A new enclosed shopping mall has been built here in Sarasota. All over the country malls are struggling, being re-purposed or abandoned. But here a new one just opened. It is big. It is new. It is filled with things from other places.
They call it “University Town Center”. It is near University Parkway, and in the center of a very large parking lot, so perhaps that counts. There are some other big-box stores and their parking lots nearby, but no real town. This is the suburban fringe.
At the grand entrance just past the valet parking, one is dwarfed by the glass “foyer” containing a water feature and a group of indoor palm “trees”. High expectations for an upscale experience are tempered only by the dressed up, but ordinary, chain restaurants flanking either side.
Whether or not the mall will be a financial success remains to be seen. However, it is unlikely to ever serve as an authentic “town center”. Very little about it is authentic, from the conditioned and freshened air, to the indoor palms, the furniture that discourages rather than encourages interaction, and the piped in music and other sounds designed to create the illusion of excitement and anticipation. It is a monument to creating and fulfilling desires for things — not for creating any sense of community.
With only a few exceptions, the stores and the goods being sold here are the same as in dozens or even thousands of other locations across the country. Nothing, not even the air is authentically from this place. It doesn’t even smell like Florida. One could be anywhere.
But the parking lot was full and people were shopping. This mall is an artifact of our time. The sameness of corporate-led consumerism is becoming a defining characteristic of American life in the 21st century. But will there be a groundswell of those who eventually turn away from the siren song in search of the personal, the authentic, and community?