Thursday, July 9, 2009

Friendly Neighborhood Blight

I've been more and more fascinated by the array of empty buildings in and around my Washington 'burb these last few weeks. It began last year, as the nearby grocery store folded. Another store chain was slated to take that place, but though the building has been gutted and prepared for a complete revamp, nothing much is happening lately. It's just sitting there, as windowless and wall-less as the DC Wasteland stores I wandered through while playing Fallout 3.

In that same strip mall, the costume shop is closed, and two stores down, the nail salon folded.

Across the street from the strip-mall, a 7-11 I've frequented for the two decades suddenly shuttered itself. This was a source of great dismay to my sons, for whom it was the great font of all Slurpee goodness. No more walks to get a cool treat on a hot summer day. It's down for the count.

Just a few dozen yards away from that, a Shell station has been abandoned, and to make it cheerier, the owners of the property painted the entire thing in a dark grey primer. I suppose the idea is that a new owner could paint it any color they liked, but the net effect is a little on the goth side. Properties don't move well if they seem moody and depressed.

This morning, as I waited outside a sporting goods store to buy the four-hundred-and-thirteenth pair of goggles we've had to get this summer, I looked out across the vast empty expanse of parking lot at the now-unused big-box electronics store that went bankrupt this spring. They deserved to go out of business, sure. But looking at the acre of asphalt in front of the store, I can't help but see the whole thing as a complete waste.

It's easy to get used to this absence, in the same way that I'm used to the vast expanses of empty pews in my oversized sanctuary. It reminds me that growth is not always good, that bigger that is not always better, and that we human beings have been overbuilding and overconsuming for thousands and thousands of years. We were certainly doing it back in the second half of the eighth century BCE, when the Prophet Isaiah laid into the endless consumptiveness of his fellow Jerusalem elites:

Woe to you who add house to house
and join field to field
till no space is left
and you live alone in the land.

The LORD Almighty has declared in my hearing:
"Surely the great houses will become desolate,
the fine mansions left without occupants..."

Not sure if an abandoned Circuit City counts as a great house or a fine mansion, but it sure is large and empty. And things are better here in the 'burbs of DC than in most places in the country.

Yeah, I know, it's supposed to be part of the "creative destruction" of capitalism. But real creativity produces beautiful things, not blighted mediocrity.