Thursday, April 1, 2004
About-face in behemoth retail
A link to this article called "Bye Bye Big Box" showed up in my mail today. It was routed through the Public.Spaces listserv, available with other a few other space-concerned lists at the Project for Public Spaces web site. I haven't been a subscriber for long, but I was interested to see what shiny bits might churn through their channels. And then came the article today on Wal-Mart's commitment to the revitalization of community spaces--a clear, surprising reversal against their record for building indoor, suburban sprawl-marts filled wall to wall with discount goods. The article makes its name in the April newsletter from PPS, and I find the issue's theme, "faked spaces," to be intriguing. It suggests--rightly, I think--the appearance of a drastic turn away from the tyranny of naked suburban commercialism: Wal-Mart's legacy of profiteering. Here's a short blurb from the article:
"[Wal-mart is] tired of being on the wrong side of the community-building equation," he added, noting that he believes the firm's bottom line can take a back seat to broader community [regional] goals. "We think we can take that to the shareholders and make a convincing case that a stronger local economy will be better for our stores in the long run," Glass said. (first inset mine)
I'm curious about what this will look like. I wonder how it figures into Wal-Mart's profit formula. Will we see town squares made over with a sweeping infestation of so many mini Wal-Marts? Will we need shopping carts to load up there and there and there and across the block, at the Wal-Mart over there? I sure don't want to rain on this promise, yet; I look forward to experiencing Wal-Mart's reinvestment in vital community centers. But we can't blame anyone for being skeptical of this plan, this reversal of the retailer's legacy. It'll be undone when?
It reminds me of an exchange I enjoyed last fall with a student who was stationed at Mountain Home AFB in Mountain Home, Idaho. He wrote--for intro to humanities (the segment on industry, labor and consumerism)--about the deep-felt resentment openly shared among many of the locals in Mountain Home since the Wal-Mart installation embargoed the base from the once-lively city square. According to the student, Wal-Mart was the subject of whole-community scorn, but the people took jobs there and shopped there because the market became dependant on the superstore. I look forward to the new model. Of course, as little as I know about commercial real estate, I wonder whether the vacant big boxes of America will be empty for long. Doubtful that they'll be torn down, remade green.
Oh, and one more thing. Guess I should re-think yesterday's rant, since I just picked up on the role of "slide shows" in the appeal:
Kent said he was surprised but pleased that his speech had created such an immediate impact. "Frankly I expected a hostile reaction," he admitted, "but the slide show depicting small, public markets around the world seemed to win them over, especially the shots of couples kissing over various varieties of fresh vegetables. Those images can sway even the most hardcore bottom-line oriented people." (emphasis mine)
Slide shows, kissing and vegetables? Just great. Civic progress via sexed up PowerPoint.
Update (4.2.04, 9:30 a.m.): Potential for coll|u/i|sion between the Wal-mart promise of fractal marketplaces and this plan for discreet security (call it what you will)?Posted by Derek Mueller at April 1, 2004 9:29 PM to Rhetorico-Geography