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Local Economy

Which Mall Would You Make Your Bunker During the Apocalypse?

This is the kind of passionate and pointless debate Chris and Dorothy once lived for at The Tyee office.

By Christopher Cheung and Dorothy Woodend 22 May 2020 | TheTyee.ca

Christopher Cheung writes about the sociology of the city for The Tyee. Follow him on Twitter at @bychrischeung or email him.

Dorothy Woodend is culture editor of The Tyee. Reach her here.

[Editor’s note: As someone who pre-pandemically shared an office with cities writer Christopher Cheung and culture writer Dorothy Woodend, I can tell you the chatter between them is mostly charming, except when the laughter in the kitchen gets too loud. Chris and Dorothy share a love of high fashion, obscure film and dining out on delicious food, all topics I don’t care much about — and so while to me their conversation is most indecipherable, their chemistry remains undeniably marvellous. Here they take their latest debate online. Peer in, and marvel at the weird. – R.S.]

Chris: Dearest Tyee culture editor,

Can I consult you about your doomsday plans? I assume you’ve watched every disaster movie out there, so you of all people should know how each scenario plays out. Dr. Bonnie Henry has probably already texted you today to ask about the infectivity of zombie blood.

Dorothy: She might have gotten in touch. I am not at liberty to say.

Chris: I knew it! Well, here’s what I’m wondering. If this pandemic thing goes full Mad Max or World War Z, where should I hide in the Lower Mainland? You’ll have to tell me where Dr. Henry is hiding when the nations go nuclear — if she isn’t raptured, that is, for living her time on Earth with grace.

Dorothy: I could tell you, Chris, but then… (makes a threatening and ominous gesture).

Chris: Should I pick a locale with less people? I know I’ll definitely be staying clear of Kits Beach. With all the beefiness, an outbreak is guaranteed.

Dorothy: I assume you’re talking about big men in tiny speedos?

Chris: Maybe it’s the local farming families who will prevail. Suddenly all those activists rallying against monster houses on Richmond farmland will want their own, with their blueberry patches, spa tubs, fitness centres and housekeeping. Some mansions even have Airbnb quarters — perfect for hosting weary travellers wandering the Lower Wasteland.

I’m also thinking about what Mother Superior told Maria in The Sound of Music when she ran from the Nazis: “I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills from whence cometh my help.” From the sound of it, I should settle somewhere with a height advantage, perhaps the top of Queen Elizabeth Park? Inside the Seasons restaurant? I could finally dine in that fancy Skyline Room where rich people are always celebrating their birthdays. No matter if the kitchen staff have cannibalized one another — I’ll bring Cup Noodles.

Dorothy: I have given this some serious thought. Maybe even a little too much. As my ex-husband said recently, “You’ve been in training for this your whole life — your middle name is Armageddon.” (I then smote him with my broadsword.)

But Armageddon Woodend does have a nice ring to it.

And yes, it’s true that I have something of a fetish for any narrative where people have to hole up, fend off ravening hordes, and make a cozy little last stand. I am fully down with that action. The Battle of Helm’s Deep in the second part of The Lord of the Rings sends me into something akin to catatonic bliss. There are plenty other films that evoke the same feeling — Attack on Precinct 13, Dawn of the Dead, and pretty much any John Carpenter actioner.

Lift up thine eyes unto the malls, Maria! Still from The Sound of Music, 20th Century Fox.

In such circumstances, you need a secured perimeter, access to food and water (grocery stores, food courts, fountains and reservoirs), and easy escape routes in case you’re ever overrun.

So, if all hell really does break loose, and I have to choose where to set up my bunker, there’s only one logical location for me.

Oakridge Mall.

Chris: lol wot

Dorothy: Hear me out, young Padawan. Oakridge has almost everything one needs to ride out the end of days — food, water and a goodly number of health-care offices, in case you need a quick trip to the physio (broadswords are hell on one’s shoulders).

But back to The Sound of Music, which seems to know a thing or two about landscape architecture (that film just keeps on giving, doesn’t it). In L.A. circles they call it prospect refuge, the sensation you get from being high on a hillside, o’er looking the veldt below. You can see your enemies coming from any direction. This is why so many walled cities were perched on top of hills in the olden times.

Many folks might reasonably ask: am I talking about holing up in the old Oakridge Mall, which once housed mid-priced stores like Zellers and The Bay, or am I talking about the new walled city version of Oakridge developed by Westbank and home to the super wealthy with apartments starting in the millions of dollars?

My bet is that in the post-pandemic world, money will be a relic of the past. The only useful things will be skills, like canning, breadmaking and basket weaving. But a good Max Mara coat and some bling-bling from Tiffany can still brighten up a girl’s day. Oakridge has those in ample supply, plus an Apple store and a ball pit/child’s play area that could be repurposed as a Beyond Thunderdome gladiatorial arena.

Chris: Alright, you have me convinced about Oakridge. You could also dine in style, what with the ridiculous items that Crate & Barrel sells, like overpriced napkin rings and acacia-handled serving spoons. What material one’s utensils are made of certainly seems silly in these end times. Though I wouldn’t deny using them to eat a Taco Luis (an Oakridge treasure) burrito.

Dorothy: How dare you mock my overpriced acacia dinnerware! Where’s my broadsword?

Chris: Come after me then! With prospect refuge in mind, I would take up residence at B.C.’s largest mall: the awkwardly named Metropolis at Metrotown. If Britain’s country abbeys can be converted to country estates, like Downton Abbey, I see no reason why Metropolis shouldn’t serve as the home for me and my bubble.

Metropolis is also on unusually high ground; at 129 metres above sea level, it’s 40 metres higher than Oakridge and higher than most of Vancouver. Condo marketers advertised the views here, but I’m thinking about Metrotown’s defensibility. For example, I could pour hot oil from the level three KFC down on invaders.

The thought of having a mall to myself after dark gets my heart racing. It all started with that O.C. episode where the teen heroes get trapped in a Newport Beach mall and end up playing hockey, camping out at a department store and getting all philosophical about teen stuff. The writers of other shows like Seinfeld, Roxanne, Gilmore Girls and Saved by the Bell also brought their characters into malls, like the testing of Christ in the wilderness, if you will.

Alone in a mall, I wouldn’t be shy to give into temptations, such as unlimited Dairy Queen soft serve. I might even get high off of Muji’s aroma diffusers. And with big stores such as the T&T, Walmart and Superstore, I’d be well stocked for years to come.

Dorothy: HAHAHA (Maniacal laugh). I too have long harboured dreams of unfettered access to a mall’s many pleasures, chief amongst them — snack items. The idea takes me back to childhood dreams of being locked in a grocery store overnight. As a child of hippies who was routinely given carob instead of chocolate (which really should be considered a hate crime) and subjected to brown rice, goat’s milk and healthy peanut butter, the idea of having unrestricted access to things like Cool Whip was my ultimate fantasy. I would often lull myself to sleep after a dinner of healthy food (parsnips, more rice and kohlrabi) with dreams of Cool Whip mountains. Soft, creamy mounds of the stuff, the texture of sweet shaving cream.

All junk all the time might get a little unfun after a while, and we’d probably have to return to growing vegetables on the roof before scurvy sets in, but for a few glorious moments it would be everything I’d ever dreamed of. All the Purdy’s chocolate, poutine and Orange Julius you could eat, before you spontaneously combust from all that edible oil.

Chris: Well, Metrotown happens to be next door to the mall where I currently do all my grocery shopping: Crystal Mall. Asian malls are usually developed with dazzle, like Aberdeen Centre with its musical fountain, but the Crystal has always been retro-futuristic with its neon and LED light boxes instead of windows — appropriate decor for the Blade Runner future.

The star of the place is the wet market. (Sorry racists, the only bat here is you.) If highway gangs stop the delivery trucks, perhaps Vancouverites farming at their own residences would bring their extra produce to sell. Our climate is kind to everything from kale to chayotes, figs to apples like Cox’s orange pippin.

582px version of Malls-Tofu.jpg
Crystal Mall vendors like Healthy Soyfoods, pictured here in February, ready for business in the new world. Their fortifications have since increased. Photo by Christopher Cheung.

Mmm, is it wrong that I’m so excited about post-apocalyptic food trends? Progressive Vancouver’s anti-colonial sewing collectives and Marxist makerspaces could also sell their homemade masks and reusable bum kerchiefs here. And the Crystal has a section for phone and computer repair; we’re still going to need tech support in the future. Overall, a perfect centre of commerce for the new world to come.

Dorothy: I like your thinking! There’s much good that can come from getting more local with food, repair culture and a more homespun world. But after slaking hunger, and the need for a bum kerchief, a girl’s thoughts turn to a little light entertainment for a pandemic evening.

Every post-apocalyptic fantasy usually features a 2-4 of sex and violence, those being the two things humans like to most indulge in when no one is around to stop them. But maybe a kinder, gentler approach is in order. Less Thunderdome brutality, and more braiding each other hair and board games. Settlers of Catan for realsies, folks!

A little mall promenade is always enjoyable, decked out in the most expensive shit we can find, while the Muzak plays over the internal sound system. There is also catastrophe karaoke, which is pretty much like normal karaoke. Except even more painful.

When we are truly bored, we can always take a scenic train trip on the Skypiercer, as I’ve taken to calling the Canada Line and Expo/Millennium SkyTrain arteries. We can circle back and forth round about the city, like the slowest and least exciting roller coaster in the world. Unlike other dystopian tales set aboard trains, like filmmaker Bong Joon-ho’s ode to mass transit, Train to Busan, and its upcoming sequel Peninsula, this train trip wouldn’t be a cannibalistic social allegory on rails. In fact, all are welcome on board, as long as you behave nicely and don’t eat anyone’s face off.

I could visit you at Metrotown and our friends at all the malls along the way, waving merrily at everyone hunkered down at Brentwood, Aberdeen, Richmond Centre and McArthur Glen.

Chris: I wonder if we’d find TransLink CEO Kevin Desmond at the head of the train?

851px version of Malls-Kevin-Desmond-Skypiercer.jpg
Ed Harris headed the Snowpiercer (with cool pajamas too). Would TransLink’s Desmond head the Skypiercer? Snowpiercer still via Radius TWC. Desmond image via TransLink.

I’d be curious to stop at the Bentall Centre, which was already a strange mall, a relic of the 1960s complete with its own shoeshine station. A 53,000-square-feet underground labyrinth of pharmacies and fast food beneath the four Bentall office towers, I bet the 9-to-5 crowd trapped here would swiftly go feral, with the most capitalist of the CEOs going full Gollum. Who knows, maybe we’d even run into William Gibson down there?

Dorothy: I wouldn’t mind a trip to Tsawwassen Mills, already one of the weirdest malls around even before COVID reset the bar for bizarre. If you’ve never seen adult people riding around on giant stuffed animals, you simply haven’t lived.

Horsemen of the apocalypse? No, it’s just Tsawwassen Mills’ Stuffy Riders.

But at the end of all this, what have we learned, Chris? 

With the companies that own the malls hollering about the importance of reopening, maybe we should take a moment and think about things. Cuckoo consumerism may not have started the pandemic, but it’s been nice to be away from it for a while. I’ve been wearing variations of the same outfit for the past six weeks and haven’t missed dressing up one iota. When I looked in my closet the other day, all my clothes just seemed strange. “Why do I have all this stuff?” I thought.

If we crazy humans only take away a couple of things from this singular time, it’s that we don’t need much, or at least we need far fewer things. A bit of Cool Whip, an open sky over my head, and my enemy’s head resting on a pike, and I’m good!

Chris: I concur, culture editor. The thought of plundering all the bounty of Metrotown does not give me as much joy as the green onion I am currently re-growing on my windowsill. It is not shopping I miss, but civilization. Malls, love ‘em or hate ‘em, once served as our village squares. I’ll be reciting Ozymandias to myself as I survey the Yeezys in window displays and the Lululemon ads hyping life-altering yoga pants.

Dorothy: What screams apocalypse more than Chip Wilson? Mmm, chips.

Chris: Please save me a bag! I’ll be busy defending Metrotown from invaders, but should you wish to visit, I’ll let your head remain upon your shoulders.

Dorothy: You’re sweet!  [Tyee]

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