The Economist‘s year-end double issue seems to be a catch-all for all the evergreen articles that could find no comfortable place in the magazine’s rigorously formatted weekly structure. It’s comparable in a way to the New York Times Magazine‘s annual year in ideas feature, but far more discursive, almost arbitrary. Among this year’s “Chirstmas specials” (as the table of contents deems them) are articles about Mormons, poker, census-taking, skydiving, Esalen (with some sadly egregious typos in the dek—probably a printer’s error; my heart bleeds for their copy editors) and the sex life of pandas. The two I found most interesting were one about the rise and fall of shopping malls (a photography exhibit prompted me to write about them in the past) and another on the moribund entertainment piers found in coastal resort towns—places in Atlantic City or Santa Monica where you are encouraged to free yourselves of ordinary constraints and waste money on cheap distractions (my favorite is Skee-ball) and synthetic candy and the like.
Why commercialize piers? Not necessarily for their natural beauty, though that can be impressive—I like staring out into the awesome nothingness, the endless horizon, as much as anyone. It’s seductive on several levels, as piers strain and stretch to extend those horizons for us, even if it’s for only a few feet. But as with malls and casinos, piers are disorienting places, making them ideal for separating people from their money. According to the article, pier owners turned away from a strategy of exclusivity to instead cater to ordinary people, believing that they “could profit instead from the mob’s adventurousness: that sense of being in limbo, neither on sea nor on land, suspended in a state of fantasy.”
Because piers are classic liminal spaces—suspended between land and sea, breeching a conceptual boundary immutable categories—the article suggests this creates an opportunity for a “sense of self-discovery” but it is also a place where you know you have reached the end of the line—hence the frequency with which people attempt suicide from them. If one doesn’t opt for that direction, it can be reassuring to know that at that point, there is no other direction to go in but the way back. Retracing the same ground can be tedious, or a kind of tacit admission of defeat, but not at the end of a pier. Then, I accept that there is no shame in going back from where I came.