Field Assignment -- Phoenix
For my flaneur's diary, I travelled to Kierland Commons and to a small strip mall by my house. I brought my highly observant fiancé and my two-year-old son, and I am glad I did. In the spirit of being succinct, I will begin with my experience at Kierland Commons.
When we arrived, I picked my son up out of his car seat and he was instantly amazed by the high-rise apartment building we parked near. He wanted to go up into the building, and right away my fiancé told him that we couldn’t. When he asked why, my fiancé told him “because we don’t live there.” The translation is, of course, since we don’t own a piece of the building, we are only to admire it from the outside. Rounding the corner into the grassy park area, I noticed that there are speakers in the trees. This is clearly to provide atmosphere. I also noticed that the infrastructure seemed to be hidden at great effort; by this I mean that the air conditioners are covered in decorative metal enclosures, the construction is being hidden by tarps and temporary walls, and the maintenance entrances for restaurants are all carefully planned as to be in the most out of the way areas of the buildings – totally out of sight for the common person who is not looking for such a thing.
My fiancé also made an observation that slipped my attention – there are no gum-spots. When I lived in Philadelphia as a child, I remember being afraid of these gum-spots, because they were everywhere, like bugs that had hatched from an alien-movie-sized larvae. Not at Kierland Commons. This place is meant to be a faux-SoHo New York replica, only minus the realities of the city.
At a strip mall near my house (7th St. and Union Hills, NE corner), we noticed a more functional scene. People were middle- to lower-class, running errands, unconscious of how they looked. We ate at Little Caesar’s, where two young and tattoo-covered men were nice to my son. There are at least three empty stores at this strip mall. There is a Dollar Store that had a steady flow of patrons. There is a Goodwill store. There is a large, empty field with dead grass right in the middle of the parking lot. The architecture is unremarkable and bland, and, as my fiancé so diligently noted, there are gum-spots everywhere. Most of the people there were smoking cigarettes, but there are no public ashtrays, only rusty and beat-up garbage cans. At Kierland Commons there are fancy ashtrays with not a single cigarette in them. This strip mall is not a place that one would “hang out” at. It is a place where rent was probably low and small businesses could get a start (all the stores were of the “mom and pop” variety except Little Caesar’s and Goodwill). It is miss-able as a driver, and unremarkable as a consumer.
In synthesis, these two places, 15 miles apart, represent a few different dichotomies of our society – rich vs. poor, structure vs. function, necessity vs. atmosphere. As a visitor to both sets of realities, it is difficult to figure out where you fit in. In poorer areas you are conditioned to feel unsafe, while in richer ones you are conditioned to feel the consternation of those extending unwelcome to you. This is a generalization, but it was an observation that stuck out. It’s funny how polar opposites can be so similar in their actions but so different in their reasoning.
by Stephen Marotta