Topic: The Culture
|Embracing the Homogenized Surreal|
You have to love the contrarian point of view, especially on cultural matters. There are plenty of contrarians on matters of domestic and foreign policy, and on social policy. Everyone writes about that stuff - illegal immigration is awful, or it isn't so awful, universal healthcare would be wonderful, or a socialist evil portending the end of the nation as we know it, the vice president's lesbian daughter really shouldn't be pregnant and her father happy about it, or that is a big whatever, we should stay in Iraq, we should leave, we should stay in a different way, or something. On his last day in office George Bush should bomb Iran back into the Stone Age and let the next president worry about the blow-back, or not. It's all on the table. Everyone has an opinion.
But then there are the true contrarians, like Virginia Postrel, who, in the December issue of The Atlantic Monthly, offers this - In Praise of Chain Stores. Of course this hit the newsstands as most American hit the malls to buy Christmas presents, and found themselves staring at the jammed parking lot and the depressingly uniform stores beyond. The mall could be anywhere, they all look alike. The stores are the same.
But she says these chain stores aren't destroying local flavor - they're actually providing variety and comfort. She has an odd view of comfort.
Those of us who spent a decade or two as "cooperate road warriors" know this issue well. You fly back and forth across the country each week and there that sense of dislocation - is this London, Ontario, or Ontario, California? There's the Starbucks and the Gap. It could be Pittsburgh or Tucson. You never know - it's all a blur. You take a break, use the frequent flier miles, and take a vacation. You fly Paris and one afternoon need new jeans - and you find yourself in Gap on Rue des Rennes. Inside you might as well be in Tulsa (except the sizes have odd numbers). Next door, even Monoprix seems comfortingly familiar - except for the language. It has the feel of Albany or Denver. And Starbucks hit Paris two years ago. And every major airport certainly seems familiar - which is either comforting or surreal. They all look alike. This may or may not comfort you. At least it's easy to find the restrooms.
Virginia Postrel sets up the expected -
Need proof? The array at Faneuil Hall can be examined here, although it should be noted that those of us who are pipe smokers can find a good selection of pipe tobacco at the newsstand near the southeast entrance. In any event, Postrel says what we have now is a variation on an old worry dating back to the twenties - the big guys are putting the Mom and Pop stores out of business. Today everyone knows the little small independents are doomed - and really mostly gone. That's probably most evident with the oddly charming, small, dusty bookstores - Border's and Barnes and Noble buried most everyone and they're long gone, except in period movies for a "cute meet." (A classic is Fred Astaire discovering Audrey Hepburn in that Greenwich Village bookstore in Funny Face, but that was 1957 and seems another world.) Given the small independents have been squeezed out, and that really is a given, the issue now is what's left - and it's just all the same, everywhere.
And it is worst in the suburbs. Postrel's example is the Chandler Fashion Center - Chandler, Arizona, just south of Phoenix, the area's big shopping mall. You have the usual suspects - P. F. Chang's (the nearest here is at Beverly Center on La Cienega), California Pizza Kitchen (Sunset at Laurel Canyon, here), Chipotle Mexican Grill (everywhere), and the Cheesecake Factory (the original is out here in Marina del Rey, started by exiles from Rochester, New York, in the early eighties). One place is as good as another. And it's not just the mall itself -
Been there - she's right - the heat is brutal - and the place is just like any other once you walk into Target.
Or as she puts it -
So there you have it, the place might as well be Altoona. No ostriches there either.
Then comes the contrarian view - the stores don't really matter. National chains are not some blight on the landscape, and they've not turned American towns into an indistinguishable "geography of nowhere."
That, we are told, is just silly. The idea is what else is there matters far more -
So, 1.) Stores don't give places their character, and 2.) Terrain and weather and culture do. The national chain stores, the claim is, just offer contrast. And in doing so they "make it easier to discern the real differences that define a place: the way, for instance, that people in Chandler come out to enjoy the summer twilight, when the sky glows purple and the dry air cools."
That's a quite romantic notion. It's more likely not many of these "Zoners" are out enjoying the summer twilight - they're at Target buying this or that, or at home watching some comedy taped out here in Hollywood, on a set in Studio City that's supposed to be New York (think Seinfeld). A sense of place may be a mere indulgence, something for oddballs.
As for the stores mentioned here, we're told that the idea that America was once filled with wildly varied business establishments is largely a myth -
And there is economic reality - national chain stores bargain down prices from suppliers and divide fixed costs across a lot of units, a good thing, And the contention here us that they "rapidly spread economic discovery." That would be "the scarce and costly knowledge of what retail concepts and operational innovations actually work." That sure beats trial and error - "Expecting each town to independently invent every new business is a prescription for real monotony, at least for the locals." So scale is a good thing, or large-scale is.
There's more -
So we have democratization, along with homogenization - good and bad. (Los Angeles used to have many fine, small bookstores, by the way, before the folks from Ann Arbor arrived.)
And there's the matter of growth, which is supposed to be good, and can provide comfort at the same time -
But who cares about local color? The idea is to reduce anxiety. Local color is for tourists. And "contrary to the rhetoric of bored cosmopolites," most cities don't exist primarily to please tourists (exclude Paris and Hollywood of course). They're just places people live, and do their best to do well. So you're not supposed to scoff at "the children toddling through the Chandler mall hugging their soft Build-A-Bear animals" who are "no less delighted because kids can also build a bear in Memphis or St. Louis." They'll be fine.
But there is the conflict -
Fine. No oddly charming, small, dusty bookstores - except perhaps for "reconstructions" of what one might be like, for tourists. Embrace the homogenized surreal. Actually, you probably have no choice. And you can always skip the trip to the mall, turn off the television, and step out into the summer twilight, when the sky glows purple and the dry air cools. People will just think you're odd. They'll probably call the cops.