The Manchurian Main Street

Are shopping districts inspired by New Urbanism a form of cultural brainwashing?

All I knew about Mashpee Commons, a shopping center on the western end of Cape Cod, was that it had a funny name. And one evening last August the only screening of The Manchurian Candidate I could reasonably catch was playing at the multiplex there. I drove as fast as I could, grabbed a parking space, found the theater, and didn’t bother to check out my surroundings until after the show.

The movie was Jonathan Demme’s 2004 remake of John Frankenheimer’s 1962 classic. It involves a rising political star whose wartime heroism turns out to be a fabrication—a carefully crafted faux history implanted in his brain and those of his colleagues by evil conspirators. The film was two hours of sustained paranoia, so as I walked out of the theater I was already feeling uneasy—then I noticed that I was not in a normal mall. Rather I was in a fake downtown, an overtly cheerful place with individual brick and clapboard storefronts lined up along something a lot like actual streets. I was in a fabrication—a carefully crafted faux history implanted in the suburban landscape.

I didn’t consciously draw the parallel between the movie and the mall at that moment, but taken together the two things unnerved me. I was hungry but couldn’t bring myself to eat at any of Mashpee Commons’ friendly sidewalk caf�s. Not that there was anything bad about them. There was, rationally speaking, nothing wrong at all. But I felt as if I was still in the grip of the movie’s dark conspiracy and had to get out.

This was yet another episode in my ambivalent relationship with New Urbanism. Honestly the New Urbanists—the Duanys, the Plater-Zyberks, the Calthorpes—make good places. I can’t fault their planning skills, but there is something about their need to use the past as a sort of architectural tranquilizer that gives me the willies. I see it as a form of cultural brainwashing, a strategy that doesn’t solve the problems we’ve created so much as teaches us to forget them.

Shopping malls—the old-fashioned enclosed variety that we gleefully built until late in the twentieth century—are losing their luster and occasionally being replaced by developments that resemble the very downtowns that the malls once killed off. One of the obvious reasons for this change is that more kinds of shopping can be easily accomplished either online or at Wal-Mart, so malls are doing what Barnes & Noble did a decade ago: offering what the Net and the big discounters can’t—a degree of comfort and an approximation of the good life.

And the good life largely resides in memory. That’s why one of the country’s newest, most sophisticated malls is built on an old-fashioned urban grid complete with traffic on narrow streets and genuine parking meters. Victoria Gardens is located in Rancho Cucamonga, California, an hour east of L.A., a spot that was as recently as 1970 a sleepy bedroom community, population 5,796. By the 1990 census the population topped 100,000. Between 2000 and 2004 it grew another 21 percent, to 154,780. All of this growth occurred—subdivision on top of subdivision—with no focal point. To the extent that the area had a main street, it was the freeway. When I visited there I exited the interstate and made a wrong turn, looping around endless model homes, industrial parks, and other malls.

Eventually I hit the right mall, parked, and found myself bopping down the “Mainstreets”—there are two, North and South—to the ambient music emanating, Disney-style, from green Bose speakers concealed in the shrubbery: “Georgy Girl.” It’s a downtown with a beat. I was impressed by the care that has been taken to craft proper streetscapes. I admired the different architectural styles and materials. I took note of the fountains, street trees, gently modern streetlamps, and occasional grassy squares. I even liked the food hall (designed by Altoon + Porter), a daylight-filled shed that is supposed to resemble a fruit-packing warehouse. Victoria Gardens was not bad—except that there is so much faux memory grafted onto this place that it makes the villains in The Manchurian Candidate seem like lightweights.

According to Linda Daniels, director of Rancho Cucamonga’s redevelopment agency, there had been plans since the early 1980s to build a conventional regional mall on the site. But when they changed developers in the late 1990s, Brian M. Jones, president of Forest City Commercial Development, began to realize what was needed was less a mall and more an attraction. Eventually the development team arrived at a concept. In Jones’s words, “What this city really needs is its own downtown.”

Jones and his colleagues did research. They visited California’s best commercial districts: Santa Cruz, Seal Beach, Long Beach, and San Francisco. They took photos and studied them, trying to isolate the details that add up to authenticity. Then the planning team spent four months hammering out a grid. And they invented a history for the downtown: “We actually storyboarded the thing out from 1854, when the first settlers came, all the way to the present day,” Jones recalls. They imagined a ranch, a fruit-packing facility, and decade upon decade of banks and commercial buildings.

“One of the big innovations is that we asked different architects to design individual buildings,” says architect Yann Taylor, a principal at San Francisco’s Field Paoli, the development’s master planner. “The idea was for architects to go out and be inspired by main street architecture of whatever period they were interested in. And then just have fun and design a whole bunch of buildings and ignore what your neighbor was designing.”

While Altoon + Porter designed the bulk of the buildings, Field Paoli and Boston-based Elkus Manfredi each designed several. “All of that made a very eclectic street and a project that looked like it might have happened over time, that had some reality to it,” architect Howard F. Elkus says. In fact, Elkus Manfredi even drafted buildings that looked as if they were built in the 1960s but were subsequently updated to suit the present-day needs of, say, Williams-Sonoma. Elkus Manfredi has a lot of experience at this kind of thing; the Grove, an exuberantly theme-parkish Main Street smack in the middle of L.A., and Belmar, a neotraditional downtown on the site of the former mall in Lakewood, Colorado, were both designed by the firm.

Most of the efforts to layer a history onto this place were not so subtle. For instance, attached to the vaguely Spanish facade of the PacSun sportswear store is an old neon sign advertising a nonexistent Rena’s Beauty Shop. The Rocky Mountain Chocolate Factory’s tan brick wall supports a vestigial sign, one for another phantom, Zweick’s Jewelers “since 1898.” Redmond Schwartz Mark, the development’s signage company, supplied these artifacts much the way an interior designer might supply books by the yard to lend a room an inner life. “We call them the whispers of history,” Jones says.

What’s striking to me is how good we’ve gotten at fashioning these kinds of places—how conscientious we’ve become at retrofitting meaning and burying the evidence of our mall-building years under a faux architectural narrative. It’s as if we’re brainwashing ourselves into believing that we can return to a time before sprawl. Jones even suggests that Victoria Gardens might someday grow up into a real city center, with bigger, taller buildings eventually replacing some of the small-scale stores: “I think it’s a model for a major city in the inland empire.” As for me, I hope that someday a really clever development team will get around to storyboarding the next 150 years.

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