This spring, Crossgates is observing the 30th anniversary of its opening. It has been 15 years since I last visited the giant mega-mall complex near Guilderland.
Now I can say confidently with all the aplomb of some absurd modern-day Julius Caesar: “I have visited; I have watched, and I have not bought anything.” Modern life offers so many little triumphs even for a man with teenage children.
But I have also once again found confirmation of my old conviction: that the modern mega-mall — not just Crossgates — is a vivid symbol of almost everything that is wrong with contemporary America.
For anyone who bothers to try to understand all the posing trends and ceaseless chatter of commercial culture, the mega-mall is the place to be. For those of us who have already said NO to all the boring blandishments of mass public culture, an occasional trip to the modern mega-mall is a revealing experience.
Here we find human beings treated like mere objects being funneled into stores for the benefit of impersonal corporate investors. Everything seems designed to facilitate the ease of collecting money from the targeted shoppers. Even the music is employed to create the right atmosphere.
Fake sales in virtually every store announce unprecedented opportunities to buy products made by people working abroad in poor conditions for paltry wages. Product differentiation and labeling has gone bonkers. Marketing tricks loom everywhere. Individual shoppers hardly recognize that once they walk into the building, they are commercial targets.
Crossgates must be viewed as the pre-eminent local example of a national trend: the advance of sprawl and the impoverishment of downtown cities. It is not possible to understand the decades-long plight of cities like Schenectady, Amsterdam and Gloversville without taking into account the role of mega-malls, which are managed outside the local area by anonymous regionally based corporations. Like it or not, the mega-mall is the very opposite of everything local and personal: family businesses, local political control and local community pride.
Right from the start, Crossgates was controversial. As reporter Jeff Wilkin noted in his March 23 story on the mall’s history, the road to its opening ceremony was punctuated by bitter controversies. Syracuse-based Pyramid Crossgates Co. worked for years to secure permits from the town of Guilderland and from New York state. In the end, the corporation won the battle. The hundreds of citizens who protested the development lost. The project survived. Crossgates lives. Our own Crossgates has become the third biggest mega-mall in the Pyramid portfolio, which consists of 17 malls.
But let’s try to be fair: Wilkin’s article states that Crossgates pays $5 million in taxes annually to the Guilderland School District and $2.5 million in town property taxes. Moreover, the corporation makes an effort to contribute to charitable organizations. Guilderland has an expanded tax base. Many jobs have been created — mostly low-wage jobs without health insurance.
And don’t forget the parent corporation’s environmental contribution: Sea gulls have after all obtained a heck of a rest and foraging area, and that is ecologically so very friendly.
Still, though, questions arise 30 years into its history. For instance, has it really been worth converting good land in Guilderland into a giant concrete and asphalt shrine to anonymous commercial plutocrats? And does anyone really ever leave in a good mood after several hours of trudging by store after store? Some like me leave thinking more about chronic cultural poverty and spiritual wastelands.
But why complain? It is the same across the board: Regional and national corporations have won out over small family-based businesses. It underscores my claim that the modern mega-mall is a symbol for much that is wrong in contemporary America. Call it sour grapes if you wish.
It is quite likely that U.S. popular culture will succeed in relegating people like me to curmudgeon status decades before our normal expiration date. It looks like a bad outlook now for anyone who ever dares complain about the commercialization of nearly everything around us.
I am even inclined to agree that people like me will soon become living and walking fossils in virtual digitized reality.
But even so, when I look around in a mega-mall like Crossgates or Colonie Center or even Rotterdam Square for that matter, and the cultural values they represent, I am far less certain. I suspect that a big backlash against the soullessness of commercialism is increasingly likely.
People who share my views about mega-malls and the commercialization of life — who knows, we might just represent the vanguard of a dynamic force in U.S. culture. We can already see some kind of shift in perspective in the rise of the local food movement.
Now another question: Who is going to be held responsible for the clean-up of our local 1.52 million-square-foot Crossgates’ site in the future years when Pyramid Crossgates Co., or some successor corporation, decides to abandon it?
What a massive shrine to corporate commercialization it could become. I can even envision historical marker amid the massive concrete ruins.
L.D. Davidson lives in Amsterdam and is a regular contributor to the Sunday Opinion section.