10/17/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Empty Is as Empty Does

I recently attended the funeral of a friend's father. The gathering was sad but I was not so overcome with grief that I was unable to observe and absorb all the surrounding sights on the long drive to and from the cemetery.

Towards the mid-way point of the 45 minute drive begins a formerly rural part of Long Island where many bountiful farm stands used to flourish. Now I spotted very few, as the land that had produced the harvests was sold during past abundant years to home builders and commercial developers. What currently sprouted acre after acre on fairly fallow plots was a crop without need for pest control or plowing, a crop sown by the hands of real estate agents and management companies: signs proclaiming FOR SALE!, FOR RENT!, and FOR LEASE!

Street after street, the scenery changed but the play remained the same. Here a shopping center, there an office building, and across the way a planned condo community. I drove by completely undeveloped plots with faded or broken billboards still pledging WILL BUILD TO SUIT! Various free standing buildings, devoid of activity, had fraying posters proclaiming what was COMING SOON! Countless other structures had submitted to reality, revealing boarded up windows or missing panes. Most plentiful were the strip shopping centers whose storefronts were alternately adorned with signs begging for bargain-hunting customers or pleading for incentive-seeking tenants.

Foot traffic in formerly popular malls has become sparse, area foreclosures are proliferating, and the ranks of the local unemployed are swelling, so I, ever concerned about our local economy, started to brood over how many more businesses will close before the real bottom is reached. I considered how long barren buildings might stand free of paying occupants, and mulled over whether the spending habits of those who survive this depressing recession will unalterably change. If saving up for the next rainy day eventually becomes de rigueur, will a nail salon, dry cleaner, pizzeria, bagel store and coffee cafe be essential in each and every suburban shopping center? If those with discretionary funds flash back to infertile days, will they forsake free spending in years to come and instead engage only in thoughtful expenditures? If so, we may never see a time when fully filled shops, dependent on dollars being forked over without deliberation, again line our thoroughfares.

After the funeral concluded, I mused about who will be moving into the numerous houses I passed that were partially built or semi-trashed. As local developers default and distant mortgage holders recover land that once yielded copious crops, will whatever construction is cultivated in the future nurture those now denied affordable homes? Without occupied dwellings, there'll be no customers, and without thriving businesses, there'll be no need for additional lodgings.

My deliberations ended as my driveway was reached, but there was no escape from the empty ache in my heart. Sure, I was sorry for the hole in my friend's life left after her father passed, but mostly I felt genuine grief after glimpsing once thriving environs expanding into emptiness.