From Shophouses to Strip Malls: America's Changing Economy

I grew up in a shophouse. I realized this after living in Thailand when I was teaching and traveling throughout Asia, where business-cum-home arrangements are ubiquitous.

My father, a haberdasher, owned a small, narrow store on Broad Street in the New Jersey town where I spent my childhood. It was called Tip Top Men’s Shop and it catered to the town’s gentry. My mother, father, two siblings and I lived in a railroad apartment above the store. The rooms lined up one in front of another along a claustrophobic corridor. There were two bedrooms so when my brother came along, he slept in the living room.  It was a convenient if cramped setup for my parents until they could afford to build a house, and it was fun for us kids, even though living in such small quarters drove my mother mad.  Also, we could have done without the Arrow Shirt boxes lining the living room.

My dad held all the franchises that upscale companies like Arrow Shirts offered to only one vendor in a town, so he had no competition to speak of, and having overstocked his store during the war years, he did well into the 50s.

But then things began to change. Franchises were extended to other stores and more importantly, box stores and discount merchandisers began to appear. Customer loyalty waned as a burgeoning bargain mentality developed. My father, driven out of business by these factors, ended up working as a floor salesman in one of those box stores, selling inferior off-the-rack suits and cheap shirts and ties. It was devastating for a man whose self-esteem derived from being his own boss.

By then we had moved to a three-bedroom house a mile from the center of town. And we, too, began bargain hunting and shopping in the stores that were rapidly displacing local merchants and changing the face of our familiar and beloved Broad Street.

It didn’t take long for those box stores to join forces as large and then larger shopping malls proliferated, becoming a developer’s dream. The first one in our area was the Cherry Hill Mall in south Jersey. Everyone flocked there on weekends, to window shop, meet friends and occasionally partake of sales.

Later, when I was living just outside Washington, DC, malls sprung up in Virginia and Maryland. Gradually, they became more upscale. Some of them were huge. Shaped like an elongated letter H, Macy’s might be at one end, Bloomingdales at the other, displacing the original Sears and Penney’s. In between these two giants, a plethora of small boutique shops offered a ridiculous amount of stuff that prospering suburbanites thought they couldn’t live without.

About this time, outlet malls began to dot the landscape, some becoming so popular that chain motels and restaurants built facilities nearby. Some of them were so big they actually had artificial ski slopes or water slides in them. In a booming economy, everyone and every business seemed to thrive.

But then things changed again.

Enter the Internet and the world of  Soon, every store, big or small, was selling online. Customers loved it. UPS and FedEx loved it. Online businesses of all kinds proliferated, and profited.

What didn’t “profit” from this particular economic change was a semi-urban landscape increasingly dotted with deserted strip malls, empty box stores, and desolate super shopping venues. Who didn’t profit were all the people who lost their jobs.

Ironically, as I was contemplating writing this column, economist Paul Krugman wrote a piece in The New York Times on the topic of our changing economy. He noted that a magazine article had just appeared in which a photographic essay addressed “the decline of traditional retailers in the face of internet competition.  The pictures,” he wrote, “contrasting ‘zombie malls’ largely emptied of tenants with giant warehouses holding inventory for online sellers were striking.”  Krugman also highlighted Macy’s plans to close almost 70 stores and lay off 10,000 workers, while Sears, was doubtful that it could stay in business.

All of this brought my shophouse childhood back to me, with its pleasures of being a Broad Street kid watched over by the merchants between Curtis and Cooper Streets and the excitement of Christmas and Father’s Day shopping. But I also remembered what it was like when my father lost his business, his identity, and a good bit of his income. And I recalled what Broad Street looked like the last time I drove through my hometown – a shattering scene of tatoo parlors, bars, and vacant, decrepit buildings where once commerce and friendship flourished.

“Change is the only reality,” a Greek philosopher once said. I’ve lived long enough to realize the wisdom of those words. We live in an ever-changing world in so many ways, a world with new and often troubling landscapes in which the future is full of uncertainty. 

Witnessing those emerging landscapes, I’m very glad for my shophouse days.



The Fine Art of Listening

When I was a communications major in graduate school, “active listening” was a big piece of the curriculum. It seemed a light weight subject at the time. Later, when I taught listening skills to my own students, they too assumed it was a ho-hum ‘no brainer’ largely because the literature on paying attention to others - really hearing them - seemed to belabor the obvious: People need to be heard, validated and appreciated.

But the fact is that listening – giving our full attention to another - does not always come naturally. And the value of full attention, which leads to understanding and therefore appropriate response (which in some cases is no response, just listening), is often overlooked.

I was reminded of this on several occasions recently.  The first was when a young woman I know told me how much she appreciated the fact that I always listen to her. It was a simple statement of gratitude but one laden with meaning. What she was really saying was that she valued the fact that I took her feelings seriously and offered genuine support, which made her life easier and provided comfort in difficult circumstances. That was deeply important and helpful to her, and it was important to me too.  I felt the reward of knowing that by “simply” listening I had made someone’s journey a little bit easier.

That sense of easing someone’s journey through totally silent, wholehearted listening is part of an initiative called The Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project launched by psychologist and writer Paula J. Caplan.  As Caplan explains, “Through free, voluntary, private, and respectful listening sessions, volunteer listeners help to reduce the common chasms between veterans and non-veterans through the simple act of a non-veteran listening to a veteran from any era. This helps veterans through the power of human connection.”

Listeners who volunteer to “Listen to a Veteran” are not therapists and they are not engaged in active listening that allows listeners to speak, Caplan explains. Except for speaking two sentences, one at the beginning and one sometime during the session, they do nothing but listen. “But they do so with 100% of their attention and their whole hearts. This model works beautifully,” says Caplan. And according to research conducted by Harvard University, veterans describe the listening sessions as helpful while listeners say it is wonderfully transformative for them.

"When I came back from Afghanistan, hearing the words “Thank You” from people who didn’t know what I did or saw was an empty gesture,” one Afghanistan army veteran reported. “More than anything, I wanted my community to listen to the stories of veterans like myself—to participate in that moral struggle, and gain a deeper awareness of the meaning of war. The Welcome Johnny and Jane Home Project understands the important role that civilians can perform simply by listening to veterans actively and without judgment, generating new opportunities for veterans to serve their communities by educating them about the nuanced reality of war." 

The third time I thought about the incredible importance and impact of active listening came from a training workshop that was part of a collaboration between two community-based theaters and a multi-generational performance project called Race Peace, developed in the south “to create a space where people form diverse backgrounds can safely and aggressively challenge the realities and myths of racism in America.” Race Peace also considers “how art can engage people in noteworthy dialogue about challenging social issues.”

Race Peace worked with Next Stage Arts Project (NSAP) and Sandglass Theater, community-based theaters in Putney, Vt., to conduct a training workshop that included Story Circles in which people sat in small groups and shared their stories. They were stories of humanity being stripped away. They were tales of wounding behavior. They revealed moments of humiliation and injustice. The participants, including actors, police officers, and a theater director among others, listened – really listened – to each other. They were, they said, deeply moved and changed by the experience, as were community members who saw their stories performed, by coincidence, the week of the Baltimore riots.

“The workshop made racism tangible,” Eric Bass, co-founder of Sandglass Theater, noted. “Real emotions were awakened, there was true honesty and bridges were built.”

“The training was unorthodox by law enforcement standards,” Brattleboro Police Chief Michael Fitzgerald said. “It was amazing what emerged when we examined personal prejudices.”

“When creative expression of the human experience is shared we are all present for each other in the moment. It’s extremely powerful,” adds Maria Basescu, executive director of Next Stage Arts Project.

These reactions from a variety of arenas testify to the importance and power of active listening in numerous contexts. I wish someone had shared them with me when I was a student, as I would like to have shared them with others when I was teaching.

Perhaps they have even more meaning in today’s world, where the need to listen to each other, to validate and bring comfort, grows ever more vital. Indeed, it seems fair to say, it has never been greater.