The modern day price-busting superstore, such as Wal-Mart or Home Depot, is the 21st century version of the "One Company town," with similar economic, environmental and sociological consequences.
The real problem with any category buster superstore is the concentration of economic power into so few hands. If a Wal-Mart were to install itself, for example, somewhere along the Wilshire corridor in Los Angeles, many of the existing small shop owners would be run out of business.
Furthermore, the profits rarely stay in the local community. When a Wal-Mart store makes a huge profit, that money is sent to the mega-superstore's corporate offices in Arkansas and spent on construction of new mega-superstores, effectively removing wealth from local economies just as the corporate one-company mining town did in the 1880s.
When they place a Wal-Mart superstore within a 5-mile radius of a dilapidated older shopping district, the older district rarely outlasts the super store. So our communities end up with less economic diversity, thus fewer job opportunities, and eventually a more impoverished local economy.
Wal-Mart, yes, provides jobs. But the vast majority of jobs at Wal-Mart could be classified as unskilled labor and are paid from minimum wage up to around $10 or $15 an hour. A commercial district with many small and medium sized businesses creates a more fertile training ground for tomorrow's managers and entrepreneurs than one superstore ever could.
The economic alternative to the superstore phenomenon is the economic diversity of our tried-and-true commercial districts. In these districts, workers have a greater choice about how to earn their daily bread, who to work with and for, as well as alternatives to the alienation of being a cog in a faceless corporation's money machine.
What we are talking about, ultimately, is the engine of entrepreneurial growth in Los Angeles and the rest of America. As we look out over those super stores, we have to ask ourselves how many new management systems are being created, how many new products are being produced, how many people are being educated for more responsibility? The answer is very few.
Bix box stores promote suburban sprawl. That leads to more vehicle dependence with all of the fixed personal and ecological costs of suburban sprawl, starting with increased gas usage and costs for workers, the threat of death and injury during the daily commute and increased pollution from more miles driven in more cars. It troubles me greatly as a descendent of one of this bright city's pioneering mayors that Los Angeles has done nothing to revitalize either its once great industrial base nor its natural city centers.
The architecture of national franchises is making every neighborhood look the same like a parking lot. These developments are removing regional differences in our cityscapes and replacing them with the same Big Box Architecture everywhere. One of the major aspects of these architectural models is the rejection of the sidewalk as a social utility. Instead, these buildings separate themselves from the street and the sidewalk behind acres of asphalt parking lots.
Sociologically, the mega-superstores cannot replace the psychological and sociological benefits that spring from active city centers. In Los Angeles, Santa Monica's Third Street Promenade and the Garment District are wonderful examples of vibrant and economically resilient neighborhoods that have naturally gone through several reincarnations/rejuvenations, even in my lifetime. Compare this to the mega-superstores, where there is no lingering, no talking of important news of the day, no casual connectedness.
So, when we think about it, we can logically see that Big Box developments, such as mega-superstores, are a false start to a better local economy, bad for the ecological sustainability of our cities when compared to more economically and sociologically diverse city centers. Don't let Big Box mega-superstores like Wal-Mart or Home Depot overrun Los Angeles' vibrant commercial districts, but instead build up those already existing and natural city centers.
From the economic, ecological, and sociological points of view, mega-superstores are the hammers that ring the death knell for innovation and entrepreneurship in Los Angeles and the rest of America.
Thomas M. Fenaughty is the great-grandnephew of Henry Mellus, the third mayor of Los Angeles. His book is titled "How to Stop Suburbia from Killing America: A Primer."
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