Big Box Stores — the Municipal Equivalent of Crack

I started a series on the “psychology of the suburbs” unsure if crack, big box sprawl, the amygdala, “Don’t Tread on Me,” and innovation–stunting conformity had a legitimate connection. I ended it confident they do.

Let’s begin with crack. It’s got immediate perks for sure. But there are the long-term consequences that render the short-term gains moot. This lesson of crack is also the lesson of big box economics, i.e., initial tax revenue hit succumbs to long-term cost of sprawl. But we got no rehab for cities, or any value-driven consensus to stop the self-destructing instant gratification for that matter.

Case in point: a new 177,000 Sq. Ft. Wal-Mart Superstore is being located in the Cleveland suburb of South Euclid. The chain will close a store less than a mile away. The consequences are predictable, including: an eating away at the multiplier effect of the local economy; the arrival of every Wal-Mart worker making 1.5 other local retail jobs disappear; an annual public subsidy of low-wage, insurance-less Wal-Mart employees of about $2,100 in public assistance; and a race to the bottom: Exhibit A “opening a single Wal-Mart store lowers the average retail wage in the surrounding county between 0.5 and 0.9 percent”, and Exhibit B: “our study concludes that in 2000, total earnings of retail workers nationwide were reduced by $4.5 billion due to Wal-Mart’s presence”.


But that’s economic development living in sprawl. And here it is, straight from the horse’s mouth (the horse in this case being L. Brooks Patterson, county executive of Oakland County, Mich):

“Well, let me state it unequivocally: I love sprawl…I need it. I promote it. Oakland County can’t get enough of it.”

I need it … can’t get enough of it. Crack indeed.

Now let’s step back and take a look at the big picture of why economic development in the sprawl is so unoriginal, always doing the same thing over and over, even as research points to the conclusion that tax breaks to big box developers for tax revenue does not development make.  It’s a lot about creativity, a lack of it, or more exactly: the psychology of sprawl that persists in exurbia that inhibits ingenuity and innovation from taking place.

First, some background on that psychology: the evolution of suburbia to exurbia was a physical reflection of an internal desire for security and control. This desire was a consequence of the post-war times, which had school kids doing under-the-desk Armageddon drills between lunch and math, and between that and McCarthyism—not to mention a fresh memory of Hitler and the Depression—no wonder folks bolted to wherever security was made out to be. Enter space, orderliness, and homogeneity. But also a lack of flava. The writer Lewis Mumford described the suburban aesthetic and lifestyle as thus:

a multitude of uniform, unidentifiable houses, lined up inflexibly, at uniform distances, on uniform roads, in a treeless communal waste, inhabited by people of the same class, the same income, the same age group, witnessing the same television performances, eating the same tasteless prefabricated foods, from the same freezers, conforming in every outward and inward respect to a common mold…

The curious part is why so many would conform as such, especially in a country known for its so-called “rugged individualism”.  It has a lot to do with being a country churned on fear.  (See for instance: Gun nation, Inside America’s gun-carry culture in the Christian Science Monitor).  This is nothing new. But rarely is American fear discussed in relation to how we build and run our cities and economies.

Fear is an extremely primitive emotion. Fear is of the amygdala, aka “the lizard brain”, which is the most basic part of the human brain. The lizard brain is fight or flight—consume or be consumed—and is perhaps most famously put to symbol by the Gadsden Flag, or that “Don’t Tread on Me” scripted below coiled snake.

The problem here is that if a person or a society operates at its most primitive level as a matter of recourse, then sacrifices ensue, particularly related to more advanced parts of the human brain that govern social relationships and creativity.  (Note also that a penetration deeper into the lizard brain can ensue, e.g., sprawl—to gated community in sprawl—to driving around in gated community in sprawl with a gun while hunting for “evil” penetration).

In fact the lizard brain has been fingered as a prime killer of creativity. The thinking goes: the amygdala disdains ostracization, and so such going-against-the-grain acts as individual thinking and creation are buried by conformity, kind of like a camouflaging into the masses.  Hence, the blah of exurbia, the economic hamster wheel that is Big Box, with humanness relegated to a system akin to beads on a wire going to places that don’t even mean anything, outside of buying something that is unneeded—or that reinforce the notion that there are spaces for “others” and there are spaces for “us”.  Doing otherwise would undermine the foundation that sprawl’s protective walls were built on.

Of course at this rate—with the broken model of growth increasingly bringing the traditionally urban vulnerabilities of poverty, insecurity, and abandonment right  up on the manicured lawns—well, who knows? Perhaps it’s only a matter of time before the snake begins eating its own tail, if it’s not already halfway down its own throat.

Call it creative destruction. Or at least the destruction needed to get creative.

–By Richey Piiparinen


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