that seemed untouched by time, apart from the occasional 7-11. And so I was pretty shocked by the transformation we witnessed on the trip back. Cutting a straight line through the middle of the country, we encountered one dead town after another: deserted downtowns full of shuttered stores, once healthy villages reduced to a couple flea-ridden motels and a McDonalds, porch scenes that called to mind Walker Evans’ famous depression-era photos. Lots of bad teeth. Lots of lonely, angry, hopeless faces.
One of the most obvious signs of decline we saw were was all of the abandoned strip malls. Built in the greedy rush of the 80s and 90s, these massive concrete malls full of identical box stores now sat empty, their dusty, boarded-up windows and cracked sidewalks a testament to just how much damage a handful of Wall Street gamblers can do given the chance. The idea of America’s open space and small businesses being cleared to make room for these monolithic commercial meccas was bad enough. Seeing them transformed into the set of a Zombie apocalypse movie was gut wrenching.
I stumbled on this note in The Paris Review awhile back about McAllen, Texas converting one of these eyesores into “the largest single-floor public library in America.” Wouldn’t it be wonderful if this was the start of a trend?