Two days in Stepford -- Town Square, Southlake, Texas
by Josh Bernoff
Thanks to Groundswell clients, I got to spend a couple of days at a hotel in the middle of a unique development in Southlake, Texas (near Dallas), a place called Town Square. I found Town Square disturbing at a visceral level, and exploring why actually carries some lessons for the kind of people who read this blog.
Town Square is a mall. Sort of. It’s not like any mall I’ve visited before. Town Square has actual streets that meet at right angles, with names like Main Street and Summit Avenue. They’re wide, with sidewalks, and lined with stores just like a real town. That is, if a real town had a huge Barnes & Noble, next to a huge Cheesecake Factory, next to a huge multimegaplex movie theater, with ample parking.
This environment is preternaturally clean, like a movie set. During my early morning walks, it was nearly deserted and the effect was eerie. Every bit of landscaping was manicured, every bit of lawn crew cut at three-eights of an inch tall. In strategic spots were fountains in courtyards built of the hyper-regular simulated stone pavers you see so often these days.
In two days of circumnavigating the place I only saw two things out of place. One was some paper trash in front of the theater, which proved upon closer inspection to be, ironically, maps of the mall. The other was a tall potted plant outside the Crate & Barrel that was knocked over. Touching it, I found it was not only broken, but fake.
There are residences here, too, “The Brownstones at Town Square.” In Boston, brownstones drip with individual personality. Here, they all line up neatly with little gaslamps and shrubs in the front. Peer in a front window and you see a plate of oranges on a metal plate in somebody’s dining room, a display that could have come directly from the Crate & Barrel down the street. This is the place Ned Flanders will buy when he retires. There are no McCain or Obama or Ron Paul signs, no unusual door knockers, no vegetable gardens or tricycles on the stoop. The whole development is neat as a pin. According to the developers’ web site, Phase I is sold out and Phase II is now selling at $599,000 and up.
Range a little farther afield and you find that Town Square features the impressive edifice of Southlake’s Town Hall, facing yet another neatly manicured courtyard and an artificial pond. And here, finally, I detected a particle of quirkiness. In front of Town Hall was one of those nearly-ubiquitous-now painted bull sculptures. Close inspection revealed the painting on the bull was a picture of Town Hall itself. Thus Town Square pays tribute to itself.
In the evenings, Town Square has a bustling clientele like any mall, and people interact with each other normally, but this still doesn’t seem like a place people would hang out. It’s not near anything else that seems normal. Across the street is just another mall, one without the Main Street USA thing going on.
As I contemplated my own discomfort at this place, I began to wonder what it says about social sites on the Web. (Hey, you knew that would come in here eventually.) Is your site like Town Square, or is it like a real place?
People are messy. They leave poorly spelled rants and non-sequiturs in your social communities and comment on your blog with screeds and off-topic spam. They post photos full of red-eyed guys and imperfect women wearing no makeup, and upload sloppily edited videos featuring fleshy people who dress badly and dance even worse. Sometimes these people laugh out loud. They emote, even if it is just with punctuation ;-). They litter and leave the equivalent of dog poo on your lawn. They’re highly variable in their levels of wit and intelligence. Give me that over Town Square any day. It feels good to be home.