The economic horrorscape: Zombie banks, ghost cities and retail crypts


If headlines about the recession look scary, look around: There’s an emerging economic horrorscape across the land, a twilit scene of zombie banks, retail crypts and ghost cities that’s seeming less otherworldly and more familiar by the day.

Zombie banks” are financial institutions that take bailout cash from the government but don’t loan it out again. They aren’t really alive, having inflicted fatal injuries to themselves, but they refuse to die. “Zombie banks eat the fabric of the economy,” analyst Andy Kessler tells National Public Radio. “You gotta shoot ‘em, you gotta get rid of ‘em, cut their heads off, put the silver bullet through their heart and get some healthy banks.” (Hat tip: TCDailyPlanet.)

“Ghost cities” are the emptying urban centers hit hardest by the downturn. Forbes first pictured these places in a prophetic pictorial from 2007, “Ghost Cities of 2100” — cities that could go from vibrant to vacant within a century.

But that dystopic vision now seems to be arriving sooner than expected. Last week Forbes showcased “America’s Emptiest Cities” — places like Las Vegas, Detroit and Atlanta. They are among the population centers suffering the most from industrial decline, the housing bust or both, according to new census data on rental and commercial vacancy rates.

One increasingly common sign of the emptiness that’s haunting cities and suburbs alike is the abandoned big box store. These retail crypts pockmark locales that used to be lively, such as formerly lucrative highway crossroads.

An auto dealership employee told me today he had his eye on an empty Levitz furniture store in suburban St. Paul that could make a mongo car repair garage — if that industry weren’t sick beyond what even a car czar can do. Dan Haugen at MinnPost has studied signs that former Circuit City stores could come back to life as outlets for Best Buy.

And James Lileks — the Star Tribune columnist (by day) whose position has in zombielike fashion proven suspiciously resistant to batterings by rounds of buyouts, layoffs and re-orgs that were fatal to others — sighted a sign at a shuttered Mervyn’s store that suggested to him that production of Soylent Green may be a local growth industry.

Like horror movies, the frightening signs of economic collapse seem to inspire cults that track every grisly demise. A local example is the retail crypt-tracker is the Dumpy Strip Malls blog, where emptiness, abandonment and demolition are just a marginal Dollar Store away. (Hat tip: The Deets)