[ This week Eric McAfee takes a look at phenomenon that is on the rise in America today – suburban blight. Early generation suburbs across America are falling into decay, bringing with them all the ills we have traditionally associated with the inner city. Eric highlights an example for us in Kansas City – Aaron. ]
Over the past century, the word “blight” has undergone a curious expansion in its denotations. It was originally a botanical term referring to a disease characterized by discoloration, wilting, and eventual death of plant tissues. In contemporary parlance, however, I suspect a far greater number of people use the term in combination with “urban”—a metaphoric reassignment of the characteristics that organic plant matter can suffer, only this time applied to non-organic human construction. So urban blight appropriates characteristics of plant disease but in a sociological form, in which the tissue of a city suffers dilapidation, underutilization, or outright abandonment. In contemporary life, it’s hard to imagine and definition of blight without at least some reference to urbanism; such is the case with Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com at least.
Anybody getting this far in the essay is probably well familiar with urban blight, not just as a label for a certain condition but its physical manifestations. But does blight always have to affect urban settings or the inner city? In the last 25 years, a new type of blight has emerged in America, affecting post-war, automobile oriented, outer-city districts. It requires little semantic stretching to call it suburban blight; I can think of no more appropriate label, since it is characterized by the same disinvested conditions that urban America experienced half a century ago. But does it ever look as bad? After all, we don’t typically associate a three-bedroom house — with a big front yard and an attached garage — with decay or neglect.
While I’m sure there are plenty of other, more persuasive examples, Kansas City offers the best visual evidence I have ever seen that serious blight can afflict the suburbs in equal measure. The Bannister Mall area, about 12 miles south of downtown KCMO but still within the city limits, was a flourishing retail and residential corridor as recently as 1990, but it took a significant turn for the worse later that decade. As dead malls go, it’s a well-known one: websites like Labelscar and Dead Malls chronicle the one-million-square-foot mall’s downfall (first opened in 1980) in great detail. Needless to say, it follows similar patterns seen in metros across the country: a decline in the desirability of the apartment complexes in the area forced many of them to cater to a lower-income population. This influx of Section 8 tenants, in turn, caused an uptick of crime in the mall by the mid-1990s, scaring away shoppers. By 2000, the first of the major anchors closed; over the next six years, the other three department stores followed suit. For a few of those years, the mall managed to hang on with mom-and-pop in-line tenants. But these local businesses only chose to locate at the mall
because of significantly lower leasing rates, and by that point the mall was already over 50% vacant. The meager revenue proved insufficient to cover expenses for such a large structure, and by spring of 2007, the Bannister Mall closed completely. Various developers floated proposals for the site, the most lucrative of which was a sporting complex for the MSL Kansas City Wizards, combined with office and retail. A Tax Increment Financing (TIF) proposal helped to generate the funds to demolish the mall in early 2009, but the national economy had soured enough by that point that nothing further has materialized.
The remainder of this essay explores the current conditions of the area through an array of photos—not just the Bannister Mall, but also the extensive regional shopping cluster that once surrounded it. It is a grim site to behold these days. Here’s what the Bannister Mall looks like today:
The east side of Hillcrest Road doesn’t look any better. Some might argue that it looks worse: it includes several independently operated strip malls tethered to big-box anchors, the vast majority of which are completely vacant.
With an unusual combination of bold colors and a formidable size, I cannot guess what tenants this big-box contained two decades ago, though a Google Streetview suggests, from a handful of cars in the parking lot, that was still marginally occupied as recently as September of 2011. Across the street, an isolated big box shows traces of life, evidenced by the few cars parked at the far-right margin of the photo.
But, upon making a u-turn and reverting southward along Hillcrest, another strip mall on the west side of the street (the same side as the former Bannister Mall) is so derelict that all entrances have been blocked off.
After continuing southward to return to the Bannister Mall site where Hillcrest intersects with Bannister Road, the sign for one other prominent retail pokes up above the slope.
Yes, Bannister Mall and its ensuing suburban blight is a byproduct of white flight. Similar life cycles first emerged all over America in the 1950s, leaving impoverished urban inner cities in their wake. Meanwhile, the earliest suburbs, preferred destinations of the emergent post-war white middle class, are now routinely showing their age. All too often, their demographic profile is similar to the inner cities, but with a determinedly auto-oriented suburban appearance. For those of my readers in Indianapolis, the 1990s trajectory at Bannister Mall eerily parallels what happened in the Eagledale neighborhood and Lafayette Square Mall over the last twenty years. (I blogged about Lafayette Square in the same article where I explored Burlington Coat Factory, which—surprise!—is a tenant at the aforementioned dying Indianapolis mall.) In both Indy and KCMO, these auto-oriented districts fell within the city limits and fed into their already declining public school districts. The housing in Indianapolis’ Eagledale is almost identical to that in the Bannister Road corridor of Kansas City.
But the economic forecast of Lafayette Square and Eagledale still seems nowhere as bleak as that of Bannister in Kansas City, at least to me. Not only is Lafayette Square Mall still hanging on (though hardly flourishing, with about 50% vacancy), the sundry strip malls and big-boxes around it are surviving as well. None of them are thriving, and national chains have largely fled Eagledale to the suburb of Avon, just as they migrated to Lee’s Summit outside Kansas City. But the Lafayette Square district has hosted a huge variety of immigrant entrepreneurs, and now the area is known for its ethnic supermarkets, taquerias, hookah cafes, and restaurants catering to a few dozen different non-American cuisines. The city is teaming with the Department of Public Works to re-brand the area as an international marketplace. In addition, an emergent artist community has taken advantage of the cheap rents and leased an old Firestone outparcel near Lafayette Square, turning it into the Service Center for Contemporary Culture and Community: a performing arts space, library, community garden, and art gallery, taking advantage of the area’s eclectic demographic mix. Eagledale in Indianapolis may no longer be a middle class neighborhood, but it doesn’t look like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.
The Bannister Mall site has stumped developers and city officials over the years, since southeast Kansas City in general seems to be evading any sort of organic re-invention. I suspect that Kansas City, generally a prosperous metro area, has its own immigrant-influenced equivalent to Lafayette Square/Eagledale in Indianapolis, but the old Bannister Mall certainly isn’t it. This variant on socioeconomic blight poses a wicked challenge. I’m not holding my breath for the hipsters or the gays to colonize it, the way they are in some of Kansas City’s formerly dying old walkable neighborhoods closer to the central city. And the yuppies won’t come in later to gentrify it either. The blight that afflicts Bannister and Hillcrest Roads has yet to reveal a treatment.
This post originally appeared in American Dirt on November 30, 2012.