City X

In honor of this holiday weekend and my own experience of America, I wanted to share with you a really excellent piece of radio. It documents that very spirit of American freedom, independence and liberty--the mall--through a documentary piece set in a small anytown in Illinois. Listening to this made me feel at once both happy to have moved away from my own small, mall-loving town and also immensely nostalgic for the time when my life orbited around it. The feeling of security, albeit somewhat artificial, when your life can be thusly defined by a single structure is an understandable one.

Jonathan Mitchell produced this story, which comes through as affectionate and critical in the very same breath. He scores the entire piece using Muzak, the easy listening generic brand pop music so often found humming throughout the corridors of shopping malls. I really like that he manages to include both macro and micro observations by townies and urban theorists to present a very full picture of his subject. I heard the story on RadioLab, a genius show put out by WNYC that creates sadly only 5 episodes a season. They aired City X as filler while they work on the upcoming season. It turned out to be at least as quality as the show itself.

Carrie and I both hail from the midwest, as you may or may not know. Our lives in Philadelphia share very few of the landscapes found in Ohio or Wisconsin, and we like to keep it that way. Bearing this in mind, I have a very certain pride for my rural suburban roots. I have a distaste for box stores and mall-like development precisely because I knew it so intimately for the first 18 years of my life. In fact, I worked at the mall in the Marshall Field's shoe department throughout high school. Most of my friends had jobs at the Gap, Banana Republic or Sunglass Hut because it was the easiest place for teenagers to get jobs at the time. And this keeps me humble when talking about the people caught up in contemporary American development, working and shopping in malls, driving from parking lot to parking lot. The issue is bigger than the people. And the sheer size of this lifestyle sometimes clouds our collective imagination about what else might be possible.

The Food Court of my own hometown's mall.

Johnathan's piece obviously comes from another ex-small town standpoint; his interest in the topic demonstrates a definite movement from inside mall culture to now critically outside of it. And while he seems to hint at a certain incredulity at the culture's persistence and aggressive appetite for corn fields and outskirts, he also highlights the significance and meaning, positive or negative, the mall holds in American culture. A sure sign of sound journalism.

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