Last week, Voelcker Park, the last big chunk of unblemished land inside Loop 1604, was open to the public for a few hours. My family enjoyed a pleasant mile-and-a-half jaunt sidestepping cow pies through tangles of Texas persimmons, cedars, and oaks. No, it wasn’t quite the forest primeval — you could still hear the drone of traffic on Northwest Military — but I’m not complaining. Across the road, you get a very clear picture of what might have been: KB Home and H-E-B signs trumpet the development of the rest of the Voelcker acreage while a backhoe army stirs up sand devils across the moonscape. I muttered a small prayer of thanksgiving to our mayor for snagging this choice piece of real estate before it, too, was overrun with banks, women’s fitness franchises, doggie hair salons, dentist offices, cell-phone stores, apartment buildings, and more banks.
I’m not a complete tree-hugging fantasist. I accept the inevitability of progress, the necessity of affordable housing, the inexorability of bigger, shinier H-E-Bs. And I’ve gotta buy stuff, just like everyone else. But every time I see another “pad site available” sign sprouting like prickly pear along my stretch of 1604, I get cranky. Perhaps it started when the nearby World Market and Michael’s packed up and headed out to the Rim. Then came news that our cute little H-E-B would shut down later this year to make room for a bigger, fancier one being built down the road (on the Voelcker land). And now word on the street is that our Barnes & Noble — and, god forbid, our only Starbucks — may also be migrating to one of these shimmering new shopping centers.
Loath as I am to accept it, the strip mall is pretty much the cultural nexus of what community exists out here in the sprawl (thanks again for the new park, Mr. Mayor). So when your strip mall gets cannibalized, you start to worry about what happens if those empty storefronts never get filled. Will it become a ghostmall, home to tumbleweeds and coyotes? An environmental art installation? Or will it be razed and replaced with a thrilling new combination of fast-food joints, UPS stores, and spray-tanning salons? A cursory Google search revealed no substantive answers, only that this is just the kind of urban dilemma left for middle-schoolers to tackle in essay-writing contests, and that abandoned strip malls also provide arty fodder for amateur photographer-bloggers.
Let’s assume that one day my strip mall will land some actual tenants. Trying to guess who they might be has become something of a local pastime. A few of my neighbors — dreamers, all — cherish the belief that Whole Foods might set up shop here. Spend enough time idling at red lights and circling parking lots, and you, too, will start fantasizing about your ideal strip mall: In a world tailored entirely to my convenience, I would be able to drive 10 minutes to a shopping center with a supermarket, Target, Kinko’s, a dry cleaner, bank, video store, liquor store, pet store, drug store, hardware store, gas station, car wash, drive-thru Starbucks, and the Container Store, because I suffer from the delusion that buying a few brightly colored plastic receptacles every week will somehow make me a better person.
Ten minutes in the other direction, I’d have a new kind of strip mall — it would be like one of those islands where all vehicles are banned except for bikes and horses. And you’d have to ride your bike — or actually walk — to get to it because TXDOT would’ve built bike lanes and sidewalks and the parking lot would’ve been transformed into a beautifully xeriscaped plaza with lots of outdoor seating. There’d be a dance hall, a wine bar, a coffee shop, a thrift store, an independent toy shop, a used-books store, a garden nursery, and a nail salon with its very own playground patrolled by loving caregivers holding master’s degrees in early childhood development so you could lounge at the nail dryer and read Vanity Fair cover to cover.
Right, I know that’s never gonna happen. But I can handle the more likely scenario — that my old strip mall ends up with a revolving cast of Ebay stores and dog groomers — knowing that at least we’ve got Voelcker Park, which could have so easily been Voelcker Village or Lost Oaks Market Square, because the poetic souls who develop strip malls have a funny way of naming them for the landscapes they’ve replaced. •