Progress killing small town America

COUNTRY music star Alan Jackson croons in his song "Little Man" about the decline of small business in the face of national chains. "I go back now the stores are empty / boarded up like they never existed / there goes the little man." Jackson continues: "Now the stores are lined up in a concrete strip / Save a penny because it's jumbo size / They don't even realize / They're killing the little man."

Across the country, historic downtowns are ceasing to be centers of commerce as they give way to the Wal-Martization of America. Instead of going downtown, shoppers go to strip malls and enclosed malls on the outskirts of town. This phenomenon clearly exists in Charlottesville. Despite the comeback of the Downtown Mall, there is no doubt that the center of commerce is Route 29.

Route 29 has strip mall after strip mall. It has big national chains - K-Mart, Staples and Lowe's. It has an enclosed mall at Fashion Square. It has Wal-Mart. And it has no personality. There is nothing unique about this stretch of commercial development. You could be anywhere in the nation and see exactly the same stores.

These chains have become popular for a number of reasons. We are used to these stores and know their quality, so there will be no surprises when we go in them. They are convenient: you can drive right up to them, make your purchases, and leave, without the hassle of having to worry about parking or dealing with downtown traffic. Wal-Mart has even more advantages, as it provides the convenience of selling virtually everything in one location. Additionally, these stores usually are able to undercut the small local merchant and provide the product at a lower price.

Yet these stores are not universally popular. Wal-Mart has faced opposition from communities that feel it will destroy their historic business districts or will spawn gridlock. This has happened across the nation, and several times in Virginia. In 1992, Williamsburg voted down a Wal-Mart. In 1996, the Stafford County architectural review board rejected a Wal-Mart store because of its proximity to George Washington's boyhood home (Wal-Mart later built a store further away). And last week, after opposition to a proposed store in Ashland, Wal-Mart withdrew its plan.

For all the convenience and savings Wal-Mart offers, it can ruin cities, or at least their traditional main streets. It moves the commercial center from Main Street to a highway.

Yet even Wal-Mart is not the most disturbing example of this increasingly impersonal commercial trend. With Wal-Mart, at least one has to go out to this carbon copy store and interact with other people. But with the expanding purchasing possibilities available on the Internet, one does not even have to leave the house. One can buy virtually anything over the Internet, from sources like amazon.com, buy.com and even walmart.com. And why shouldn't we take advantage of these outlets? After all, what's more convenient than shopping from home? Shopping over the Internet is usually cheaper, sometimes significantly.

But isn't something lost when we shop at Wal-Mart or over the Internet rather than going from store to store on Main Street? Aren't we missing something when there is a decline in personal interaction?

We live in a society where a lot is based on expediency. We do whatever is quickest and most efficient. If we can send an e-mail, we don't bother to write a letter. If we can check something on the Web, we don't bother to call and ask a real person. We are living in an increasingly impersonal society, and shopping at Wal-Mart and on the Internet are just two examples of this. These are particularly disturbing examples because we can see the real effect that they have on the community. These superstores and online outlets move jobs from downtown to a highway on the outskirts of town. They prevent us from seeing our neighbor shopping alongside us because we are shopping from home. They keep us from knowing the owners of stores because the only stores are huge national chains.

Wal-Marts - and their ilk - cause a community to start losing its identity, because instead of having an identifiable downtown with unique stores owned by local people, a town has stores that look exactly the same as everywhere else. Maybe the convenience and savings at chains like Wal-Mart are more valuable to us than the uniqueness and personality of old downtowns. Maybe we feel that we don't benefit from the personal interaction that old commercial districts facilitate. Maybe we feel that the uniformity of the commercial industry is not such a bad thing.

But while we may be saving a few dollars and a few minutes, our cities are losing their identities. Personal interaction with one another suffers. Alan Jackson's "little man" is disappearing. Perhaps this trend is irreversible, but it is sad to see the increasing uniformity across the country and barriers between interaction with our neighbors that Wal-Martization causes.

(Peter Brownfeld's column appears Monday in The Cavalier Daily.)


Published November 15, 1999 in Opinion





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