by Stacy Mitchell
(Beacon Press; 318 pages)
Stacy Mitchell’s Big-Box Swindle is pretty damned depressing. In it, she paints a grim picture of blight, poverty, and a corporate-controlled monoculture that has swept the nation with precious little resistance, thanks to zombified shoppers bent on disposing of their incomes to the lowest bidder.
Solid facts make the chaining of America seem this depressing, if not inevitable. This is particularly true when she equates corporatization to colonization: plunder and move on once an area is depleted. “Our communities are fast becoming colonies once again, subject to a new crop of transnational corporations that exercise an extraordinary degree of power over our economy, and are remaking the American landscape for their own ends,” Mitchell writes. “They are in part a product of government policy, which has ignored their full costs, as well as created the context for our own, often shortsighted, shopping choices.”
But, “Across the country, citizens, local business owners, and elected officials are taking steps to curb their proliferation and rebuild local enterprises.” Mitchell leavens the depressing facts with information about how communities have inoculated themselves against this modern scourge, leaving room for the hope that cities and neighborhoods can still be unique, vital entities. “In an increasingly sprawl-ridden and homogeneous landscape, communities that have preserved their unique identity and the vitality of their commercial centers have a rare advantage. Research has found that vibrant and distinctive downtowns, open space, walkable neighborhoods and commercial districts, and natural amenities are important factors in many business-location decisions.” Mitchell warns that “consequences of big-box development … tend to undermine a city’s appeal and can even drive business away.”
To be fair, this is no recent phenomenon. Mitchell traces the chaining of American and grassroots opposition to it from the days of the A&P and Woolworth’s. Originally, chain store taxes and other legislation stemmed the growth of these stores, but in the period between 1939 and 1940 those laws were reversed, allowing these chains to explode.
Mitchell begins the book with a sobering example that prompted me to read further. When I lived in Northern California, Kepler’s Books was a mandatory Bay area destination. When within stopping distance, I gladly parted with large sums of money for a healthy stack of books and magazines, then enjoyed reading at Café Barone, right next door. The survival of Kepler’s is a startling introduction to her accounts of the myriad problems big box development brings to communities.
Chief among these is the promise of employment. Developers promise jobs. Mitchell asks us to think about what constitutes a job? That is, what is a real job? Real prosperity? She explains the profound erosion these developments have had on the now-vanishing middle class as well as the poor.
There is a direct correlation, she says with support from expert studies, between local business ownership and democracy. Those cities or areas in which there is true community have better voter turnout, greater community involvement, and enjoy the benefits of greater social capital. She says this is a result of the web of personal connections fostered by local businesses.
She includes a snippet from an interview with Rick Cole, Ventura City Manager, as well as examples of communities from throughout California who have taken to fighting these sorts of developments – Lancaster, Inglewood. Mitchell also tells of efforts by individuals and groups in other cities large and small throughout the nation who are fighting to keep their commerce and communities vibrant.
Mitchell’s book is filled with excellent information and examples. It’s hard to get past the bleak facts, but there is hope. What she prods readers to do is examine whether their own quest for convenience and low prices should come at the price of community cohesion and an engaged citizenry. This makes it essential reading for anyone with spare change jangling in their pockets.
Linda Dailey Paulson is a Ventura-based freelance writer. She prefers to dispose of her income at area businesses including Anacapa Fine Yarns and Grady’s Records as well as unique woman-owned Internet enterprises like Black Phoenix Alchemy Lab and SBS Teas.