An essay on urban and suburban sprawl, shopping malls and our future.

 by Arnie Cooper

Do the bright lights of a shopping mall equate with a bright future?

From my classroom window in Goleta, California, I used to enjoy watching the annual transformation of the field across the street. With the arrival of the first autumn rains, I’d observe the grays and browns yield once again to the lushness of spring. At first, small patches of pale green would appear followed by a carpet of emerald grasses and in some years, a profusion of wildflowers. Then, around May or June, the cycle would repeat as the dryness of summer eventually won out. Not that the field wasn’t alive during those months of drought. Indeed, I could still see birds and other wildlife fluttering through the waves of heat.

I could also see the meadow’s numerous trails meandering towards a small clump of shops looming in the distance. It never crossed my mind that this shopping area would soon be dwarfed by a much larger constellation of retail outlets.

But the ‘empty’ meadow was too enticing. So with a thud, the proposal for the Camino Real Marketplace was dropped on the table. Inevitably, a small battle ensued. But as I watched the first surveyor’s poles penetrate the soil, I realized there was little hope for victory. Soon the only transformation I could witness came not from nature but from the restlessness of real estate developers.

Today the field is just a memory. As one economic forecaster announced in the local newspaper “Goleta has come into its own...with all it needs to be the place to live and do business in Southern California.” Obviously, one cannot deny the improved economic climate. Yes, there are more jobs, more opportunities and certainly more places to empty our wallets. But as an area to live, I find it hard to comprehend a mindset that considers superstores like the Home Depot part of the reason this area is “the place everybody wants to be.”
I shouldn’t really. For ‘Camino Real’ represents the modern version of the open space that drew people to the West in the first place. Back then, people sought fulfillment through the promise of boundless land and a big sky. Now, the attraction takes the form of ‘consumer pioneers’ awestruck by expansive parking lots surrounding what are now called big box stores.

Indeed, just days after the grand opening, hoards of 21st century settlers drove in, not on covered wagons, but in SUV’s hoping to stake their claim. Did they want an oak dotted ravine? A windy bluff bathed in the fragrance of sagebrush? No they came to conquer Costco’s ‘cookie aisle’ teeming with pre-packaged promises of ‘home-baked goodness.’
Just past the threshold of the new millennium, what captivates us are mountains of consumer goods rather than the mountains themselves.

No doubt, our shopping culture has invaded our collective consciousness. One need only drive across the U.S. to see how entranced the average American is with this corporate sponsored existence. And unfortunately, my paradise on the Pacific is not immune to such thinking. I am saddened that people in this area seem to be following in the footsteps of those who measure quality of life alongside a three-foot high box of cereal.

Goleta, we are told, is about to establish its own identity. Nothing could be further from the truth. Our former land of red-tailed hawks and toyon bushes is quickly taking on the look of every other victim of consumerism. Places like Denver’s Highland’s Ranch where one is hypnotized by the repeating patterns of cookie cutter homes, shopping malls and fast food outlets. Or the carcinogenic sprawl currently eating away at Phoenix. Or any of the thousands of other towns that have lost their identity to the calculated greed of developers. Just like Goleta, the supporters of such projects all claim they are unique. Yet they are nothing more than carbon copies. Is this really the ‘Bright Future’ the newspaper so proudly proclaimed in a recent headline?

Staring at the area’s largest commercial development, ‘bright’ is the last word that comes to mind. The only phrase that makes sense to me is “Anywhere USA.” For this uninspired array of retail clones could indeed be found anywhere in this country. But there is hope. Other Western locales have begun addressing sprawl. Consider Portland, Oregon. Or even Los Angeles. A recent New York Times article described how Goleta’s neighbor 90 miles to the south is “growing inward, upward...to free itself from the automobile.” As for my area, I have to wonder what the next rains will bring.


A freelance writer based in Santa Barbara, California, Arnie Cooper also teaches English as a second language. He can be reached at abcooper at cox.net