A terrible mall beauty, about to be born

A moment of creative destruction, caught in the act. The Go Greenbelt Ride, Day 2.

By Andrew Leonard

Published June 5, 2007 5:00AM (EDT)

A half-built modern American shopping complex emerging out of rural farmland is a spectacle to behold. Two versions of how space can be exploited simultaneously exist, but neither performs. The pasture no longer holds cows, but instead, giant earth-moving machines. The store facades have been erected, but there are no parking spaces or customers. It is an act of creative destruction, caught before either the creation or the demolition is finished.

Which means that the sight of it delivers much more punch than your typical McMansion or gated community, peeking through whatever forest or token fruit trees remains from a previous incarnation. On the second day of the Greenbelt ride, I spent the morning journeying from Los Gatos to Morgan Hill with a veteran of many previous rides. From time to time he pointed out some particularly egregious examples of Americana Gargantua, noting "that wasn't here three years ago," or "that's new since last year."

To me, a first-timer who had never ridden through this territory, it was all just part of the "environment." I could try to picture in my mind what a certain slice of ridge had looked like before development, but that act of imagination was an artificial construction. I had no real basis of comparison. It was what it was, and for all I knew, had always been like that.

The very act of development, caught in flagrante delicto, is another matter entirely. It's one reason why the Greenbelt riders do the same ride, over the same roads, over and over again. To be able not just to enjoy the open road, but to viscerally experience the changes in the built environment from year to year, to face up to the pressure that is constantly exerted to remake the land. On Monday we rode though two gorgeous valleys, Coyote Creek and Almaden, both of which have significant portions within the metropolitan limits of San Jose, and both of which, to use the elegant understatement of one of the Greenbelt riders, are "contested."

One can take heart that that contest is happening, that developers are being opposed in the Bay Area, and that there is constant struggle over how to manage growth and development.

But then one can contemplate, as one departs the town of Morgan Hill, and approaches the interchange of Cochrane Road and Highway 101, the new megaloplex emerging, bearing foul prophecy as to what is to come. And one feels a little disheartened.

Andrew Leonard

Andrew Leonard is a staff writer at Salon. On Twitter, @koxinga21.

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