Lileks: The closing of Macy's store in St. Paul is a sign of a deeper loss

  • Article by: JAMES LILEKS , Star Tribune
  • Updated: January 3, 2013 - 7:36 PM
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Macy's in Downtown St. Paul is scheduled to close this spring.

Photo: Glen Stubbe, Star Tribune

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The deal to keep Macy's in St. Paul expired on Dec. 31 at 11:59:59 p.m., and no doubt the company agonized over what to do next.

Sure, they could start demolition at 12:00:01 a.m., but there might be some security guys inside. Give it a day or two.

Are you surprised?

No. When I worked in St. Paul, we'd go to Macy's for lunch, and if you bought a pair of socks the manager would throw himself at your feet and clasp your ankles in gratitude. For the last three years almost half the cash registers were staffed with manikins; no one noticed. You know how some stores have clerks folding things to make them look neat? They had clerks walking around unfolding things to look as if a human being had drifted through in the last fortnight.

This is bad, though. The loss of a department store is always a punch in the heart. There are the jobs, first of all. There's the loss of retail for people who live and work in the area. And there's the history. Always the history. Cue the recollections:

"I remember coming down to the store with my Mom on the streetcar and seeing a color television for the first time. We had a popover in an elegant restaurant, and we heard JFK was shot. I know things change, but I still don't believe Oswald acted alone."

It's human nature: Even though the closing was as surprising as the return of Halley's Comet, it's change, and there's always sadness in loss.

Why, there was an old-timer shaking his fist when they knocked down a small store to build the Dayton's store: "By cracky, I remember coming down here on a donkey with my Ma to get horehound plague medicine, and we got licorice rock, which was what we called a stone dipped in tar and rolled in sugar. That's when I first saw a telegraph machine. Now they're tearing down the store, and I've additional reasons to be bitter, disappointed and suspicious of new things."

But the old timer had a point. The pictures of St. Paul before urban renewal, like the images of Minneapolis before Progress turned its bum-strewn boulevards into shiny seas of asphalt and chrome, show thriving streets with human-scaled buildings. Crass signs jut from every storefront; merchandise is heaped in bins by the doors. It was messy and individualistic -- and, eventually, too old.

The tired downtowns couldn't compete with the sleek and efficient malls that popped up in the 'burbs, so they razed them and built dull, blunt dolts like the Dayton's in St. Paul. Downtowns had history; the suburbs didn't. For some reason this was seen as a competitive advantage.

We can pretend that the destruction of downtowns was foisted on a protesting public, but we chose to go elsewhere, and for the most part shrugged when the old world was razed. That was the spirit of their times. It's not the spirit of ours.

What next? Tear it down. It's a graceless bunker. Jails have more windows. If you wanted to design an enormous glue-trap for humans, that's what it would look like.

Build a complex of small two-and-three story buildings -- at least 10, all designed by different architects. (No one gets to peek at the other architects' proposals.) Do not put a big hotel in the middle. Do not use the phrase "world class" when describing any aspect of the project. Do not solicit any national retailers. Do not claim that it will "revitalize" anything or become "a destination." Just build something that's urban and urbane, a place that breathes the spirit of the things that were there before the Clever Wonks of Progress took their erasers to the world.

You say: Why, that's a fine idea, Mr. Columnist! And you've said it before in this space about 30 times. Surely you note that no one follows your advice?

Yes. So never mind.

Try this: Leave everything as it is. Hose it down with shellac. Rename it the American Department Store Museum. The first few decades will be rough, but come 2053 it'll be the most fascinating time capsule in the country.

Did people really buy these things? tourists will say. Yes!

Well, actually, no. That was the problem.

jlileks@startribune.com • 612-673-7858

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