One-Shop Stopping

Do Wal-Mart and Home Deport spell the end of "community"? A report on the superstore wars.

There's nothing wrong with NIMBY if it's going to de-stroy your backyard," intones Douglas I. Foy, the executive director of the Conservation Law Foundation, "New England's legal watchdog for the environment."

But Foy is not talking about your typical Not-In-My-Backyard target--a nuclear waste dump or a landfill or an incinerator. He's railing against a less obvious villain--superstore retailers such as Wal-Mart and Home Depot. These chains, says Foy, build gigantic stores on oversized lots and drive out all competitors so people must shop there. "Sprawl-busting," he declares, "is NIMBY at its best."

Foy is speaking at a conference called "Superstore Sprawl or Vital Communities: Citizens Can Choose," held last December in Boston and co-sponsored by the Conservation Law Foundation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, and the Preservation Trust of Vermont.

He is a study in restrained anger. He's mad about the rate of development in Sherborn, the Boston suburb he calls home. "You can't sit in your front yard" any more because of the traffic, he says. Sprawl brings an "ugliness that trashes our neighborhoods" and "threatens our children's safety."

He apologizes for driving to the conference rather than taking public transportation. "The single most damaging environmental problem we are party to is driving," asserts Foy. Because sprawl kills opportunities to shop on foot, we have, he laments, become a nation of "car potatoes."

For a second, I wonder if I have wandered into a meeting of National Buggywhip stockholders by mistake. But I'm definitely in the right place:

"Bargain shopping that costs the community its soul is no bargain," says Richard Moe, president of National Trust for Historic Preservation, a congressionally chartered nonprofit group whose mission is "to foster an appreciation...of American cultural heritage...and to preserve and revitalize the livability of our communities."

Our "sense of community is at risk in America today," warns Moe. Once superstores locate at the edge of town, he says, the downtown empties out and moves to strip malls. "I've yet to see a strip mall that has a sense of community," he says, coaxing a bitter laugh from the audience of about 130 people.

The "struggle" against sprawl "is about maintaining quality of life," Anne Leary, co-founder of Villagers for Responsible Planning and Save Historic East Aurora, tells the crowd. Leary has led the charge against Wal-Mart in East Aurora, New York, a small town about 20 miles southeast of Buffalo. "It's about the druggist who will bring your prescription at 11 p.m. when your kid is sick and will pick up milk and bread for you on the way home." Despite such service, says Leary, the small-town druggist can't compete with the big chains.

Foy, Moe, and Leary are prominent voices in a burgeoning anti-superstore movement. Opponents of mega-retailers charge that, far from providing cheap goods and services, discount chains such as Wal-Mart and "category killers" such as Home Depot actually destroy communities by hounding local merchants out of business, building stores far beyond "the human scale," and promoting a shallow "drive-by culture."

To combat "sprawl--the poorly planned, land-gobbling, automobile-oriented development that typically occurs on the outskirts of cities and town [and] contribute[s] to the physical and economic decline of many traditional and historic downtown business districts"--superstore opponents support stringent land-use measures and other legislation that would greatly restrict commercial development. Over the past few years, activists have opposed--sometimes successfully, sometimes not--plans for new Wal-Mart, Home Depot, and other "big-box" retail stores in states as far-flung as California, Colorado, Florida, Illinois, Iowa, Maryland, Nebraska, New Jersey, New York, Ohio, Oregon, Pennsylvania, Tennessee, and Virginia.

The opposition to Wal-Mart and other "superstore Goliaths" has been fiercest in New England, the part of the country most prideful of its regional solidarity and its quaintness. In 1993, the Massachusetts towns of Greenfield and Westford kept Wal-Mart out after highly publicized and bitterly contested fights. Over a dozen similar fracases have cropped up in Connecticut, Maine, and Rhode Island, as well.

Vermont remains the only state in the contiguous United States that is virgin territory for the Bentonville, Arkansas-based retailer (Kmart and several other superstore chains are present). Just when Wal-Mart was set to open up shop in the Green Mountain State--in a scaled-down store in St. Johnsbury--the deal fell through. More recently, Gov. Howard Dean laid down the law to visiting Wal-Mart executives, telling them they were welcome only if they played by the state's rigid zoning and planning rules.

Since they perceive themselves as locked in a life-or-death struggle, it's not surprising that the activists' rhetoric tends toward the extreme: One told me that "mega-stores gut the hell out of a town." And it is often explicitly anti-Wal-Mart; that's one of the costs of being the country's most successful retailer. Wal-Mart, with more than 2,000 stores in the United States alone, is "the exemplar of...corporate colonialism, which is to say, organizations from one place going into distant places and strip-mining them culturally and economically," one opponent told The Wall Street Journal. "We're not anti-Wal-Mart," another explained to the Baltimore Sun, "we are anti-pig." In 1993, the National Trust declared the entire state of Vermont to be "endangered" by "Sprawl-Mart."

There is a certain irony to the vilification of Wal-Mart as corporate colonizer: Until recently, the chain, started in 1962 by congenial, jes'-plain-folks entrepreneur Sam Walton, was lauded for bringing national brands at low prices to small-town America--in fact, Wal-Mart symbolized small-town America. And, despite its size, it still keeps its headquarters in Bentonville and still holds true to its middle-America image and marketing strategy.

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