The recent tragic fire that engulfed Oakland’s Ghost Ship warehouse / artist space / underground residence, killing at least 36 people, is sparking a conversation about why so many people were living there in the first place. One obvious answer is that young artists that are struggling to get by can’t afford the exorbitant rents in the San Francisco Bay area, pushed upwards as they are by the tech boom. Roughing it outside in one of San Francisco’s (and now Oakland’s) tent cities may be a non-starter for artists with a lot of equipment and strange hours, so they prefer one of the quasi-legal closed spaces, partitioned out for a bargain price, that may also include a studio. Unfortunately, the same qualities that make a place cheap, such as it not actually being considered a residence, can also make it a dangerous place to live, with rampant code violations (a staircase made out of pallets!) and a criminal lack of oversight.
Unrelated to this tragedy at first glance is the history of the American shopping mall. In the 1950s, America was waist-deep in the Cold War, and the social reality of this time was reflected in the architecture of our new shopping centers. Closed spaces with inward-facing stores, potted trees inside, parking surrounding the outside, anchored by large department stores, shopping malls became temples to rampant consumerism. The first malls, designed by Austrian-born architect Victor Gruen, satisfied a new American desire for controlled, sheltered environments. It’s disconcerting to consider nowadays, but early malls were conceived and designed in part as self-contained communities that could shelter and house the residents of a suburb in the event of a nuclear attack! Initial plans for some malls included more than just storefronts. Meant to function as a small city, these closed spaces would keep normal life rolling, with entertainment, religious centers, residences, auditoriums, food processing areas, and underground tunnels.
Of course, we’ve likely passed Peak Mall. Many of these behemoths sit rotting in the midst of frost-heaved, empty parking lots. Victims of internet shopping, empty of a social scene that moved to social media, the closed spaces of abandoned malls make for good ruin porn photography but little else. Even extant lower-tier malls are facing declining business at the same time that mortgages are coming due. If the economic value of a struggling mall isn’t worth the value it has on paper, landlords may walk away from these structures much as homeowners chose to default on underwater mortgages in the last recession. That means we could have even more of these crumbling husks dotting the landscape in the coming decade. These structures, if not maintained, will slowly yet surely fall apart, their potential usefulness and all the wealth that went into building them, squandered.
In more bustling places, though, some expiring malls (and other large, closed structures, such as prisons) are being retrofit for a more useful future. Some of the malls have been torn down and replaced with open air shopping plazas. (Apparently we’re not as afraid of fallout as we used to be.) Malls have also been turned into residences, medical centers, churches, schools and colleges. In Texas, Austin Community College watched a nearby mall close and begin to disintegrate, taking the local community with it. The college stepped up and purchased the property, turning it into a planned, mixed use community, perhaps an updated version of the original vision for malls that Victor Gruen embraced in the atomic 50s. Voters in Austin even approved two bond measures to fund $386 million towards renovating the mall with a workforce center, a lab, and even restaurants so hospitality industry students can gain real-world career experience.
Oldest US mall blends old/modern with 225-sq-ft micro lofts, by Kirsten Dirksen
Another mall, Euclid Square in Ohio, houses 24 different Christian congregations that could not each afford their own separate space. A mall in Jackson, Mississippi, became a medical complex that concentrates on helping the underserved. The oldest mall in the United States, Westminster Arcade in Rhode Island, is now home to 60 micro-apartments and niche retail. The closed spaces of these large buildings seem to be a natural fit for planned communities of every kind.
We have the power, if we choose, to reclaim these wide, closed spaces for good purposes.
All of which brings us back to those warehouse dwellers. We have people, in Oakland and elsewhere, that need places to live and pursue their work. We also have buildings that are losing their primary purpose, but which still need to be paid for, and which, if they aren’t allowed to disintegrate, may still be useful if retrofitted to some other purpose. It’s not always easy or politically possible to do this. However, in the end, I am reminded of the words of Thomas Jefferson, writing from France to James Madison in 1785, “Whenever there is in any country, uncultivated lands and unemployed poor, it is clear that the laws of property have been so far extended as to violate natural right.” Perhaps these closed spaces are the next wide open frontier.