All I Can See Is A Parking Lot
February 21, 2004 2:52 PM   Subscribe

Big Box Juggernauts are taking control of the landscape across North America. How does it impact how we live, and where we live? [Flash]
posted by benjh (29 comments total)
Near where I live in Toronto, there is a mall that integrates big box stores with more traditional mall-style retail space. It's predominantly asian, and thus contains a higher proportion of independent and family-run businesses in the traditional part of the mall. First Markham always has gaggles of young people and families hanging out - there is definitely 'street life' and quite a few funky independent stores. I guiltily enjoy the convenience and selection afforded by big box stores, and this kind of hybrid mall seems to be the best compromise between the inevitable big-boxification of our retail landscape and seemingly unprofitable mom-and-pop operations that most people to advocate. What do you think?

On a side note, this is nicely designed site made with Canadian government money, and under the umbrella of the CBC! Who'da thunk it?
posted by sid at 3:27 PM on February 21, 2004

When I was in college, an architect student friend of mine noted that the entire downtown Main Street retail space of our college town would fit inside the Super-Walmart's parking lot in the next town over. He also pointed out that what one would consider a "good" parking space at walmart "sucked" downtown, even if you only had to walk a block and a half or so. Hearing this, my dad noted that you considered yourself lucky if you found a space within a couple hundred yards of your destination downtown when he was a kid. Ah, progress.
posted by techgnollogic at 3:32 PM on February 21, 2004

Well, I live in Mississauga and there's been far too much of this outdoor commons big box crap development around here, and it really makes Mississauga a generally drab and dreary place. The worst place of all is Heartland -- here's an aerial photos. It's such a massive cancer in the near-middle of the city. I hate it so damned much.
posted by mkn at 3:32 PM on February 21, 2004

How does it impact how we live, and where we live?

It just doesn't. Is my sense of life or community really different because I go to a bigass CircuitCity instead of a little overpriced electronics store in the mall? Has anybody actually used a "main street" area of a town as an important social/community focus in the last several decades?

Bottom line: Walmart is not oppressing us. If anybody gave a shit they'd shop at the little guy with a nice lawn in front of his store. But they don't. They shop at Walmart. Because they're not concerned about their "environmental contexts", they just want to get a good deal and get back to their lives and their friends.
posted by tirade at 3:33 PM on February 21, 2004

tirade: Speak for yourself. There's plenty of us that never darken the doors of Wal-Mart. I hate the way that things have developed since I was a child. I remember growing within driving distance of a mall where you could do all of your shopping from groceries to clothing. It had open public spaces that were landscaped and airy. 1980ish, that mall was essentially razed and the modern indoor mall put there instead, that mall has since been decimated by big box retailers all around. I have a certain amount of jealousy for the folks in Manhattan and other urban areas that can survive without cars. Urban areas where people can live and work with others as opposed to in spite of others.
posted by shagoth at 3:41 PM on February 21, 2004

The big-box mentality is precisely why I rarely visit my parents' home, just south of Ottawa. The entire suburb is completely devoid of culture, and instead is filled with wal-marts, home depots, and whatever other soulless merchants can fill the massive warehouses. There are 5 grocery stores within 2 blocks of each other, yet not a single theatre, cinema or library.

tirade: I live in a mid-sized town between Ottawa and Toronto, and the "main street" area is the soul of the city. Everything I need is there, and even if I'm not looking for anything in particular, it's great to just wander around and hang out. Seeing unique items, smelling fresh food, and being able to shop in places that don't feel like a complete void, feels just wonderful.

I think the worst offenders in the whole big-box scheme are the crappy chain restaurants that go along with them. Montana's, Outback Steakhouse, etc... does actually think this is good food? I'll gladly shell out a couple more bucks for an original, fresh meal downtown, where I can get some ambience with my meal.
posted by krunk at 3:46 PM on February 21, 2004

If I don't see content in 10-20 seconds or so I leave a site. Especially if it's an overblown Flash masturbation. The internet is a perfect medium for grabbing immediate attention. Too bad egomaniacs can't figure that out.
posted by HTuttle at 3:52 PM on February 21, 2004

Has anybody actually used a "main street" area of a town as an important social/community focus in the last several decades?
Umm, I do. But this is a function of being an urban dweller. I grew up in suburbs and would be very pleased to never live in there again. I'd take Smallville-Nowhere or the middle of a big city over the endless track homes, impersonal shopping centers and plasticine "communties." Perhaps this is a matter of preference, but the ability to chose becomes constrained the more big box stores take root and push out the kind of communities that once supported our psychic well-being.

on preview:what shagoth and krunk said
posted by elwoodwiles at 3:53 PM on February 21, 2004

tirade: Is my sense of life or community really different because I go to a bigass CircuitCity

Absolutely, but not always in a way that you notice explicitly.

Has anybody actually used a "main street" area of a town as an important social/community focus in the last several decades?

I do it all the time. It's one of the things that make me glad I moved to Europe from the US.
posted by syzygy at 4:03 PM on February 21, 2004

I love these gigantic-ass stores. I want what I want and I don't want to pay a premium for limited selection and "sorry, we're out of stock." I love those signs in Home Depot that say "We have 1750 sheets of gyp board every day - Guaranteed!" That's freaking rad. I don't go shopping to socialize. I live in a fucking city. I see thousands of perfect strangers every day. I have my socialization framework and my retail shopping framework and if the two ever cross and I see a friend at Home Depot - and it happens - its all well and good but I don't expect or miss it if it doesn't.

I love how the flash presentation mentions that people don't go to big box stores to hang out like they do malls. OH HEAVENS NO! WHAT A TRAGEDY!
posted by techgnollogic at 4:38 PM on February 21, 2004

I guess some people have an addiction to this kind of let's slam WalMart discussion and it's just been too long since we've done it. Pile on, everybody! Personally I go where I need to, so today that meant both a tiny new retailer and sei-evil Costco.

elwoodwiles: Sometimes I think this urban/suburban thing is nearly genetic. My family grew up in suburban NJ, 18 miles west of NYC. My sister lived in Manhattan for the last 17 years. She loved it but I could barely stand sleeping over in her apartment for all the noise, people and dirt. OTOH, I live in Mountain View now for seven years and think it's terrific. So she got all the living in the city genes in my family.
posted by billsaysthis at 4:39 PM on February 21, 2004

Has anybody actually used a "main street" area of a town as an important social/community focus in the last several decades?

Yes. I've been thoroughly trounced here in the past for dissing Starbucks, etc, so I'd rather not get into it, but yes, to answer your question.

And no, you're not automatically a soulless bastard if you have a kid and have to move somewhere where all you've got to live on is big box hell. Some of my best friends are in that boat. Some of them resent the city-dwellers and their too-good-for-Starbucks tastes, others grind their teeth about having to live in the middle of suburban sprawl, and I can respect both.

But it's not all overpriced, poor-service mom and pops in the rest of the world. Independent businesses actually can do it better, for less, closer to where I live, and with [dare I say it?] some flavor.

Prime examples around where I live: the Berkeley Bowl grocery, an abundance of good cafes, several art-house movie theaters, Black Oak / Moes / Cody's books, Amoeba Music, Berkeley Surplus, and many dozens of clothing stores, thrift shops, bars, cafes and restaurants (incidentally, yes, there is an overpriced mom-and-pop electronics store on Shattuck which I will never go to again). Oh... did I mention that with the exception of Berkeley Surplus, I can walk to all of those?

Would I miss all of it I moved out to the burbs? Damn straight. Can you roll them all into a Starbucks, a Wal Mart and a food court? Not a chance. Can I afford to buy a house in Berkeley? Not at present, I'm afraid. Them's the breaks.
posted by scarabic at 4:40 PM on February 21, 2004

"Has anybody actually used a "main street" area of a town as an important social/community focus in the last several decades?"

Yes. Up here in the seemingly always frozen north making the rounds of the Main St. businesses is practically a requirement. We have coffee at the dinner and gossip about local elections, wander down to the library and fight with the old ladies over the new fiction and settle in at the bar for lunch and to pass around the three copies of the NY Times that are delivered by mail a day late. I can buy a bong or an indie release (well, order one at least) at Jerry's Place and a loaf of fresh bread at the bakery. If I don't get my loaf of bread they call me to make sure everything is alright.

On summer evenings we stroll along the waterfront eating ice cream and listening to the high school band. We watch the little kids play tag and chase fireflies. The older kids sit around drinking beer and getting high while we pretend not to notice. Sometimes they even have fireworks.

Admittedly it's not the most exciting town, but after spending the bulk of my life in NYC and growing up in the 'burbs I wouldn't trade it for the world. Of course I live in the middle of a state park and it's legally impossible to build pretty much anything. There isn't so much as billboard for eighty miles in any direction.

That said, when I need a new computer or want to drop a few hundred bucks on groceries, I'm driving to Wal-Mart and Best Buy. I love those stores, cheap prices and large inventories -- and the best part is they're all in your back yard.
posted by cedar at 5:41 PM on February 21, 2004

I love how the flash presentation mentions that people don't go to big box stores to hang out like they do malls.

Actually there was a metafliter story about people hanging out outside an all night K-Mart in Houston. Police freaked out and started arresting people.
posted by bobo123 at 5:51 PM on February 21, 2004

Being in Europe , I have different big boxes. They're not so big, yet there are a number of similiarities in design.

Square or rectangurlar surfaces, indeed big boxes. In Europe I have yet to see very big surface parking lots, a number of stores have underground parking lots, usually one level underground or under the store at surface level.I guess the reasoning behind the enormous, ugly depressing parking lots I have seen in pictures coming from U.S. or Canada is cost cutting.

Cost minimization seems to be the real theme of Big Boxes ; no undeground parking, little decoration, heavy standardization of structures, out-of-center-of-the-city location , all this translates into the imperative of "must cost less to the company"

You may have noticed one thing: seatings and resting places. Usually, they're always inside of some store or near stuff -that can be bought- , as close as humanly possible. Sometimes there's no seating at all, as the logic behind the store is that you're here to buy, not to rest.

If you really want to rest, "why don't you eat something while you're at it" ..enter something and have a seat, but get ready to leave if you have eaten everything because more customers want your seating.

./start Hands on experience:

Yesterday I went to the local Big Box to buy some stuff including Coca Cola. I was expecting and anticipating SAVINGS (as saving is the main reason I go shopping in Big Boxes).

The price of 1.5 liters of Cola was like €1.60 , there were literally dozen of pallets and shelves full of it , the kind of quantity you expect Big Boxes to buy to leverage quantity buying.

There was an huge "SPECIAL PRICE - VALUE -" sign over the Cola shelves.

Why was I disappointed ? Because I could have bought exactly the very same product at a family runned ministore 2 mins away from my home for €1.35 ; they don't have pallets full of Cola, only a few dozen packs , yet I could have saved more then 10% on the Cola if only wasn't so stupid to buy into the illusion that Big Box = Saving.

./ end Hands On Experience

I guess this is what the guys in Marketing are thinking : let the customer live the illusion Big Box will -always- offer the best price ; hopefully the mini-store will die well before the customer can -notice- the price difference. In a worst case scenario, the customers are too lazy to really do any price comparison in the long term, even if they really could easily thanks to the Internet.

I guess in the long term, when there will be only a few gigantic chains (a-la Walmart, Kmart or whatever) and the minor chains will be wiped out, we'll pay in full for all the stuff we're now getting for cheap.
posted by elpapacito at 6:19 PM on February 21, 2004

I grea up in the country, have lived in Europe without a car and in central city areas in the US. I currently live in Pflugerville, which is a little German-settled town that is now ground zero of suburban development in the Austin area.

This thread made me reflect on what I did today: went to both Lowe's and a local family-owned hardware/nursery to buy some trees for my suburban yard. Later, we went to dinner in the restaurant strip that's smack in the middle of nearby big-box hell, but we ate at an awesome locally owned Greek restaurant there (the diversity of restaurants in this particular big-box hell area benefits from being next to Dell Computer HQ, I think.)

We have a huge newish suburban home (3000 sq ft), but it backs up to a creek that runs through our subdivision that serves as a public space. Our kids played all afternoon out there with the neighbor kids and we could keep an eye on them out the kitchen window.
Don't get me wrong: I abhor the commuting, but our house certainly offers some benefits for us at this point in my life.

So, based on my experiences today, I think it's safe to say that all the generalizations going on in this thread are bogus. Different people have different desires and needs. There is no single experience for any area, and all of them have their good sides and bad sides.
posted by tippiedog at 6:23 PM on February 21, 2004

Bottom line: Walmart is not oppressing us.

Of course Walmart isn't oppressing anyone. That's not the function of Walmart, or any other large retail chain. Make a cursory attempt to use the language carefully, and it'd be more fun to argue with you.

Whether anyone is 'being oppressed' or not isn't anything like the 'bottom line' either, although your choice of that phrase is certainly amusing, more so if you did not use it with punning intent.
posted by stavrosthewonderchicken at 7:25 PM on February 21, 2004

While all of us on MeFi, might insist that we don't patronize the marts, or any other big box extravaganza, the average fat ass, bud light swilling american could give a rats ass what we have to say. Big box works for them because it's cheap, convenient and right down the goddamn street. And anyways, all them local stores are for hippie commie democrat freaks!
posted by damnitkage at 7:32 PM on February 21, 2004

<rant id="home depot">
Home Depot sucks. I live so close to one that with a good windup I could toss a rock into the parking lot. But I never shop there. And I have a landscape business and buy lots of stuff that they sell. I get lumber and hardware from a local lumber yard, soils and sand and gravel from an excavation company, stone from a not so local stone yard, fertilizer and such from a local garden center, and plants from all over.
And I used to love Home Depot. When they first opened in the area the prices were very good and they had a lot of very knowledgeable employees. Now nobody works there anymore - or they're all off getting drug tested or something. And their prices really aren't any better anymore and when you factor in the hassles and the returns etc, they're higher. They stock junk - don't even think about their lumber unless you want to spend hours picking through the banana boards.
I'd rather go to a real business with actual employees that know their stuff and, just as importantly, know me. If I get stuff delivered I know they're not trying to palm off crap on me.
The Home Depot in my neighborhood just this week abandoned plans to build an even bigger box on the same location. Good. Good riddance.
posted by TimeFactor at 7:36 PM on February 21, 2004

I work for a commercial real estate brokerage, so I am involved with the day-to-day placement of these suckers in our cities/neighborhoods.

I find what I do faintly repellent, raised as I was by hippies. But on the other hand, the nostalgia for Main Street romanticizes something that is disappearing.

The internet is one of our biggest public spaces. Which is kind of disappointing in a way. I found a recent article on how cell phones have curtailed public space very interesting - instead of talking to strangers, people stay within their social circle by whipping out a cell phone.

I think that these big-boxes have their plusses and minusses - as do most things. Yes they take up a huge amount of space, they're boring, environmentally insensitive, and banal. On the other hand, they have a great selection, cheap prices (usually), and represent the cream of our materialistic society's shopping selection.

As someone said above, I go when I need to, but I'm glad they're not near my house.
posted by hurkle at 8:19 PM on February 21, 2004

I remember reading somewhere that Walmart has actually been contemplating and investigating ways to open shop on Main Street USA as a sort of general store shrinkydink version of the bigboxes. Not sure if they have any prototype stores yet... Anyone?
posted by shoepal at 8:29 PM on February 21, 2004

Two Wal-Mart Neighborhood Markets have opened in AZ in the past six months. They're smaller than a typical store or supermarket, carry a variety of products including consumer electronics and pharmacies, and are poised to become wildly successful.
posted by hurkle at 9:41 PM on February 21, 2004

So far the argument seems to be those who say it's better / cheaper / more efficient to shop at big box stores, and they argue that no one really uses these "main street" places for social / community bonding anymore anyway.

I don't mind better, cheaper, and faster. I just find the variety limiting. (For example, try to think of a healthy fast food joint besides Subway... it isn't easy) It's sad to go to someplace on vacation and see all the same stores with exactly the same setup inside. Not only does it freak me out, it's boring and plain.
posted by banished at 12:53 AM on February 22, 2004

Has anybody actually used a "main street" area of a town as an important social/community focus in the last several decades?

Yes, but it's been entirely inside of large cities.

Because large cities tend to have high cost/sq. ft. ratios, the "big boys" stay in the 'burbs. New York, for instance, has the Jersey Turnpike and Long Island, and Boston has Rt. 1 and the inner I95 ring. It's likely the same for the other larger urban areas as well.

It's a shame you have to go into the big city if you want to find that small town charm.
posted by Civil_Disobedient at 3:45 AM on February 22, 2004

I live in a small city in Cornwall (guess where any geographers out there), and the centre is definitely an important social focus for the surrounding area.

You just don't get that in Big Boxville (and I've tried that to).

Does 120 seconds mean the loading time of the site?
posted by lerrup at 3:11 PM on February 22, 2004

Thanks hurkle! Here's some info I found about the Neighborhood Market concept coming soon to a main street near you.
posted by shoepal at 6:24 PM on February 22, 2004

And no, you're not automatically a soulless bastard if you have a kid and have to move somewhere where all you've got to live on is big box hell.

Whoa there. I know plenty of intelligent, educated people that manage to raise kids in a big box hell free area. Perhaps Saint Louis is unique in that we have a number of urban or almost urban neighborhoods with character, but I would bet that in almost any city moving to the suburbs to raise children is not a necessity. Sure, it may be the easy, sacrifice free, 2.2 volvos way-- but in no way shape or form is one required to move to a soulless suburb to raise children. To say such a thing belies a lack of imagination and drive on the part of the speaker, more so than any limitation on them from without.
posted by jester69 at 11:53 AM on February 23, 2004

Y'know, alienation and feeling removed from your neighbors is not a new result of box stores and suburbs. Sartre and Camus were not writing with the impetus that the local brasserie was being torn down and a Le WalMart was being installed in it's place, while all their friends were becoming soulless zombies in Levvitville.

There are a lot bigger reasons on why people are unhappy, and while a bunch of locally owned stores and places that badger you if you don't buy their bread one day may be pleasant experience for some, but it is not the end and all and be all of life, and their are attractive things to some people about the suburbs and box stores, maybe not to you, or me, or whoever, but just because they don't have car alarms going off at 2 AM or the other general craziness of cities does not mean they're soulless neighborhoods without character where one raises a child only if they have no imagination.

Some people act like cities are the end-all and be-all of existence, but in the end, they tend to only mention things which satisfy material wants and desires, and neither cities and their loud chaos and cramped conditions, or the suburbs with their exterior sameness and lack of center, or the country with it's isolation from both people and infrastructure will be the one size fits all of whatever alienation that ails you.
posted by Snyder at 9:34 PM on February 23, 2004

...does not mean they're soulless neighborhoods without character where one raises a child only if they have no imagination.

Perhaps I was imprecise with my words or you misinterpreted my meaning. My point was that to say one has to move to the suburbs to raise a child is a fallacy. Sure, we may choose to do so, or some may even want to do so. However, there is no reqirement whatsoever. My arguments were to refute that claim.

There are plenty of good parents in the Suburbs, plenty of bad ones too. Just like anywhere.
posted by jester69 at 5:58 AM on February 24, 2004

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