The nice lady who runs the little Radio Shack in Jena, Louisiana, turned suddenly acid. "You're from London?" she said, out of the blue. "What about your damned congestion charge - it cost me $160, and that's a hell of a lot of money." Indeed it is, especially in Jena, where spare dollars seem in rather short supply. And all, it turned out, because - visiting a son in Lewisham - she'd strayed into Mayor Ken's sacred central zone for four minutes without quite realizing the gravity of the offence. Pay to drive into the city? Sacrilege.
And here I am today, 1,600 miles north of Louisiana, in the world's greatest (or, at least, biggest) temple to the motor car: the mighty Mall of America in Bloomington, Minnesota. Twelve years old this week, 400-plus shops, stores and restaurants clustered three floors high (around a full-scale Camp Snoopy funfair) in a hulk of a building which seems like an aircraft carrier plonked in a sea of Dodges and Buicks.
Its owners aren't satisfied yet. They have plans to more than double their monster mall - to 9m sq ft. They dream of "realizing our original vision as the eighth wonder of the world". They strive still to create the ultimate cathedral of capitalism, the most conspicuous home of conspicuous consumption. But, symbolically, it is also becoming much more than that.
Almost everywhere you go in America these days, the cities are struggling for life. They have their astonishing glories, to be sure. The Guardian's architecture critic, Jonathan Glancey, is dead right, for instance, about the new Nasher sculpture gallery in Dallas, a cool astonishment of architectural wizardry. But once the galleries and skyscrapers and refurbished warehouses are put to one side, what have you got in downtown Dallas on a hot Saturday morning? Sweet nothing. It feels like the scene of a chemical attack. This is where Neiman Marcus opened its first department store - a flagship that somehow survives - yet it can only be kept going as soft-hearted obeisance to corporate history. Ten-thirty in the morning and nobody's home.
You could, for that matter, equally be in downtown Atlanta, downtown Los Angeles (if you can find it) or much of downtown Buffalo. Downtowns are mostly down and out. Some cities make gallant attempts at resuscitation. Memphis has piled blues nostalgia and resources into a few blocks around Beale Street. St Louis has its soaring arch and parks. Minneapolis is knocking down its "old" (1960s) Guthrie Theatre and building a three-stage replacement.
But still, most of the time in most places, America's cities tick over minus a heart. Their centers are where people used to live before the migration to the suburbs. They are anxious office blocks enclosed in concentric circles of crumbling concrete and desolation. Battling mayors do their best. The city fathers in St Paul pay the local bookshop to keep its doors open. Minneapolis paid to get the old Federal Reserve building wonderfully refurbished, failed to let it commercially, and is now putting the municipal library in there (the library itself is being rebuilt from scratch). Keep pumping, keep striving.
If the big cities are struggle zones, though, many smaller places - towns of 20,000 or more - have given up the ghost. Their main streets are often decaying memories, boarded store fronts, empty factories, clapboard houses left to rot. Their life depends on the strips and malls outside town. They aren't communities in any true sense, but isolated economic groupings defined by where they shop, where they worship and what car they drive.
Does it matter how we organize our patterns of relationship? It matters hugely. America isn't the only sufferer from urban blight and mall mange, of course. Liverpool caught the same sickness 20 years ago. Manchester increasingly turns away from Deansgate and heads for the Trafford Center. Milton Keynes is the mall reincarnated as ersatz township. Anyone for a slog round the M25 and coffee latte at Lakeside? The tide only flows one way. Cities are under siege.
Yet the city, coolly considered, is the seminal achievement of mankind. It is inter-reaction, fusion, ambition and energy. It is our history and our future. It is individual effort pooled for the greater good. It is what we are. It defines us. It is London and Paris and New York. But it is also Barcelona, restlessly expanding, dreaming ever bigger dreams. It is Berlin, reunited and, miraculously, transforming itself into a capital that takes your breath away. It is Prague and Budapest, shaking off the grime of communism and blossoming in a single decade. It is Athens, summoning up the will and the blood to succeed.
Art doesn't grow in the suburbs or in motorway service stations. Humanity dies in a parking lot. The damnable, dreary thing about this Mall of America, this eighth wonder of the retailing world, is that it is just more of the same: the same chains, the same sales, the same goods, services and have-a-nice-days. Nine million prospective reasons for stultification. Malls run on mediocrity and muzak. Only cities make a difference.
It's on such a difference - for all our economic gloom - that Europe is ahead of the race. From Warsaw to Ljubljana, Europe crackles with excitement while America moans about gas prices.
Maybe it can't escape its fate, the curse of neon sprawl and identikit strips. Maybe we're all fated to slide that way, too - making my Louisiana lady still more unhappy as congestion charges drain people and prosperity out of our city hearts. No easy answers. But at least let us realize what we're doing - and risking. This is the way man has lived and grown through millennia, this is our hope, our essential way and our most profound test. It's that, or Camp Snoopy.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2004