Friday, November 30, 2012

MONTAGE: The inside-out of the inner city.


Over the past century, the word “blight” has undergone a curious expansion in its denotations.  It was originally a botanical term referring to a disease characterized by discoloration, wilting, and eventual death of plant tissues.  In contemporary parlance, however, I suspect a far greater number of people use the term in combination with “urban”—a metaphoric reassignment of the characteristics that organic plant matter can suffer, only this time applied to non-organic human construction. So urban blight appropriates characteristics of plant disease but in a sociological form, in which the tissue of a city suffers dilapidation, underutilization, or outright abandonment.  In contemporary life, it’s hard to imagine and definition of blight without at least some reference to urbanism; such is the case with Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com at least.

Anybody getting this far in the essay is probably well familiar with urban blight, not just as a label for a certain condition but its physical manifestations.  But does blight always have to affect urban settings or the inner city?  In the last 25 years, a new type of blight has emerged in America, affecting post-war, automobile oriented, outer-city districts.  It requires little semantic stretching to call it suburban blight; I can think of no more appropriate label, since it is characterized by the same disinvested conditions that urban America experienced half a century ago.  But does it ever look as bad?  After all, we don’t typically associate a three-bedroom house—with a big front yard and an attached garage—with decay or neglect.

While I’m sure there are plenty of other, more persuasive examples, Kansas City offers the best visual evidence I have ever seen that serious blight can afflict the suburbs in equal measure.  The Bannister Mall area, about 12 miles south of downtown KCMO but still within the city limits, was a flourishing retail and residential corridor as recently as 1990, but it took a significant turn for the worse later that decade.  As dead malls go, it’s a well-known one: websites like Labelscar and Dead Malls chronicle the one-million-square-foot mall’s downfall (first opened in 1980) in great detail.  Needless to say, it follows similar patterns seen in metros across the country: a decline in the desirability of the apartment complexes in the area forced many of them to cater to a lower-income population.  This influx of Section 8 tenants, in turn, caused an uptick of crime in the mall by the mid-1990s, scaring away shoppers.  By 2000, the first of the major anchors closed; over the next six years, the other three department stores followed suit.  For a few of those years, the mall managed to hang on with mom-and-pop in-line tenants.  But these local businesses only chose to locate at the mall because of significantly lower leasing rates, and by that point the mall was already over 50% vacant.  The meager revenue proved insufficient to cover expenses for such a large structure, and by spring of 2007, the Bannister Mall closed completely.  Various developers floated proposals for the site, the most lucrative of which was a sporting complex for the MSL Kansas City Wizards, combined with office and retail.  A Tax Increment Financing (TIF) proposal helped to generate the funds to demolish the mall in early 2009, but the national economy had soured enough by that point that nothing further has materialized.

The remainder of this essay explores the current conditions of the area through an array of photos—not just the Bannister Mall, but also the extensive regional shopping cluster that once surrounded it.  It is a grim site to behold these days.  Here’s what the Bannister Mall looks like today:
And here’s a map of the area, in which the mall sat at the northwest corner of Bannister Road and Hillcrest Road.
Sitting at Hillcrest Road and looking to the west, a motorist will see nothing more than a vast, crumbling parking lot with a pile of gravel as its centerpiece.  And it goes on:
And on and on:
Very little of this parking lot is accessible these days; most has been barricaded.

The east side of Hillcrest Road doesn’t look any better.  Some might argue that it looks worse: it includes several independently operated strip malls tethered to big-box anchors, the vast majority of which are completely vacant.
Because the buildings are still standing but have suffered from a decade of neglect, they enhance the feeling of desolation far more than the vacant parking lot where Bannister Mall once stood.
Sometimes its possible to guess the previous tenant, based on colors or architectural details associated with a certain brand.  On the slightly zoomed-in photo below, my suspicion is that the store on the left, with the big red block as an entrance, used to be a Circuit City, which of course is now completely out of business.
Incidentally, the strip mall above is in better condition than most: as of the fall of 2012, it still had at least a few tenants:
Yes, it’s that old mainstay of struggling suburbia: the notorious Burlington Coat Factory, known in many circles as “the Grim Reaper of the retail world”.   I’ve written about it on this blog before, because it’s no different in Indianapolis or Cleveland or Philadelphia or Anchorage.  Clearly the corporate strategy is to locate in depressed big-box settings, which not only keeps its expenses down but improves the stores’ accessibility to its target low- and moderate-income demographics.  Burlington Coat Factory’s approach, however, has become so unsubtle that many people immediately associate the retailer with poor parts of town.  And since BCFs tend to survive long after other middle-income retail tenants have fled the scene, situations like the Bannister corridor in Kansas City only amplify the retailer’s potentially undeserved seedy reputation.  In this particular strip mall, the only other surviving tenant was an urban-oriented apparel store whose name was unknown to me.  The rest look like this:
According to the buzz online, the storefront next to the Burlington Coat Factory used to be a Wal-Mart, but it, too, flew the coop.  I’m not sure I believe this though; nothing I could see suggested the appearance of a former Wal-Mart, though the magnitude of this shopping node would have made it a smart location for the world’s number one retailer back in its heyday.  Here’s a distant shot of the strip mall, revealing the small remaining trickle of lifeblood in the distance:


This stretch of Hillcrest Road also offers a number of interesting outparcels, presumably used as restaurants at one time.  All of them are vacant.  The first outparcel that a driver will see has a familiar look:
Tropical Palms Restaurant may be closed, but the distinctive appearance of the building hints at its likely origins.  I could be wrong, but the striped awnings, the brickwork, and the trim all evoke an aged prototype of Applebee’s. (Inter alia, the awnings have a greater variety of stripes these days.)  It would make sense if this were an Applebee’s, since the restaurant megachain has its headquarters in KCMO.  Other shuttered restaurants sit nearby.

Again, many of these outparcel structures have distinct enough design features that a good pair of eyes (or anyone familiar with the Kansas City chain restaurant scene in 1992) could discern what used to inhabit them.
Apparently Luby’s Cafeteria once had locations in the Kansas City metro; these days the small chain survives almost exclusively in Texas.
Only one of the outparcels suggested it hosted something other than a restaurant:

Continuing north along Hillcrest Road as it approaches its terminus at East 87th Street, the abandonment is most pronounced.
With an unusual combination of bold colors and a formidable size, I cannot guess what tenants this big-box contained two decades ago, though a Google Streetview suggests, from a handful of cars in the parking lot, that was still marginally occupied as recently as September of 2011.  Across the street, an isolated big box shows traces of life, evidenced by the few cars parked at the far-right margin of the photo.
But, upon making a u-turn and reverting southward along Hillcrest, another strip mall on the west side of the street (the same side as the former Bannister Mall) is so derelict that all entrances have been blocked off.
I wouldn’t have dreamed of driving through regardless; the potholes would have been murder on the tires.  But I could still pull into the little alcove between the access road and the barricades so I could snap a few more photos.
The labelscars left by old tenants revealed the following: a nail salon, a tax preparer, a beauty parlor, a dry cleaner—in other words, the shopping center was only attracting minor, lower-tier tenants before it closed completely, just as was the case with Bannister Mall.  What’s particularly interesting to me is that, even though the privately-owned shopping plazas were uniformly derelict, the right-of-way itself—city managed Hillcrest Road—was in surprisingly good condition, and it was even undergoing some minor repairs while I was there that day.
Notice that the road is four-lane, with a median and copious turn lanes.  When the Bannister Mall flourished, this was no doubt a bustling corridor, but these days a person could crab-walk down the middle of the street with little threat of contact with car.  The only reason Hillcrest Road was built for such an LOS was the retail it served.

After continuing southward to return to the Bannister Mall site where Hillcrest intersects with Bannister Road, the sign for one other prominent retail pokes up above the slope.
Yes, a Kmart still survives, even as its competitor, Wal-Mart, fled the scene of the crime years ago.  Such is the fate of this once mighty budget department store.  Kmart has persistently failed to compete with Wal-Mart or Target, and it has only survived by clinging to Wal-Mart’s discarded suburban fragments.  In 2010, I blogged about how Kmart has resigned itself to locations that neither Target nor Wal-Mart will touch; the dying old chain can only compete because there’s nothing else around for miles.  Such is the case with Bannister Mall, and it doesn’t get much better at other smaller retail nodes in southeast Kansas City: about a mile east on Bannister Road, the Robandee Shopping Center is in nearly as sorry of a state.  This portion of the Kansas City limits declined at the same time as the now-prosperous suburb of Lee’s Summit (pop. 91,000 in 2010) skyrocketed.

Yes, Bannister Mall and its ensuing suburban blight is a byproduct of white flight.  Similar life cycles first emerged all over America in the 1950s, leaving impoverished urban inner cities in their wake.  Meanwhile, the earliest suburbs, preferred destinations of the emergent post-war white middle class, are now routinely showing their age.  All too often, their demographic profile is similar to the inner cities, but with a determinedly auto-oriented suburban appearance.  For those of my readers in Indianapolis, the 1990s trajectory at Bannister Mall eerily parallels what happened in the Eagledale neighborhood and Lafayette Square Mall over the last twenty years.  (I blogged about Lafayette Square in the same article where I explored Burlington Coat Factory, which—surprise!—is a tenant at the aforementioned dying Indianapolis mall.) In both Indy and KCMO, these auto-oriented districts fell within the city limits and fed into their already declining public school districts.  The housing in Indianapolis’ Eagledale is almost identical to that in the Bannister Road corridor of Kansas City.

But the economic forecast of Lafayette Square and Eagledale still seems nowhere as bleak as that of Bannister in Kansas City, at least to me.  Not only is Lafayette Square Mall still hanging on (though hardly flourishing, with about 50% vacancy), the sundry strip malls and big-boxes around it are surviving as well.  None of them are thriving, and national chains have largely fled Eagledale to the suburb of Avon, just as they migrated to Lee’s Summit outside Kansas City.  But the Lafayette Square district has hosted a huge variety of immigrant entrepreneurs, and now the area is known for its ethnic supermarkets, taquerias, hookah cafes, and restaurants catering to a few dozen different non-American cuisines.  The city is teaming with the Department of Public Works to re-brand the area as an international marketplace.  In addition, an emergent artist community has taken advantage of the cheap rents and leased an old Firestone outparcel near Lafayette Square, turning it into the Service Center for Contemporary Culture and Community: a performing arts space, library, community garden, and art gallery, taking advantage of the area’s eclectic demographic mix.  Eagledale in Indianapolis may no longer be a middle class neighborhood, but it doesn’t look like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.

The Bannister Mall site has stumped developers and city officials over the years, since southeast Kansas City in general seems to be evading any sort of organic re-invention.  I suspect that Kansas City, generally a prosperous metro area, has its own immigrant-influenced equivalent to Lafayette Square/Eagledale in Indianapolis, but the old Bannister Mall certainly isn’t it.  This variant on socioeconomic blight poses a wicked challenge.  I’m not holding my breath for the hipsters or the gays to colonize it, the way they are in some of Kansas City’s formerly dying old walkable neighborhoods closer to the central city.  And the yuppies won’t come in later to gentrify it either.  The blight that afflicts Bannister and Hillcrest Roads has yet to reveal a treatment.

2 comments:

ardecila said...

I'm really interested in this series of posts... I am curious about cycles of reinvestment before the automobile came along. It seems like the auto decoupled outward expansion from population growth, but why didn't this happen with earlier transportation technologies? Has the business world so radically changed philosophies since 1930 that a throwaway building is now preferable to a long-lasting one?

I've yet to see good answers to these questions, but it seems suspicious to me that the car could so profoundly reshape our thought patterns after millennia of stability.

AmericanDirt said...

Thanks for the comments, ardecila. In response to your first question, I would imagine that much of the decentralization that seems to have transpired due to the automobile--as opposed to other means of transportation--is because it was the first privately owned vehicle that allowed individuals to travel great distances with ease. Bear in mind that automobiles existed at the dawn of the 20th century. But settlement patterns really didn't shift to automobile dominated until after World War II, at a point when the vast majority of households owned a vehicle. When automobiles were a recreational toy of the elite, as they were for the first two decades of the 20th century, urban settlements did little to accommodate them. My guess is that off-street parking lots were fairly rare up until the end of the Great Depression.

If you want more insight on the "throwaway" building, I recommend you look at my dialogue with reader on another recent article, about some suburban apartment buildings from the 1960s and 70s that are already decaying: http://dirtamericana.blogspot.com/2012/11/even-test-market-suburbs-get-caught-in.html

My guess is that neither our thought nor our settlement patterns were particularly stable over millennia. A 19th century settlement would look radical from the perspective of a 17th century inhabitant--the very notion of cities were an oddity for most of the world's population until the Industrial Revolution. People from those eras would just be using their frames of reference for judgment, as we use the automobile for our own.