Jack Nadel. Hard Times. Charles Dickens. Companies We Keep. John Abrams. Beyond The Bottom Line. Joel Makower. The Wisdom of Crowds. James Surowiecki. Jagdish N. Big Brown. Greg Niemann. Big Data in Practice. Bernard Marr. The 18 Immutable Laws of Corporate Reputation. Ronald J. Michelle Baddeley. Leadership, Mission, and Governance. Cinnamon Catlin-Legutko. Youtility for Real Estate. Jay Baer. Business Improvement Districts. Lawrence O. Houstoun Jr. Youtility for Accountants. Start-Up City. Gabe Klein.
Max Sutherland. America, the Owner's Manual. Senator Bob Graham. The Secrets Of The Wealthy. Bev F. Second Edition. Dennis F. Sweat Equity. Jason Kelly. The Great American Jobs Scam. Greg LeRoy. Globalization and Everyday Life. Larry Ray. Small Town Economic Development. Joaquin Jay Gonzalez. Empire of Things. Frank Trentmann. The Guide to Greening Cities. Sadhu Aufochs Johnston. The Oxford Handbook of Human Capital. Alan Burton-Jones. Designing the City. Adele Fleet Bacow. Tom Ealey. Saving America's Cities. David H. Lectures on Behavioral Macroeconomics. Paul De Grauwe. Smart Communities.
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Choose Store. He used to sell directly to supermarkets, working with store buyers who were deeply knowledgeable about fruit and built long-term relationships with farmers like Buxman. But as the supermarkets consolidated and became part of larger regional and national chains, they ended their direct buying from farmers and hired third-party brokers to source their inventory. You might have to end up caring about something other than the bottom line.
This distance enables brokers to drive a brutal bargain, demanding cutthroat prices and truckloads of identically sized fruit—the kind of perfectlooking but tasteless output that only industrial farms can supply. Buxman nearly lost his farm trying. Many of his fellow fruit growers did. He stopped selling to brokers for the big chains and went in search of independent grocers. Now Buxman is back to having relationships with buyers.
When I need help, they help me. When they need help, I help them. The stakes are high. The only alternative was to relinquish shelf space at the two megachains, both of which were turning more and more to lower-priced brands—including their own. In Levi Strauss made 90 percent of its jeans in the United States. But plummeting sales in the late s convinced the company that it had to start producing jeans cheap enough to sell to Wal-Mart and Target. Companies that produce everything from toys to toasters have done the same thing. Best Buy opened one in Shanghai, from which it oversees factories producing its Insignia line of television sets and DVD players.
Wal-Mart not only has its global sourcing headquarters in the fast-growing Chinese city of Shenzhen—from which the chain negotiates with factories to produce its own lines of clothing, consumer electronics, and other products—but in it convened its annual board meeting there. But hundreds of small and midsize companies that used to produce parts for bigger manufacturers lack this mobility. Pa-Ted Springs Co. As a small, family-owned company, following appliance makers to the other side of the globe is not an option.
Since , U. According to surveys conducted by the U. Of those who did land jobs, most took a pay cut, with one in four reporting a drop in earnings of 30 percent or more. It has also left a sizable pool of displaced workers desperate for jobs, as well as plenty of vacant urban industrial sites suitable for building big suburban-style boxes. Nor are cities that have undergone major plant closures likely to turn down a new superstore.
Bangladesh exports over million garments a year to the United States, nearly a third of which end up in Wal-Mart stores. China has laws setting a minimum wage and limiting hours of work, but they are, for the most part, not enforced—although laws that prohibit workers from forming independent trade unions are. Since , wages for garment workers in Bangladesh have fallen 8 percent, while the cost of living has risen 18 percent. Workers producing consumer goods have little chance of improving their wages, because, like U.
Virtually all of the production went to China. But even Chinese workers are vulnerable. They own none of these factories and instead have short-term contracts with them or buy through manufacturers that do. But it seems in many cases that the big chains go out of their way to ensure that violations are hidden from their view. Lynn claims in a lawsuit pending against the company that he was let go because he actually believed that Wal-Mart wanted him to monitor and correct abusive working conditions.
They portray their global sourcing practices as bargain hunting on our behalf. Their only option is to lower costs: thus the extortion of workers abroad. For us this is not some abstract exercise in increasing the bottom line. Paul, Minnesota, likewise decided to forgo selling to chains like Target. Beka has no interest in moving production to China, Kreisman said, explaining that such an action would eliminate the two aspects of the 56 BIG-BOX SWINDLE business they most love: working with wood and the relationships they have with their suppliers, employees, and customers. You contract out for the packaging and distribution.
Then you get a bill. How good are these jobs? John Turner started working nights at the local Wal-Mart store in his hometown in Oregon in early He was young—twenty-two— and had a wife and two small children to support. There were few options; manufacturing and timber-industry jobs had disappeared in the s and s. His job at Wal-Mart was to restock the shelves on the overnight shift. His family relied instead on the Oregon Health Plan, a state health insurance program for low-income families. He would come down to the store at night sometimes to help the restocking crew.
But not long after Turner started, WalMart forced the manager into retirement because, as Turner was told by a lower-level manager, he was not doing enough to hold down costs. The new store manager was much more aggressive. He would get a poor review and end up with little or no raise. After two years, Turner was making nine dollars an hour, with occasional bonuses consisting of a coupon for a free can of soda.
Several times he picked up his paycheck and found it was short quite a bit of money. Turner was a diligent employee. There were several people like me. Trying to support a family on less than nineteen thousand dollars a year became virtually impossible—an endless series of hard choices between food and health care, electricity and rent. Eventually the stress undermined his marriage. Turner and his wife divorced. In August he was looking for work and had been unemployed for several months. Retail has long been one of the lowest-paying occupations in the economy.
But the rise of corporate chains and the enormous downward pressure they exert on labor costs has further constrained wage growth for those at the bottom. Between and , as the top chains expanded exponentially, wage gains for retail workers lagged those of nonretail workers by 14 percent, according to data from the U. Bureau of Economic Analysis. That is, had wages for retail workers simply kept pace with the rest of the workforce, they would have been 14 percent higher by than they actually were. To make matters worse, in many communities the loss of manufacturing has left people more dependent than ever on retail jobs.
A rare exception occurred when Wal-Mart was required to release payroll data as part of a class-action sexdiscrimination lawsuit. The average across all workers—including part-time employees and those who have been at Wal-Mart less than a year—is probably quite a bit lower. In the Minneapolis—St.
But there are relatively few managers in a big-box store compared with the vast number of lower-level employees. Evidence also suggests that not all workers have equal access to the management track. Costco and Wal-Mart are facing national class-action sexdiscrimination lawsuits. Denise Mott started working at Wal-Mart in and was not only repeatedly denied access to management training while male coworkers advanced but, in , after a decade on the job, she was making just nine dollars an hour.
Paul, Minnesota. Of those who are eligible, about one-third do not enroll, in many cases because of the high out-of-pocket cost. One is Costco, a descendent of Price Club, founded in the s by Sol Price, whose father was a coal miner and who, in his entrepreneurial youth, read the Daily Worker more than the Wall Street Journal. At Costco, wages average seventeen dollars an hour, turnover is low, and workers pay only 8 percent of their health insurance costs.
It varies by region; the UFCW has a strong presence at supermarkets in some states, but not others. But they are losing ground as the supermarkets look to replicate the labor practices of big-box stores, like Target and WalMart, that are rapidly expanding into groceries. The two megachains are now an invisible third-party presence in every contract negotiation with supermarkets, according to Bernie Hesse, an organizer with UFCW Local in St.
Normal turnover will result in most of the workforce being in the lower tier in a matter of years. Turner, the Wal-Mart employee in Oregon, is not alone in reporting hours deleted from his paychecks. Dozens of lawsuits have been brought against mega-retailers in the last few years. In a case against Home Depot in New York, former bookkeeper Dora Hernandez said her management ordered her to alter computer payroll records to show that employees had taken unpaid breaks when they had not. Target Corp.
Similar cases are pending against Wal-Mart in about thirty other states. Lawabiding businesses, which pay their employees fairly, are at a competitive disadvantage. But any lack of awareness on the part of corporate headquarters is only because they have chosen to look the other way; after all, these companies maintain precise control over sales and inventory at every store.
BIG-BOX SWINDLE--The True Cost of Mega-Retailers and the Fight for America's Independent Businesses
It is hard to believe that Wal-Mart, which controls the thermostats and lights of all of its U. Having spent years working their way up the ladder, putting in sixty to eighty hours a week, store managers are understandably eager to hold on to what they have achieved. Federal law does little to deter such unionbusting tactics. Breaking the law ends up being less costly than the wage increases a union might obtain. But they lack the massive market power that Wal-Mart and other top chains have used to unilaterally drive wages in the retail sector lower.
Meanwhile, a number of small-business owners championed the increase, which ultimately passed. Jim Amaral, owner of Borealis Breads, a retail bakery in Portland, Maine, pays all of his employees a living wage with health insurance. Many say that this makes their businesses stronger, but most are also motivated by a conviction that employees deserve to make at least a basic living.
While Costco must forever justify its labor policies, local owners do not have to answer to the stock market; they can and do have motivations beyond the bottom line. Unable to meet even basic expenses, many employees of chain retailers and restaurants rely heavily on public-assistance programs, including food stamps, subsidized housing, and health insurance plans like Medicaid. In Arkansas, nearly four thousand Wal-Mart employees and twelve hundred Target employees rely on Medicaid or food stamps.
Focused on only one side of the equation—growing the tax base—many cities have lost sight of the fact that development also creates costs. These costs are quite high in the case of sprawling big-box stores—so high that they can reduce the tax gains to a negligible trickle or even result in a net loss for the city. As downtowns and older shopping centers lose sales, they also decline in value and ultimately produce less tax revenue. This is because consumers have only so much to spend; sales gains in one location are mirrored by losses elsewhere.
Some cities may become tax winners by playing host to a new shopping center that siphons customers from stores in nearby cities. Some evidence suggests that big-box stores may not even produce a temporary revenue bounce. The more spread out and auto-intensive the development, the more costly it tends to be. Indeed, many land-use experts blame sprawl for much of the rise in the cost of local government. Sprawling megastores are not. As these giants take over more of the economy, the public cost of retail is growing. Although there have been no large studies of this, there are noteworthy case studies.
Downtown and neighborhood business districts are scaled for pedestrians and often situated within walking distance of surrounding homes and apartments, while big-box stores, strip shopping centers, and fast-food outlets are designed and located in areas that encourage and even necessitate driving. As consumers drive more, they create more wear and tear on roads and more work for public works departments. Chellman applied standard suburban trip-generation rates to downtown Portsmouth, New Hampshire, and found that the busy town center was generating half as many car trips as one would expect from the same amount of retail space in a suburban shopping format.
But some big-box stores also generate an exceptionally large volume of police calls for crimes like shoplifting and check fraud. Many cities are unprepared for this. Since the mids, the small town of Pineville, North Carolina, has attracted some 6 million square feet of new retail, including a major shopping mall, big-box stores, chain restaurants, and gas stations.
Big cities are also reporting problems. The answer lies partly in strict chain store policies that mandate prosecuting bad checks and suspected shoplifting violations to the fullest extent of the law. While a downtown merchant who catches someone trying to walk out with an inexpensive item might let him or her go with a warning never to come back, at a big chain the police are automatically brought in.
Big-box stores, especially those that are open twentyfour hours and situated along a highway, also seem to be more attractive targets for criminals. Such was the case in Barnstable. These stores not only required less in services, but they generated more revenue than the big boxes, because they occupied nicer buildings with higher property values. Whether a big-box store will be a net loss or gain for a particular city depends on its tax structure and what services it has to provide.
The same is true for cities that depend on local income taxes, as communities in Ohio do. Case studies in Dublin, Delaware, and other Ohio cities have found retail development to be a net drain, because its low-wage jobs produce little revenue relative to its high public costs. And they are working more for it too. Middle-income couples with kids are putting in four hundred hours a year more on the job than they did in Problems once reserved for the poor—lack of health insurance, bankruptcy, and long-term unemployment—are becoming increasingly common among the middle class.
Meanwhile the richest 20 percent saw their share rise from 43 to 48 percent. Nor does the future hold much hope. In all but two of the states, the jobs being created today pay less than those being lost. In New Hampshire, new jobs pay 35 percent less. In West Virginia, they pay 33 percent less. They also cite the loss of social capital that occurs when locally owned businesses fail, rendering a community less capable of tackling complex problems like poverty and of nurturing highquality economic development.
This dependency carries risks. When the small town of Saukville, Wisconsin, undertook a townwide property reassessment in , almost every homeowner and business saw their tax bills go up. Trading this for one or two big boxes is the equivalent of growing a monocrop that can be wiped out by a single pest.
Corporate retailers are notoriously footloose. The small farming community of Bunkie, Louisiana, went through much the same thing when WalMart came in, forced twenty local stores to close, and then left to build a supercenter twenty miles away. In an increasingly sprawl-ridden and homogeneous landscape, communities that have preserved their unique identity and the vitality of their commercial centers have a rare advantage.
Research has found that vibrant and distinctive downtowns, open space, walkable neighborhoods and commercial districts, and natural amenities are important factors in many business-location decisions. Department of Agriculture, embarked on a remarkable study of two farming communities in the fertile San Joaquin Valley of California.
The two towns, Arvin and Dinuba, had much in common. They were the same size, possessed the same rich soil and balmy climate, and produced an identical volume of agricultural crops. Both were about the same distance from major cities, and they were similarly served by highways and railroads. Both relied primarily on agriculture; neither had large factories or other sources of income.
Not only was the median income higher in Dinuba, but there was less income inequality as compared with Arvin. That is, extremes of poverty and wealth were less common. More people belonged to the broad middle class and more of those employed in Dinuba controlled their own livelihoods, working either as farmers, small-business owners, or independent professionals. Goldschmidt also found that Dinuba possessed far superior community infrastructure.
While Dinuba maintained four elementary schools and one high school, Arvin had but one elementary school and no high school. Dinuba had more than twice the number of civic and social organizations as Arvin. They exercised a greater degree of local democratic authority than their counterparts in Arvin, which lacked structures for political participation and had largely surrendered decision-making to county bureaucrats.
At about the same time that Goldschmidt was working in California, two other sociologists—C. Wright Mills and Melville J. Ulmer—were undertaking a similar study of three pairs of manufacturing communities in the Northeast and Midwest. Like Goldschmidt, they chose pairs that were similar in virtually every respect—population, climate, distance to major urban centers, and so on. All had manufacturing economies and none was the site of a state capitol or major public institution.
They also had a history of greater economic stability. While all of the cities were subject to downturns in the business cycle, the troughs for the small-business cities were not as deep. Mills and Ulmer found, just as Goldschmidt had, that the income gap was not as wide in the small-business cities and that a larger share of residents belonged to the middle class. The small-business cities had a greater rate of home ownership and more of their homes were served by electricity and telephones.
These communities also maintained more robust parks, libraries, and public schools, devoted more resources to public health, and reported much lower levels of infant mortality than their big-business counterparts. What Mills and Ulmer and Goldschmidt had demonstrated with these studies is that ownership matters. Communities that possess a degree of economic self-reliance more competently care for themselves, while concentrated economic power threatens civic participation and democracy.
Indeed, both studies were commissioned by federal agencies for the very purpose of informing policymaking at a time of growing corporate consolidation.
But in fact the studies were ignored and even actively suppressed. Hearings were held, but that was all that came of their work. In the following decades, a wide range of government policies would work to facilitate and promote the concentration of capital and the rise of big industry. His research came at a time when the federal government, under intense pressure from agribusiness giants, was weighing whether to lift a policy that supported small-scale agriculture by limiting access to public irrigation to farms of acres or less. Department of Agriculture. While the acre limit was never formally lifted, the federal government essentially stopped enforcing it and massive farms came to dominate much of the arid West.
Fortunately, a handful of sociologists are. After a colleague gave him a copy of the Mills and Ulmer study, Dr. Thomas Lyson of Cornell University started designing large-scale statistical studies that would test the relationship between small businesses and social welfare. He found that the big-business counties had greater income inequality, lower housing standards, more low-birth-weight babies an indicator of overall health , more worker disability, lower educational outcomes, and higher crime rates.
The smallbusiness counties not only scored better on all of these social welfare measures, but their residents belonged to more civic organizations and voted more often. They found that counties that are home to a large number of these local enterprises and institutions generally have higher median incomes, less income inequality, and lower unemployment. Poverty, crime, and infant mortality are all lower in local-retail states than in those with a greater share of chain stores.
The local-retail states scored higher on an index of social capital developed by Robert Putnam, author of the seminal book Bowling Alone: The Collapse and Revival of American Community and a professor of public policy at Harvard. The index measures the strength of local social networks and the degree to which people are involved in the community it includes, for example, how often people volunteer and attend city council or school board meetings, and whether they belong to a neighborhood group or social club.
How is it that locally owned businesses strengthen community life and democracy? Relationships with customers, suppliers, and employees are face-to-face. They are personal and often multifaceted: a customer is also a neighbor; an employee, the mother of a child who goes to the same school as your child; a supplier, a fellow member of a city committee. These community roots and personal connections influence business decisions, which often reflect a broader range of concerns than simply maximizing the bottom line. Local ownership serves to narrow the distance between those who make the decisions and those who feel the impact.
He pointed to another town where, during recessions, a local gas station owner switched from self-service to full-service and hired ten more people to work the pumps. Although he had to charge more, most of his customers continued to buy gas at his station, because they understood what he was up to.
Indeed, climbing the store management ladder at a big-box retail chain often means relocating every year or two as job opportunities arise at other outlets. As we have seen, any sort of camaraderie with store employees or suppliers, or concern for their needs, is frowned upon and can result in termination. Corporate managers derive much of their social status and sense of worth from their position and accomplishments within the company. Unlike larger corporations, which are focused on how to operate and compete in a global market, the fortunes of independent business owners are very much tied to the prosperity and future prospects of their communities.
Local merchants derive much of their social standing from their accomplishments within the community; they win recognition and status from such things as taking the lead in addressing a local problem, organizing a fund-raiser for a local cause, or restoring a landmark downtown commercial building to its full glory. Jacobs describes the activities of one public character in her own New York City neighborhood: One ordinary morning last winter, Mr. Although each of these tasks is rather trivial on its own, the sum of their value to the community is not. Most of these tasks could not be formalized, nor feasibly carried out by a chain.
They would have to develop policies. Local retailers help to sustain a network of informal relationships that nurture community. For one, they enable people to have a wide range of casual acquaintances. While people are selective in choosing their intimate friends, they are much less so with casual sidewalk acquaintances. So, in places that nurture informal interaction, residents are apt to know a much more diverse range of people, which helps to reduce social divisions and to foster empathy, camaraderie, and a sense of responsibility for one another.
Communities with reserves of social capital are also more resilient in times of adversity or disaster; the web of connections among people becomes a source of mutual aid and a means of pulling together. The community continues to exist, even if the physical structure of the town or neighborhood has been destroyed. The strong social networks that emerge from locally owned economies also function as a safety net for families who fall on hard times. They nurture a sense of neighborliness and foster a greater willingness to commit private resources to collective endeavors by, for example, accepting a tax increase to fund a new park or donating to a charity that provides healthcare to low-income residents.
This feeling of powerlessness tends to infect civic and political life: people become more passive as citizens and stewards of a democracy. Without a robust civic discourse, communities struggle to solve local problems and marshal their resources for collective goals. For one, big-box stores and malls are built at a regional scale; the likelihood that the person ahead of you in line is someone you know or someone who lives in your neighborhood is slim.
The sole aim is to maximize the dollars spent per square foot. Observe a busy Main Street and you are apt to see at least a few people chatting, strolling leisurely, or sitting idly on stoops and benches. But such behaviors are rare in big-box parking lots, where the vast majority make a beeline from their cars to the entrance.
And year after year, there are fewer people who have their own experiences of a strong local economy to draw from. He and his colleagues hope to continue their research, but it depends on funding and, while other sociologists have been supportive of their grant proposals, economists often give them a negative review. A few hours later, Santa Cruz was rocked by a 7. Most of the nineteenth-century buildings lining the downtown, including the one housing the bookstore, were destroyed or severely damaged. He and John Livingston, who owned Logos, a local used-books store in the same predicament, went to court and asked that they be allowed to have their own engineers shore up the structures so that they could retrieve their inventory.
The judge agreed. Coonerty went to bed that night hoping against the odds that forty people would show up to help the next day. People felt that the store was theirs, he explained, an important part of who they were as a community, and they were not going to let it go. A local frozen-foods company donated thousands of boxes, others lent pickup trucks, and a team of six librarians cataloged and organized the stock.
Aid arrived from other quarters as well: independent bookstores across the country donated to a fund set up by the Northern California Independent Booksellers Association, which paid the salaries of employees of Logos and Bookshop Santa Cruz for weeks following the disaster. Without its downtown and local businesses, there would be no place for residents to gather. The community decided to set up large tents in an empty parking lot on the edge of downtown to house the local businesses during the rebuilding. Word spread through local unions that the stores were desperate to reopen by the day after Thanksgiving, the critical start to the holiday shopping season, and, over the course of one November weekend, more than volunteer carpenters, electricians, plumbers, and others erected the steel framing, secured the tents, rolled out temporary flooring, and installed electricity and telephone lines.
About three dozen businesses moved into the seven tents. Others found their own ways to reopen: a shoe repair shop set up in a parked van, while the local deli moved into a trailer. They were dusty. When it was warm out, it was hot in the tents. We felt like they gave us this great gift—the gift of their patronage. We did that for three years. He won, and three years later presided as mayor when the downtown celebrated its grand reopening.
It was not that Santa Cruz was devoid of chains; there had been several downtown. Years later, when the downtown had been rebuilt and brought back to life again, national chains once again became interested in Santa Cruz.
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In , despite vigorous opposition from many residents, Borders opened down the street from Bookshop Santa Cruz. The chains have deep pockets. They can wait you out. There is nothing like a crisis for bringing into stark relief true loyalties. Unlike corporate retailers, local business owners are rooted. This commitment influences the way they run their businesses and the kinds of choices they make. The store brought both access to groceries and nearly one hundred union jobs to the area, and helped spark other new investment.
But even though they are beloved by residents, the Saltzmans are now worried that they may have to pull out of two neighborhoods. Wal-Mart and Target are planning to open supercenters as part of a massive acre suburban-style big-box development in the heart of Cleveland. One early challenge involved mental illness. It was a huge success: employees learned how best to respond to patients and now the training is provided for merchants throughout the city.
I suddenly thought to myself, what am I thinking? Of course I want these three young men to be able to pay the rent and to buy food. If they opt to pave a wetland and pollute the groundwater, it is not their families who end up with compromised drinking water. Many chains exhibit a remarkable disregard for the places where they operate. For those who live near big-box stores, excessive noise that interferes with sleep and keeps families indoors has become a chronic problem.
Complaints include semitruck deliveries, beeping forklifts, and idling engines at all hours of the night when most superstores do the bulk of their restocking —in many cases in violation of local noise ordinances and even promises made by the companies themselves. Chain drugstores have a particularly extensive track record of destroying historic buildings.
Creating enough space to accommodate such an outlet in a traditional business district often requires razing one or more historic structures. The Beaux-Arts-style building was made of Indiana limestone, with marble floors and an elaborate rotunda under a thirtyfoot-high copper dome. In Lancaster, Pennsylvania, CVS tore down the Baumgardner Brothers Tobacco Warehouse, an imposing brick building that had served as a dramatic landmark along an important entryway into the town center.
Numerous two-story attached brick buildings came down, including the Leroy Theater. Today, a large parking lot occupies much of the block, with a standard Walgreens set back from the street. With four CVS outlets, a Brooks, another Walgreens, and a few independents, Pawtucket hardly needed another drugstore.
In Hartford, Connecticut, a turnof-the-century three-story brick building housing two small businesses and several apartments was demolished to make way for a Brooks diagonally across the street from a CVS and two blocks from a Rite Aid. The sellers, who were paid above market value for their houses, then became advocates for CVS, pitting neighbor against neighbor. One of the greatest recent losses was an imposing two-story granite bank building that occupied the main intersection in the town of East Chicago, Indiana.
Built in , the bank was the scene of a holdup by John Dillinger in , and its ornate stone and brass interior had changed little in the years since. Walgreen demolished it in the fall of to build a drive-through outlet just one block from an existing Walgreens. Providence, Rhode Island, has lost several historic mill buildings to Home Depot and other big-box retailers, including the Narragansett Brewing Company complex. They are determined to have their way. Ikea lacked a permit for the demolition—which is surprisingly common.
In the fall of , a Home Depot developer bulldozed a house in Nashville, Tennessee, that had a stop-work order from the city taped to the front door. Ornate commercial buildings, designed to reflect local character and last for centuries, are being gutted—economically and even physically—for cheap retail outlets that evince none of the same pride of place and will be obsolete in as little as ten or twenty years.
Mega-retailers are homogenizing the United States, and now the global, landscape. Ironically, many small towns and urban neighborhoods believe that the entrance of a major national chain somehow confers a degree of geographic legitimacy—that it puts them on the map. But dropped blindfolded into the parking lot of WalMart Store , one would have little clue, other than the seagulls along the roofline, as to the location. Starbucks—which, it should be noted, is one of the few chains that has a record of preserving and reusing historic buildings—has nevertheless, through its relentless multiplication, made the world a more uniform and less interesting place.
The chain, which has outlets in London and 49 in Bangkok, recently opened its ten-thousandth store—at the Great Wall of China. One of the best places in Portland, Maine, to bump into a neighbor or catch up with an old pal is Videoport. If you have lost touch with someone, the best place to ask after them is at Videoport. Videoport is part of a complex of local businesses that share a nineteenth-century brick building. To function as a third place, a business must be relatively modest in scale, be embedded in a neighborhood or small downtown, and provide space for loitering and casual interaction.
These essential characteristics mean that third places are almost always locally owned. They cultivate the habit of association: those who frequently engage in casual socializing with their neighbors are more apt to start and join formal civic and community organizations, which in turn encourage greater participation in the political process. This is the essence of grassroots democracy. The American Revolution, after all, took root over cups of ale in local taverns. Third places, Oldenburg argues, are a crucial—though increasingly rare and embattled—democratic antidote to the shortcomings of mass media.
Local retailers inhabit and animate our downtowns and neighborhood business districts. Although one would never suspect as much from current planning and development patterns, it is hard to overstate the value to community life of well-trod sidewalks. When people walk, they become custodians of their neighborhood; their sense of their own territory begins to extend beyond their front doors. Something happening on a street regularly patrolled on foot is of much greater personal concern than anything sped past in a car. How much people walk depends on both the quality of the local walking environment and whether there are worthwhile destinations within a short distance of home.
And the more people walk, the more they interact with their neighbors and the wider their network of casual acquaintances. A trip to the corner bakery might involve nodding hello to an elderly resident sitting on her front porch, passing another neighbor who reminds you of an upcoming meeting, and exchanging news with the store owner.
Unlike traditional business districts—where the streets and sidewalks are publicly owned and support commerce as well as a variety of other uses, from libraries to public gatherings—chain retail parking lots are private and reserved for the sole purpose of facilitating spending. Most of these stores and shopping centers are scaled not for a neighborhood or small town center but to serve a wider region, and thus most of the other shoppers are strangers. Walking is no longer appealing if most of the worthwhile destinations have closed and the streets are a dreary series of vacant and half-used storefronts.
While their economic turnaround may be laudatory, these Main Streets have also ceased to be genuine community centers. A twenty-thousandsquare-foot grocery store therefore needs to serve about two thousand households to be viable. In a historic neighborhood, that many households can be found within a radius of one-quarter of a mile—easy walking distance.
But average household spending on high-end goods such as jewelry is much lower, so a much larger number of households are needed to support such a store. These upscale districts are no longer mixed use in any meaningful sense; they have become another specialized zone in the larger, suburbanized, and auto-dependent region. Still other downtowns and neighborhood business districts are being overtaken by the chains themselves. Here and there, remnants of the former streetscape remain.
Not only do neighborhoods lose the economic and social contributions of local owners, but chains are rootless and unreliable. They often arrive in a wave and can leave just as quickly. In the s, numerous chains set up shop in downtown Boulder, Colorado, driving up rents and displacing independent businesses. Now most are pulling out and moving to new shopping centers in surrounding towns. The doublespeak begins with the names of their developments. These revisions are always presented as major concessions and meant to make the city planner feel as though she is doing her job by holding a tough line with the developer and even forging a legitimate compromise with citizens who oppose the project.
Target has been extensively advertising its good works in New York in advance of proposing multiple superstores in the city. Strategically timed gifts are even used to overcome opposition to particular development proposals. Local residents accepting oversize checks not only garnered free advertising for the new store in the form of headlines in the Houston Chronicle, but put a local face on a 98 BIG-BOX SWINDLE global corporation that might otherwise be perceived by its potential customers as an outsider taking over the local economy. Sometimes donations can even make friends of natural enemies.
Target is both the most generous of the chains, giving 2. Volunteer parents did the work, decked out in Home Depot orange, while the children were taken out of class to watch the activity and practice the song. Some evidence indicates that the megachains give substantially less than the local stores they replace. One survey of eight independent retailers found that their annual cash donations totaled 0. Collectively, they give to a much broader and more diverse range of organizations than the chains do. They often donate to community causes in which they are personally involved, so their contribution includes time and skills as well as money.
And while obtaining a donation from a local business can be as simple as walking in and asking the owner, with corporations, the process tends to be longer and may require approval from corporate headquarters. Our communities lack lively public spaces; our local infrastructure is shabby and underfunded.
We have a diminishing sense of connection to our neighbors. Although ignored as a matter of public policy, there is a tremendous civic value to doing business with our neighbors and vesting economic capacity and decision-making locally. In the Frenchman Alexis de Tocqueville toured the United States in a quest to uncover the secret of our robust democracy. In his two-volume Democracy in America, he concluded that it was to be found in the vitality of our local enterprises and institutions. Its narrow two-lane streets are lined with buildings of varying heights and architectural styles.
The wide brick sidewalks accommodate old-fashioned lampposts, trees, and park benches. Like on an elaborate movie set, they sport false facades and architectural details meant to look like wood or stone, but molded out of plastic. Even the flower baskets are fake. While the sidewalks might give the impression of people arriving here on foot—maybe strolling downtown from a nearby neighborhood— the only way anyone actually gets to Legacy Village is by car.
Pan back from this little snow-globe scene and the entire development is surrounded by asphalt, more than twenty-six hundred parking spaces in all. Its simulated town center represents the latest trend in shopping center design. Dozens of these faux Main Streets have been built around the country and many more are in the works. Much like Disney World, lifestyle centers employ a carefully crafted hucksterism designed to lull patrons into a warm nostalgia that induces spending.
They are enormously successful. Today, almost all of these neighborhood Main Streets are struggling, having been crippled economically by wave after wave of suburban retail development. First there were the strip shopping centers, built on wide boulevards radiating out into the suburbs. Hardest hit have been inner-city neighborhoods. In many of these areas, the few small businesses that remain are surrounded by vacant storefronts.
Even relatively prosperous commercial districts like Coventry in Cleveland Heights have been affected. Key anchors have closed, notably a landmark threescreen movie theater unable to survive as more multiplexes opened in the outer suburbs. The Cleveland metro is now littered with the carcasses of bygone stores.
Vacant strip malls haunt old commercial corridors. Abandoned bigbox stores sit idle and decaying. Most staggering in scope are the dying malls. The metro is home to several. Euclid Square, Westgate, and Southgate are in various states of demise. Perhaps the most startling is Randall Park Mall.
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Built in the southeastern suburbs in , Randall Park reigned as one of the largest malls in Ohio, a seemingly invulnerable fortress of retailing, with 1. It began to fall apart in the late s. Many of the smaller stores soon followed.
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Today Randall Park is half vacant. Stores in the other half limp along. And the problem was getting worse. At the time of the study, developers had put forward plans for dozens of new shopping centers and big-box stores. In , the year Legacy Village opened, greater Cleveland added 2. Nor do many give much consideration to the regional implications. It has nothing to do with local needs. Much of it is driven by the pressures of Wall Street to grow, grow, grow. But in this game, even the winners eventually become losers. Many suburbs that developed downtown-killing shopping malls thirty years ago are now themselves under siege as newer formats like superstores and lifestyle centers undercut mall revenue.
Spend enough time in places like Randall Park Mall and it becomes hard to walk around Legacy Village without fast-forwarding to the time when it, too, will become a ghost town, its sidewalks devoid of people and its plastic architecture dingy and dated. But it certainly will come. The very characteristics that make them so important to the stability and vitality of neighborhoods—their long-term roots and ongoing reinvestment in a particular location—are severe handicaps in a system of land use and development that strongly favors mobility over place.
Many have failed by virtue of their location in historic business districts that have been repeatedly undercut and compromised by a glut of sprawling shopping center development. Meanwhile, the development industry generally excludes independent businesses from new shopping centers. Although they are welcome to lease space in old strip malls that have been abandoned by the chains. Steve Presser declined an invitation to relocate Big Fun to a new suburban shopping center, because both his business and his family are deeply rooted in the neighborhood.
My kid goes to school up the street. Mega-retailers are consuming land and habitat at a stunning pace. Driving has increased substantially, with the amount of road miles logged for shopping rising much faster than for other kinds of trips, such as commuting to work. Residents of the Cleveland metro now drive 5. Designed to draw shoppers from miles around, these malls together account for eight times the nitrogen oxide, nineteen times the hydrocarbons, and fourteen times the carbon monoxide of the Ford plant.
During storms, rainwater no longer soaks into the ground or trickles into streams and rivers, but instead rushes across paved areas in torrents that erode riverbanks, cause flooding, and destroy critical habitat. Unlike factories, when these stores cease to function economically, they still pollute.
Retail sprawl has engulfed much of the country, plundering both the built and natural environment from coast to coast. As mega-retailers have gained market share, the amount of land devoted to shopping has grown exponentially. In the United States had four square feet of retail store space per person. This growth did not come in response to increased demand. Consumer spending has expanded at a much more modest rate. Since , median family income, adjusted for inflation, has increased by about 80 percent, while the amount of retail space has grown percent.
Great Britain, for example, has less than seven square feet of store space per capita. But our land binge is even worse than that. About twothirds of the retail space in Great Britain is located in town centers. In the United States, the vast majority of retail development in recent years has been in the form of single-story big-box stores and other conventional shopping centers, which, by virtue of their design and location, require parking lots several times the size of the stores themselves, plus extensive networks of arterial roads and highways. This means forcing the location to accommodate the store, not the other way around.
In New Orleans, for example, Wal-Mart took advantage of the demolition of a large public-housing project to drop one of its single-story supercenters into the heart of the city. No place is too beautiful or environmentally sensitive to escape the designs of big-box retailers. But often the big chains get their way.
Stores and shopping centers have their own gravitational pull and, like planets and stars, the bigger they are, the greater the attraction. Reilly of the University of Texas. Essentially it says that people will travel farther to reach bigger stores, driving about twice the distance for a store that is twice the size of a closer alternative. Indeed, had the United States not opted for a primarily caroriented development pattern beginning in the s, the occasional large store would still exist, but big-box retailers as we know them would not. Road networks in traditional cities are made up of a broad hierarchy of streets—from small neighborhood roads to larger avenues and subarterials and so on, all fully interconnected—and this hierarchy in turn supports a wide range of store sizes, each matched to its place within the urban fabric.
A neighborhood street might house a small corner store and Laundromat that serve a few hundred households. The intersection of two larger streets might support a twenty-thousandsquare-foot grocery store and a pharmacy that serve multiple neighborhoods. Everything converges downtown, which hosts the biggest stores and the largest overall concentration of retail. This explains why neighborhood-size businesses—twenty-thousand-square-foot grocery stores, say—are virtually nonexistent in the suburbs. In the small town of Deptford, New Jersey, which already has a 1. Only twenty-eight thousand people live in Deptford, but the town hosts the confluence of Interstate and four state highways.
Megaretailers are consuming a great deal of land, but their influence on our landscape does not end there. It extends far beyond their own acreage. About one in three of the trips Americans take each day is related to shopping. Indeed, the journey to the store counts for much of the way we experience the places we live. These shifting travel patterns in turn influence all sorts of other land-use decisions. Many schools and churches have not only relocated to the fringe, but they themselves have become huge, isolated compounds surrounded by parking and accessible only by car.
They locate on the far outer fringes, anticipating and, by their presence, catalyzing the construction of houses and other development nearby. But when the plan was put to a townwide referendum, opponents of the supercenter lost by a margin of just ninety-four votes. Five years after Target opened, the downtown is not what it was.
Several other downtown businesses have relocated to be near Target. Smaller chains and strip shopping centers are now sprouting up next to the supercenter. Bulldozers are making way for a new drive-through bank surrounded by parking. Driving in general has been expanding rapidly, but driving for shopping has been growing more than twice as fast as driving for any other purpose, including commuting to work.
Between and , the number of miles driven by the average household for shopping increased by more than 40 percent. Shopping-related driving for the country as a whole rose by almost 95 billion miles in just eleven years. As the chains build ever-bigger stores, each outlet depends on a greater number of households spread over a wider geographic area.
Thus the distance between home and store continues to grow. In much of America, walking or taking public transit to the store is no longer an option. Most families have moved to suburban subdivisions that, by virtue of both zoning codes and convention, are strictly residential and lack the small neighborhood shops common in older communities. Not surprisingly, families that live in the suburbs rely much more on their cars than those who live in more traditional neighborhoods. Researchers at the University of California recently tracked shopping trips in two San Francisco Bay Area communities, Lafayette and Rockridge, which are similar in many respects.
Both are about the same distance from downtown San Francisco. Both have comparable income levels and are served by the same regional freeway and rapid-transit line. Moreover, Lafayette residents travel almost twice as far as those who live in Rockridge. The kinds of landscapes that cars create—vast, homogeneous, highly mobile, and divorced from the constraints of place and community—are ideally suited for footloose and fast-growing chains. Superstores encourage people to do big shopping trips, stocking up once or twice a week, and that requires having a car to get everything home.
The format calls for driving and so people drive. This counts only direct costs. Nearly half of this, or 8. As mega-retailers sprawl and driving increases, such activities as buying clothes and picking up groceries are becoming ever more polluting. The extra 95 billion road miles that Americans are logging for shopping over levels account for 40 million metric tons of carbon dioxide, , tons of hydrocarbons, and , tons of nitrogen oxide released into the atmosphere each year. The rise of big-box retail has not only spurred more driving and increased air pollution at the national and global level, but it has also created local hotspots of dirty air.
A ,square-foot Wal-Mart supercenter generates on average more than ten thousand car trips a day, producing a high concentration of exhaust in the immediate area and annually contributing about 25 tons of nitrogen oxide, 65 tons of volatile organic chemicals VOCs , tons of carbon monoxide, and 6, tons of carbon dioxide to the atmosphere.
Sprawling retail— from big-box stores to drive-through pharmacies and fast-food outlets —ranks as one of the worst ways to develop land, from an air-quality standpoint. The chains have managed to transform businesses that were once neighborhood amenities into nuisances. Or between a neighborhood eatery and a typical chain restaurant. The former are mostly welcome neighbors. The latter, with their acres of parking and glowing signs, are noisy, congestive places that reduce the appeal and market value of nearby homes.
The unpleasantness of living near most chains has only furthered our dependence on cars. Big-box stores are typically insulated from adjacent subdivisions by large walls and plantings, so that even those living next door often have to drive a quarter mile or more to reach the store. Cargo volume at the ports, already among the largest in the world, has been growing by more than 10 percent annually and is expected to triple by Consumer goods manufactured in China and destined for superstore shelves account for most of this flood of new cargo.
All of these engines burn vast quantities of fuel and together make the port complex the single largest source of concentrated air pollution in the region.