North Randall mall that is located close to where I live was at one time the largest mall in the country and its opening was a celebrity-studded event. But like many malls that do not cater to high-end customers, it has fallen on hard times and became a ghost mall with all the stores moving away. So the impoverished city of North Randall was delighted when Amazon announced its intention to lease the property, raze the largely abandoned mall, and put up one of its giant ‘fulfillment centers’ that would reportedly bring in 2,000 jobs.
Construction has been brisk. At the moment it looks like a massive, windowless, grey concrete fortress, only lacking a barbed wire fence and towers to complete the look of a maximum-security prison. It looks nothing at all like the artist’s rendering that had been presented earlier, as shown on the right. I don’t know if aesthetic touches will be added at the end to make it look less forbidding.
Although the name of ‘fulfillment centers’ triggers warm fuzzy thoughts of people mediating to soft music and incense as they seek to get in touch with their inner selves, this is really a warehouse to fill orders and the work can be hard and take a physical toll. And if past practice is any indication, many of the workers will be retirees who travel around the country in RVs and campers to wherever there are jobs. They are the retail equivalent of seasonal farm workers and Amazon has been depending on them for a decade.
Jessica Bruder wrote a long article about this for Harper’s magazine that I wrote about over three years ago. She has since expanded it into a book and now Field_Of_Vision has produced a short documentary CamperForce about the people who work at these places and what the work is like. Some of them are retirees whose savings got wiped out by the financial crisis of 2008. They were forced to sell their homes or had them foreclosed and now live in their campers as they move across the country to find work. In the last couple of years, they are being joined by an influx of young people who are finding it hard to get jobs.
You can see the 16-minutes documentary in full.