I resisted as long as I could, but finally had to check out Pacific Place Mall for myself.

The new Nordstrom and Pacific Place malls are part of a whole series of developments to gentrify an old and familiar neighborhood. First the Convention Center, then the bus tunnel, followed by Westlake Mall, Niketown, FAO Schwartz, GameWorks, Planet Hollywood, Old Navy, and a whole slew of other upscale, out-of-town chain stores have driven out affordable housing and mom-and-pop businesses and turned this neighborhood into a retail nightmare.

On 7th Avenue between Pike and Pine Streets is the last block of affordable housing left in the corridor–now boarded up and soon to be demolished to make way for the Convention Center expansion. I realize it’s not PC to complain about this, because Capital Hill residents fought like crazy to push the expansion northward, instead of east, but I can’t help it. Developers always win when the discussion shifts from “no new development” to “which apartments should be torn down.”

On approaching the Pacific Place mall, I decide to walk completely around the block and see the whole outside of it first. The architecture is ugly, no question. It’s designed to draw people in through its main entrances on Pine Street and repel people along its other three sides along 7th, 6th, and Olive Way. In this way, it resembles any suburban shopping mall that turns a forbidding concrete face to the acres of parking lots around it; the message is: “Get your ass inside where you belong, or get the hell out of here.”

On the corner of 7th and Pine is a Barnes & Noble bookstore that proudly displays Anne Rice, Sidney Sheldon, Judith Krantz and other supermarket bestsellers in hardback (Why? Who would pay $30 for such garbage?) side-by-side with remainder-quality coffee table books. Peeking through the windows over piles of Bill Gates’ latest authorized PR bio, I can see the most uncluttered, uninteresting book store I’ve ever seen. So, of course, I don’t go inside, and soon I realize how common that reaction is for more “shoppers” at Pacific Place.

All down 7th Avenue are window displays of expensive, boring clothes in black, white and gray hanging from anorexic, headless mannequins. The main feature, however, is the 7th Avenue entrance to the taxpayer-funded parking garage, and a big display of ugly nock-offs of Victorian and Colonial era furniture and fixtures. Turning the corner onto Olive Way reveals the loading dock. At last, the first sign of real humanity: three guys squatting on the sidewalk in dirty white coveralls, taking a cigarette break. On the 6th Avenue side is the exit from the taxpayer subsidized garage–with an annoying noise maker to warn pedestrians that a BMW will soon be running them over if they don’t get the fuck out of the way. A large Starbucks (another one?) and The Pottery Barn, dominate that side of the building. Interestingly, The Pottery Barn and J Crew–two catalogue retailers–seem to be the anchor stores in this complex, which is probably a very stupid move on the part of the mall ownership. From what I could tell, shoppers are not rushing the doors to get inside these two stores.

Walking inside the main entrance of the mall, my first impression was: “what a vast waste of space.” I think about the tiny, studio apartment I live in on Capital Hill. The mall is four floors of stores organized around a central, D-shaped “well” that’s open all the way to the ceiling of the fourth floor. The wasted space is necessary to entice people upstairs to shop the small stores. Everything on the ground floor is designed to move you on, not make you want to linger. There’s a very cold feeling to everything: stone floors with stainless steel inlay, three, separate stainless steel escalators, yet another coffee bar in the central space, and a few tiny, sterile metal tables for seating.

The ground floor stores are full of “useless items”: jewelry (Tiffany’s and Cartier), unrecognizable gadgets (Brookstone), dull boutique clothes with European names, expensive junk for the home (Pottery Barn), and a blur of other trash. I flee up the escalator to the 2nd floor.

… To find still more Euro-gunk. Fatigue sets in, and I haven’t even seen a full half of the place yet. But I notice something important: there are few or no customers in these pointless stores and lots of people are standing around near the balconies just hanging out, gawking, or waiting to meet someone–which speaks to Seattle’s need for more parks and open spaces. I notice that the salespeople in each store are standing frozen like mannequins, waiting hopefully for someone to come inside and take a look. At least the toilets are well-used. And they’re already falling apart; my stall is missing the coat-hook, and the door already sags on its hinges. Leaving the bathroom, I notice there’s a line to use the pay phones, too. What a rarity in downtown; public toilets and pay phones that work!

Gymboree, the children’s clothing store carefully segregates everything by sex: boys wear belts, girls don’t. Girls wear hats with ruffles, instead. Nauseating.

The fake athletic store has no work-out clothes, only polyester and nylon rapper fashions. I notice only one customer: a graying man in a “distressed” leather jacket nervously buying some spandex shorts.

Helly Hanson is an outdoors clothing chain that specializes in bargain prices. But not here. As soon as I walk inside, the saleswoman immediately pegs me as a slacker with no money, who’s just there to listen to the Neil Young song playing on the store speakers. She hounds me with “Can I help you?” while ignoring a graying man struggling into a parka that’s too small for him. She persists: “Is there anything in particular I can point you to?”

On the third level I find purgatory: a Starbuck’s Cafe. I can always go home and burn my own toast, thank you. Yet there’s a line of people waiting to get in.

The main attraction on the third floor is a store with a European name that’s full of hand-knit sweaters. I want to drool over them, but can’t stop thinking about the sweatshop workers who knit them.

The fourth floor is dominated by an 11-screen Cinema complex (sex-segregation on screen shown by non-union projectionists). The restaurants are a sit-down microcosm of upper-middle-class American tastes: the obligatory singles-bar/brewery, a family-style southwest restaurant, and Stars! (a snobbish, Euro-dining fiasco). Before I get the dry heaves, I rush back down to the third floor to find myself at the foot of a skybridge. At last, an escape from Purgatory!

Crossing over, I enter the ninth circle of Hell: Nordstrom. Hell is just what you would image, though: it resembles a department store in any suburban shopping mall in America–only smaller and more cramped. Clearly Nordstrom didn’t do the move because they needed more space. My first thought is: “Wait! I’m in the Bon–but why isn’t there any elbow room?” >From the white asbestos ceiling tiles and the beige flooring, to cosmetics and accessories on the main floor and menswear in the basement, to the criss-crossing central escalators, nothing–not a stitch–is any different from the same-old dullness. And like most shopping malls, it gave me a headache.

There was nothing at Pacific Place that’s as strange or funny as the Westlake Mall’s third floor food court, where you can sit next to a homeless guy, scarf junk food, and watch the women’s aerobics class across the street…or watch the monorail passengers watch you eating as they come and go. Westlake, in all its shiny, gross consumerism, is actually stimulating next to the blandness of Pacific Place and Nordstrom.

But what I really want is the graffiti and trash back. I want sidewalk trees, band posters on boarded-up buildings, and mom-and-pop stores. I want people hanging out on the sidewalks, lots of grass instead of brick plazas, more buses and fewer cars, and most of all, I want cheap places for people to live. Because that’s what makes a city livable.