HOW many shopping malls can one large city stand, I wonder?
When I first came to live in Joburg, a couple of decades back, the acme of my prior shopping experience was Cavendish Square – then a smaller place than it is now. So the sprawling, glossy shopping malls of Joburg were breathtakingly huge and sophisticated. I felt like I was wandering around in an LA movie set.
But in the years between, they’ve replicated like bunnies on a mission. Now I’m just bored by them all. How often can you repeat the same old basic recipe? How many people really want yet another chain of chain stores, the same set of anchor tenants, the same clothes stores, the same outdoor shops, the same pharmacy?
Punctuated by the non-chain stores: a lingerie store, a shop selling bridal wear, a quirky little cookware shop, a fresh and green health store (all here for nine months or so, then suddenly gone, because who can afford those rentals?).
It’s a pain in the butt to have to pay for parking 300 metres from the entrance, just to run in and buy a new computer mouse or get your foreign exchange sorted. Any given afternoon of the week, the place is overrun with teenagers who have nothing else to do except pose and posture for the shrieking members of their tight little clans. (On Saturday afternoons, when their parents drop them off at the mall du jour, with money for movies and milkshakes, I swear these massive retail complexes become dead ringers for the seventh circle of hell.)
The malls eat up small local businesses – one research paper in Mumbai found that 50% of neighbouring small food, clothing and electronic goods stores were threatened with closure by the advent of a mall – and I wonder what impact that has on jobs. They cause shifts and tremors in the way we live our lives – how we shop, what route we take to and from work, the kind of crime that occurs, the transport modality we use and more.
But the thing that always strikes me most is how antipathetic they are to building communities.
When I was a kid we lived on a farm outside a small town – little more than a village. There was a hairdresser or two, a doctor, a couple of clothing stores, a general dealer, a butcher (maybe two, I can’t remember), a baker and a greengrocer.
The greengrocer was the centre of things, the place I remember best because this was where we spent the most time. It had an intense aroma, the smell of rice and dust and potatoes encrusted with dried mud. There were hessian sacks open in front of the counter, full of glossy slippery dried beans; we children spent ages dipping our hands into them and letting the deep red beans slither through our fingers.
Mothers met here on a Saturday morning and chatted; invitations were made and accepted; fathers leant against the car outside and chinwagged; kids ran in and out of the shelves squealing while the greengrocer parcelled up orders and added up costs. Bonds (and feuds) were forged and strengthened here that stretched across the town and reached out into the farming area beyond.
Years later I lived in Yeoville, and found a greengrocer just up the road from my flat where the atmosphere was similar. Mike knew exactly what degree of ripeness I wanted in an avocado, and he saved one for me every second day, in season. I knew about his children’s progress at school; he comforted me when my parents had a serious car accident; he looked after a few bankbooks locked in a drawer under the counter (yes, this was before everybody had bank cards) for the local bums and alkies, some of whom were, oddly, wise enough to stash some of their takings away and wanted to avoid the temptation to spend it.
In that shifting population of students and academics and foreigners from other African countries, this was a stable central point where you were known, recognised, missed if you didn’t come in for the pickling onions.
How do you do that in a mall? It’s just not possible. I can count on my fingers the number of staff I recognise at my local large mall, in shops I often visit; the rest move on from one week to the next. And how on earth am I going to make a connection with any of the shoppers? There are thousands of them on any given day, drawn from a vast circle of townhouse complexes, old suburbs and blocks of flats.
We don’t even look at each other, walking wrapped in a bubble that comprises me-and-my-party, walking out again after the mall ‘experience’ as disconnected as ever. We meet our friends, yes; but we don’t meet our neighbours, the members of the ‘community’ in which we live.
And creating communities has become ever more important in this fragmented, polarised agglomeration of people that is South Africa. Please, no more malls; can we put some town-planning energy into building communities instead?
* Mandi Smallhorne is a versatile journalist and editor. Views expressed are her own. Follow her on Twitter.