Written by Harrison Fernelius.
Graphic by Emma Robinson.

Strip malls, aren’t they beautiful? Now before you pass judgment, please let me explain. Some of the most vivid memories of my childhood come from those summer days spent strip mall shopping with my mom. The palpable heat of the sun giving way to the ice-cold chill of the store, as the radiant sunlight faded into cold fluorescent light. Whether it was TJ Maxx, Office Depot, or Target, the store bustled with consumer activity. The mountainous stacks of colorfully labeled items and the grating human sounds of children crying and chattering adults never ceased to pique my interest. I would run along the aisles marveling at how so many items had made their way to one place—items that could be mine with a meer transaction. Without buying anything, a strip mall store remains a world of possibilities. But as soon as you pay for something, you’ve negated all other potential options. That’s why I felt so much happier perusing the shelves rather than actually buying anything. I knew that once I bought something, I would want to explore another possibility and buy something again. This feedback loop is why consumer capitalism works. You are so inundated by potential options, while simultaneously being limited by capital, that your curiosity makes you a lifelong consumer. You can never quite get a full taste of all the products capitalism has to offer, despite your steady loss of money. Shopping can truly become an addiction, not unlike those of the chemical variety.

The allure of stores hides a gritty reality: no matter how bright and inviting, the dollar always rules. Their beautiful facades mix with this reality to produce beauty tainted by a film of exploitation. The bells and whistles employed by these companies coerce consumption where there is otherwise no demand and utilize resources that could be placed towards more functional purposes. The apocalyptic threat posed by climate change and corporate pollution is becoming clearer in the human consciousness, and consumerism only exacerbates these problems through its inherent inefficiency. It is an unfortunate reality that this tragedy can be exceedingly pleasurable to experience all the way until the end.

The methods strip malls must employ to achieve their goals are nothing short of art, even if these methods constitute a ruthless, deceitful art. After all, art is defined as “[t]he expression or application of human creative skill and imagination…producing works to be appreciated primarily for their beauty or emotional power.” Strip malls try to trigger an emotional response and a visceral reaction in its shoppers to encourage consumption, and even if this art has monetary purpose and wastes humanity’s resources, it is nonetheless intended to be appreciated by the consumer. Thus, it truly is art.

 To see strip malls in their full artistic glory, it is worth a deep dive into their architecture, advertising, and target clientele. When you meet a new person, the first things you notice are their physical characteristics. Tall? Short? Thin? Full? You draw first impressions beyond physical appearance shortly after. The same happens to me with strip malls. Clean? Grubby? Artificial? Natural? These judgments swirl intricately into that fleeting first impression. That purely physical judgment you make off of a person passing you on a busy sidewalk. For the most part, this is a binary judgment where you decide whether or not you like them. But as many a printed platitude has stated: “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” There is still much more to a person and a strip mall.

Once you dig deeper, you can begin to get a better idea of the strip mall’s intricacies. First, you can tell whether a strip mall is focused on everyday shopping or more leisurely purchases. An everyday strip mall has a more domestic and homey feel, while those geared towards more infrequent purchases appear alien and somewhat exotic, like you had to make a trek to get there. Second, you discern if the strip mall caters towards a certain socioeconomic class by, for example, looking at the cars in the parking lot or the prices on the shelves. However, I have found that the relative wealth of a strip mall has very little to do with the overall quality. Garish and extravagant displays of wealth cannot hide aesthetic or artistic failings. Third, you can also often discern a common cultural history of the tenants through the languages spoken in the shops or displayed on the signs. One particularly awesome strip mall is the Olympic Center in Houston’s Mahatma Gandhi district that acts as the city’s defacto little India. The architecture, shops, and restaurants all cater to Houston’s South Asian population. It has a very coherent identity, down to the scent emanating throughout the parking lot from the restaurant, Himalaya. Every shop caters towards one another and produces a kind of consumerist utopia. It is quite easy to get lost in this collectively generated world as you drift from shop to shop. Each store is unique but at the conflux of their characteristics, a cohesive painting comes into view—one of beauty and artistic majesty that takes your breath away. The painting calls to you, telling you to ignore any consumerist malaise that lurks below the surface. This well-executed strip mall is an example of capitalism with a bright smile and good fashion sense. 

On the other hand, strip malls lacking a clear theme or aesthetic outside of sheer consumption fail to be successful as art. Bad strip malls can be grey and depressing as I’m sure the vision of a bad strip mall in your head looks. However, they just as often are as colorful and loud as they are disgusting. Discordant colors, disparate architecture, and incohesive types of stores all punctuate this type of strip mall. A Hobby Lobby there, a Chucky Cheese there, perhaps a pharmacy, maybe a Kohl’s, all jumbled together into an unaesthetic heap. When the aesthetics of these stores attempt to meld, their disparity is intense and the only similarity is what they were trying to hide in the first place. pulling back the blindfolds reveals the naked, horrendous reality: consumption. In either case, no clear sense-pleasing aesthetic is developed. People like to be distracted, and the fact that poorly planned strip malls make them focus on the bare capitalist reality is what gives strip malls as a whole a bad rap. Extensive exposure to a bad strip mall has the same effect as prolonged exposure to fluorescent light: a headache and queasiness.

Normally, corporate America is so adept at preventing this effect from arising. For example, ads during the Superbowl are distracting, colorful, and dare I say somewhat enjoyable. Bad strip malls are none of these things. They highlight the worst in a consumerist culture, and as wasteful, late-stage capitalism continues to wreak havoc on our planet’s environment, the worst is yet to come. Should we probably do something about this? Yes. Can we realistically? Maybe not. At the end of the day, if the world is doomed, I would rather enjoy the aesthetic than not. So I implore you corporate America, at the very least, try to make the apocalypse beautiful, and consumerist Americans, appreciate their attempt.

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