Pretty Vacant (2008)

James Hannaham

Shopping malls are the temples of capitalism. Their effectiveness as "safe spaces" for commerce relies on their luxury and comfort. The "sad mall," however, fails to glamorize the buying experience. It cannot mask the spiritual emptiness and despair that materialism often inspires. Instead, it clumsily tells you the truth at point-of-purchase: Possessions will not bring you happiness. Aficionados of urban decay, therefore, will want to see the Gallery at MetroTech (Albee Square and Fulton, Brooklyn) before it can recover from its many years of sadness. Currently at the start of a renovation, which owner Joseph J. Sitt says will brighten it considerably, the construction process only increases the beautiful atmosphere of gloom that has set in since Biz Markie praised the shopping center in 1988's "Albee Square Mall" (its former name). After a grand opening, the downtown Brooklyn mall fell into foreclosure during the mid '90s. The bargain mecca in the surrounding blocks—hundreds of low-priced retail shops and a Macy's—engulfed it. Tenants stopped paying rent to protest poor security. Court battles ensued. Today, half of the structure sits shadowed in scaffolding, its main entrance displaying an empty foyer with a massive hole in the floor. Find the temporary entrance and wander the unpainted concrete walks. Poke your head into the Gallery's nondescript shops and you'll find them not quite adequately stocked with shrink-wrapped sneakers and bright lingerie, while the clerks loiter, deep in conversation. In anticipation of its renaissance, many delinquent tenants have been ejected, leaving shops vacant along the promenade like missing teeth. A group of unoccupied spaces are located in the basement, where a brave exploration down the dark corridor will lead you to the gothic horror of a shabby dentist's office. The drab walls and fluorescent lights of the nearby food court, mostly a tiny Taco Bell and a Chinese restaurant, are interrupted by a multicolored neon brush stroke affixed to the wall—the building's only decoration. As if to deny the dehumanizing effect visible on every expressionless face in the food court, a massive Toys R Us looms at the occupied end of the building, unsteadily anchoring it. It's pleasant to discover that the escalator belts at the Gallery are hot to the touch, a spa-like detail in an otherwise exquisitely bleak environment. Then again, they might be so warm because they're on the verge of malfunctioning. Well, at least you can't get trapped on an escalator.


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