Wednesday, March 21, 2007

"Hi, welcome to Wal-Mart . . ."

"Eighty percent of everything ever built in America has been built in the last 50 years, and most of it is depressing, brutal, ugly, unhealthy and spiritually degrading: the jive-plastic commuter tract home wastelands, the Potemkin village shopping plazas with their vast parking lagoons, the Lego-block hotel complexes, the 'gourmet mansardic' junk-food joints, the Orwellian office 'parks' featuring buildings sheathed in the same reflective glass as the sunglasses worn by chain-gang guards, the particle-board garden apartments rising up in every meadow and cornfield, the freeway loops around every big and little city with their clusters of discount merchandise marts, the whole destructive, wasteful, toxic, agoraphobia-inducing spectacle that politicians proudly call 'growth.' "

For me, James Howard Kunstler's description of sprawl in the groundbreaking Geography of Nowhere, resonates as a Genesis-like "In the beginning . . ." in the canon of "New Urbanism" scholarship. Sure, there are volumes of scholarly tomes that address the effects of sprawl and its satellite issues. Kunstler, however, makes the issue accessible, in a journalistic idiom that the average reader understands.

I bring this up because I'm actually quite torn, in an ethical sense, over the propriety of shopping at Wal-Mart. Living in New York City, I don't have regular access to a Wal-Mart; instead, I shop at it's upscale cousin, Target. Still, whenever I visit family in the Connecticut or Virginia suburbs, I'm pulled by the siren song of low prices, wide aisles, and friendly geriatric "greeters" to beach my car on the shore of a Wal-Mart "parking lagoon" and enjoy the bounty of a network of Asian factories. Indeed, having a family with small children, one finds it difficult to say no to this corporate juggernaut.

Given the declining buying power of middle class Americans, it's easy to understand the allure of Wal-Mart, Sam's Club and similar retail outlets. Just read Barbara Ehrenreich's Nickle and Dimed or Bait and Switch to understand the plight of the nation's "working poor." For a growing underclass of Americans priced out of the market for decent housing and health insurance, Wal-Marts represent a critical element in a consumer puzzle that is missing several pieces. Living in East Tennessee for ten years I saw first-hand how important Wal-Mart could be to an economically marginal segment of the populace. Still, I'm worried that the intrinsic cost of Wal-Mart and other "big box" retailers - from the standpoint of both macro-economic issues and the average consumer - will be too high.

Obviously the typical consumer is going to ask how shopping at Wal-Mart could be a bad thing. Yet as several documentaries reveal, welcoming Wal-Mart into a community is a two-edged sword. (See, for example, the excellent PBS documentary, STORE WARS: WHEN WAL-MART COMES TO TOWN, which examines the impact of "big-box" stores on small town America.) Beneath the attractive veneer of low prices lurks a host of problems that Wal-Mart and its peer institutions would prefer we ignore. As one of the largest employers in the U.S., Wal-Mart has compiled a horrendous record in hiring practices, fair wages and the availability of health insurance, and labor organization. And because of its size and economic clout, Wal-Mart, in sync with the fast food industry, maintains a heavy hand on wage levels, spending millions each year lobbying Washington against increasing the minimum wage.

In addition, the arrival of Wal-Mart in small to medium-sized communities nearly always hastens the decline and eventual death of downtown commercial zones. Pro-Wal-Mart activists insist that bringing a store to their community will boost tax revenues. But in many municipalities, the property tax breaks offered to entice Wal-Mart frequently offset the sales tax revenues for some time thereafter. And, communities usually end up spending enormous sums to upgrade their transportation and utility infrastructures to accommodate the increased traffic these retailers generate. One can even look at the bigger picture - sprawl and its impact - and argue that Wal-Mart, as a natural byproduct of our autocentric culture, contributes to the expanding environmental disaster wrought by fossil fuel dependence. This doesn't even take into account the ways in which large-scale retailers contribute to the paving of millions of acres of farmland and wetlands each year. Extrapolate from there to the use of cheap labor in Asian factories using largely coal-fed electric power, and one quickly encounters the true size and cost of the Wal-Mart behemoth.

When I start to weigh these factors, I feel less inclined to steer my car onto that newly-constructed service road and shop at the Wal-Mart/Sam's Club "supercenter." As a resident of Wal-Mart-free New York City, I'm more accustomed to shopping in my neighborhood stores and developing that personal rapport with shopkeepers that seems reminiscent of the old small town retail experience. Expanding on his anti-sprawl argument in an Atlantic Monthly article, Kunstler adds: "Americans sense that something is wrong with the places where we live and work and go about our daily business. We drive up and down the gruesome, tragic, suburban boulevards of commerce, and we're overwhelmed at the fantastic, awesome, stupefying ugliness of everything in sight."

Yet it's more complex than economics and aesthetics; "it goes to the heart of our notions of citizenship, of community, [and] of public morality." Cut the heart from our communities and we are reduced to insular groups of suburb dwellers converging on malls as a substitute for public space. (This issue is too large to address here. A number of scholars, however, have analyzed the ways in which the destruction of the concept of "downtown" has changed the definition of "public space" and the ways in which we define community.) What we're ending up with is a homogenized America, in which community distinctiveness is erased. Driving the American landscape a few years from now, one may not be able to tell the difference between driving in New Jersey and driving in Iowa or Georgia or California. Perhaps it's just me, but I find that a sad development.

1 comment:

Tom Glendening said...

So true. Oddly, a positive side of a serious energy crisis or increased carbon taxes due to climate change regulations (both raising the price of petrol), is that the small downtowns will have an improved cost position vis a vis Walmart and the others.

In the meantime, urbanists for just about every sized city (except NYC) need to find other creative economic engines to keep people going and spending and supporting downtowns.