Anchors of Civic Life?
Shopping Centers Not All They Could Have been

The regional shopping mall is so much a part of modern American culture it is easy enough to forget how much more was expected of it with its introduction in the 1950s than simply being an “engine of commerce.” Taken together with David Sullivan’s entry on department stores, Matthew Smalarz’s essay on shopping centers suggests some of what has been lost in the geographic shift of retail activity over the past half century.

Regional shopping centers cropped up precisely at that point when the dispersion of metropolitan population introduced the phenomenon of suburban sprawl. The idealists behind the regional centers hoped their structures would help anchor new communities and give shape to ex-urban land use. As a writer for the Department Store Economist proclaimed in1954, “…no construction is more dynamic than the shopping center or as likely to influence a reform of the usual urban and suburban hodgepodge….A new generation of department store men and women…are showing the same high responsibility to the communities that their grandfathers showed when they helped to create the great downtowns which we know today in hundreds of cities.”  

In their early days, suburban malls hosted fashion shows, opportunities for children’s play, high school proms, and even classical music concerts. If food courts lacked the grandeur of the tea rooms that female shoppers once gathered in downtown department stores, they nonetheless offered opportunities for sociability among women beyond the privacy of their homes, where so much of their attention was otherwise directed if they did not hold down fulltime jobs. For years the Cherry Hill Mall in New Jersey served as the gathering point for a number of former Camden residents whose dispersion outside the city in the 1950s and 1960s left them hungry for familiar faces and an opportunity to reminisce about their former lives.

Over time, these facilities became increasingly privatized, as community-oriented events aimed at generating a sense of loyalty to place as well as the crowds to animate them gave way to simply enticing paying customers. Shortly after her important book, A Consumer’s Republic appeared in 2003, I invited author and Harvard University professor Lizabeth Cohen to do a talk and sought to locate it in the courtyard of the Cherry Hill Mall, which received a good deal of attention in her book.The managers of the property said she could do so, but only after paying a $5,000 fee to gain access to the mall’s customers. As an alternative, they suggested the mall’s only bookstore, which we rejected after the manager failed to recognize the name of the publisher: Knopf.

Garden State entraceThe great irony of the commercial redevelopment of the Garden State Race Track nearby was the argument that it would fulfill Cherry Hill’s need for a town center. Apparently no one remembered, let alone imagined the mall once had been touted for serving just that function. As the site developed into an amalgam of different pods—for big box stores and clusters of housing—it served less of a model of “new urbanism” and more of an illustration of the basic problem critics point to in suburbs: physically induced social isolation.

Given the chance to create better communities on relatively open land in suburbs in place of urban centers that had evolved over time, developers fell well short of creating communities that integrated effectively the needs that enable thriving communities. We all have our favorite shopping destinations, but it’s hard to think of them today as the civic investments they were originally intended to be.

Deep Roots, Lasting Legacy

deep_roots_posterThe poster “Deep Roots, Continuing Legacy: Philadelphia in the Struggle for Civil Rights” is a new project from History Making Productions, the documentary film company that strives to share Philadelphia’s rich history through the powerful medium of film. We hope that the poster will encourage Philadelphia residents to delve into our rich, fascinating, and continuous role in the fight for equal rights. Many of the events depicted on the poster are featured in History Making Production’s film series, Philadelphia: The Great Experiment. These films are available at no cost and online at

The Encyclopedia of Greater Philadelphia is one of the many cultural and civic organizations partner organizations that have helped to produce the poster. We are among the partners that have also supplied supplementary materials that complement and extend the content on the poster. For more information, teaching ideas, and primary sources, go to

Defining Greater Philadelphia

philadelphiadivideRichard Florida, well-known for introducing the term “creative class,” has recently released an assessment of the class divide distinguishing the Philadelphia area.  Part of a larger series on U.S. cities, the report draws from the U.S. Census American Community Survey to designate areas across the region as part of one of three classes: creative, service, and working. The study is of particular interest to the editors of the encyclopedia  because Florida provides one strategy for understanding the region just as we are about to undertake the challenge of assigning essays that will help us define  what has constituted “greater Philadelphia” over time.  We would be interested in how those who have been following our work react to Florida’s essay. It has already provoked a good deal of commentary on-line, and we welcome your own reactions.

Putting the Delaware River Port Authority in Context

News that a grand jury is considering possible corruption in the award of economic development funds by the Delaware River Port Authority to politically connected recipients makes Peter Hendee Brown’s  posting on the DRPA on this site especially timely. What the DRPA is supposed to do and how it operates is hard to grasp from the many news accounts that has put the agency in the news over time. Brown provides the background that helps make sense of the agency’s central importance to the region and the structural problems that arise from its operations.

When I first returned to the area after a long absence to write a book on Camden in the late 1990s, I was surprised at the way DRPA operated, not as an agent for regional development but as a cash cow that directed funds in equal portions to Pennsylvania and New Jersey without an overall strategic plan. Some projects made immediate sense, such as refitting the Philadelphia Navy Yard in the aftermath of the government’s departure from the site. Other investments were harder to sell. Spokesmen for the agency often talked about building tourism, for instance, by making investments on both sides of the Delaware River, and some good results came from that vision as well, not the least funds that helped make the President’s House memorial in Philadelphia a reality.  But building tourism—which might conceivably generate returns by increasing tolls over bridges connecting the two states—was never central to DRPA’s goal. Supporting allies and garnering political credits appears to have topped the list of priorities, to say nothing of the financial benefits that might be gained through related contracts and political donations, among other things.

As Brown indicates, the creation of the DRPA was part of a movement to remove from politics certain public investments operating as non-partisan authorities. As Louise Dyble’s devastating critique of the Golden Gate Bridge and Highway District, Paying the Toll: Local Power, Regional Politics, and the Golden Gate Bridge, demonstrates, reigning in such authorities can be difficult indeed, and holding them accountable nearly impossible. DRPA may not reach that standard, but accountability remains a concern to the many people who continue to pay tolls into this organization’s coffers.

Whether an indictment will follow the grand jury’s investigation, DRPA deserves close scrutiny. We hope that our fellow citizens in the greater Philadelphia region will be aided in their assessment of the DRPA by Brown’s essay. Certainly, none of us have heard the last about controversies surrounding this important player in our region.


Connecting the Past with the Present, Building Community, Creating a Legacy