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Both of my parents lived through the Great Depression, but experienced its effects to varying degrees. My father, a New Yorker, went off to college in the heat of the financial storm and was far too busy meeting girls and attending class (in that order, I’m told) to worry about a worldwide downturn.

My mother, however, felt every painful moment of the meltdown. Just 8 years old in 1933, she watched helplessly as her father lost the family farm. She and her three older brothers went to work in the Louisiana crop fields, picking cotton for pay and eating biscuits and gravy twice a day.

My family’s story isn’t unique. Huge numbers of us boomers were born to Great Depression alumnae, and we were raised on our parents’ post-Depression teachings: Spend less than you make, pay cash for your purchases, clean your plate because you don’t know when the next meal may come.

I don’t know about you, but I don’t think I was listening. Except for the clean-your-plate rule, my parents’ economic lessons went in one ear and out the other. I got my first credit card on the day I graduated from college and broke it in with zeal. I bought my first “grown-up” stereo system from Curtis Mathes—and financed it at 36% interest. I charged my first child on MasterCard.

That was then. In mid-2008, when the “r” word had made the front pages of the newspaper four days straight, I found myself revisiting Mom and Dad’s teachings and questioning if what my parents and grandparents learned in 1933 is relevant to and practicable in 2009.

Obviously, the answer has to be yes, but the application won’t be easy. Just look at what is happening in the shopping center development world. General Growth is teetering on the brink of bankruptcy (at presstime, it was still questionable whether or not the country’s second-largest mall owner would be able to repay staggering amounts of debt coming due this year, and Fitch Ratings predicted default was imminent). Other developers are scrambling to avoid GGP’s probable fate and searching for opportunities to divest properties. But, Ram Realty CEO Dennis Gershenson spoke for all developers when he said in his company’s third-quarter conference call that the market for asset sales is “very slow.” And Dave Henry, vice chairman and CEO of Kimco Realty, said in his company’s 3Q conference call, “Nobody wants to catch a falling knife. As long as cap rates keep rising, there is a great deal of nervousness. Nobody can pick a bottom, and they’d rather invest on the way up than invest on the way down. There is a huge degree of caution from pension funds, insurance companies and others about investing today in a substantial way.”

2009 will be, at the very least, a challenging year in real estate. Experts say we haven’t reached the bottom of the housing crisis, and more retail—both landlord and tenant—bankruptcies lie ahead. The retail and shopping center companies that survive will likely do so by reining in new development, paying down debt and building the coffers. Developers say they will limit exposure by phasing development; both landlords and their retail tenants say they will have to move cautiously and pragmatically with all eyes trained on the bottom line.

In other words, by taking a page out of our parents’ books and spending less than we make and paying cash for our purchases, we just might make it out the other side.

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