Friday, May 1, 2009

Retail Patriotism

A lifestyle and entertainment center evokes the ghosts of coliseums past

When I asked my old college buddy Gordon, who lives in eastern Massachusetts, how he’d like to celebrate his birthday this year, he picked dinner and a movie from a list of options. When I asked where, he suggested Patriot Place, a 1.3 million square foot “lifestyle and entertainment center” clustered around Gillette Stadium, home of the New England Patriots football team. I readily agreed, as much out of a desire for the anthropology lesson as to please him. So a group of us herded ourselves into his minivan and we made our way up to Route 1 in Foxboro, Massachusetts.

Our first stop in this colossal complex – really something you’d expect to see dropped into Texas or California rather than the urban rim of Boston – was the Bass Pro Shop. Patriot Place represents the New England beach head for this huge sporting and outdoor gear chain, headquartered in Missouri. We were awed by the scale of the place, which offered a cornucopia of guns, rods, camouflage gear and just about anything a hunter or fisherman could want. We also noted that the store has a bar, sells Moon Pies, and a varied collection of barcaloungers for sale scattered around the store. While a hard-core survivalist would find plenty here for a long sojourn in the wilderness, it’s also clear that this retailer peddles survival to the unfit.
Having sated our curiosity (I did weaken enough to buy a flat green Henley t-shirt), we headed back to the parking lot for the drive over to the main complex of Patriot Place. The nearly complete Renaissance Hotel loomed in the distance, as did the new outpatient care facility for the Brigham and Women’s Hospital, a pillar of Boston’s medical establishment.

Our next stop was the Showcase Cinema De Lux, a gargantuan multiplex cinema that represents the Next Big Thing in moviegoing.
These theaters – there are now a dozen in a total of six states – are the multiplex industry's answer Netflix and digital downloads. The lobby of this one (I assume they’re all very similar) has a large open space with a piano, seating, and a food court. There’s a sweeping staircase that leads to a second floor with a complete bar and nightclub-style seating. Our deluxe tickets – we went to an earlier show than planned because the evening show’s premium seats had been sold out – placed us in the balcony of the auditorium in wide leather seats with tray tables. Each seat had a menu, and a button with which to summon a waiter. The cuisine was essentially pub fare – sandwiches, fries and the like, supplemented with popcorn and candy – along with cocktails. The seats costs about $20 apiece, though each came with a $5 food voucher. I used mine for popcorn and had a $5 glass of beer.

The movie we went to see was State of Play, starring Russell Crowe and Rachel McAdams, and is one of two now playing (the other being The Soloist, with Robert Downey Jr. and Jamie Foxx) that tells the story of a newspaper journalist: Hollywood paying homage to a dying profession in the Internet age. I had an uncomfortable sense as I watched that the movie business itself was in a curiously parallel state. Chatting up the manager of the facility before the show, I learned that Showcase is moving away from outside suppliers providing their food and trying to prepare it in-house. In effect, film exhibition is in the process of becoming the tail of a food-and-beverage dog. I’d had my doubts about the economic model of what seemed to be an extravagant enterprise until I realized that these theaters were effectively one-stop recreation for suburban families – or Moms and Dads on a night out and wanting to limit the ticking of the babysitter clock by doing dinner and movie as a package. Popcorn had been introduced into movie theaters as a money-making gimmick during the Great Depression. These restaurants-within-cinemas may simply be an update of the idea – or, like the movies that were once a novelty act at Vaudeville shows, swallow them entirely.

My consciousness of economic distress as a backdrop for leisure pursuit lingered after the movie was over and we headed to dinner at Skipjacks, one of a number of relatively high-end restaurant chains in the outdoor pedestrian mall that forms the heart of Patriot Place. Everything was still gleaming and new – the first section of the project had opened two years ago, the second phase about six months ago – but roughly 20% of the retail space was unoccupied. And in contrast to the deluxe seating at the otherwise empty movie theater, we had no trouble getting a table at 8 p.m. on a Saturday night. Since the financing for this complex was undoubtedly leveraged to the eyeballs (a Fidelity brokerage is housed there was well), this is surely making some people nervous.

But my greatest feeling of unease came when walking to one end of Patriot Place, down where CBS has opened a restaurant/bar -- consumption as fact and metaphor is the order of the day -- with an outdoor Jumbotron broadcasting a Red Sox-Yankees game. The scale of the screen lent new meaning to the phrase "larger than life." Next to this facility was the anchor of the whole project, Gillette Stadium. The stadium, named for a once-local company since absorbed into the Proctor & Gamble empire, dates back to 2002, is also used for New England Revolution soccer games and rock concerts, and is a state-of-the-art facility. But my old college roommate Joe was only half joking when he referred to it as "Circus Maximus."

Part of what makes the analogy to Roman bread and circuses apt is, of course, the imperial overtones of the entire site (the bread isn't free, though the Patriots games are broadcast nationally on CBS). But the fact that something of this scale is located in what is in effect a province of the American empire, not its commercial or governmental metropolis, is what makes the parallel even more striking. Democracy has come to mean equality of retail opportunity: your money is good here whatever your race, class or creed. For all its apparent solidity -- and Patriot Place is nothing if not massive -- this premise may prove shakier than most of us think.

I realize that these mordant reflections may say more about this writer than this location. There may come a time when Patriot Place flourishes exactly the way its era planners envisioned it would; there may well also come a time when it elicits the sense of loyalty and sentiment, even nostalgia, that a Fenway Park or a Fanueil Hall does. But at this moment, anyway, Patriot Place appears to be a monument to a moment whose time has past. I had a good time with my friends. But it was a little weird to visit a place so unwittingly historical on arrival.