Sunday, July 24, 2005

Neighborhoods Count

The New York Sun reprinted an interesting article by David Shribman that had originally appeared in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. The jump point of the piece was a new mall that had recently opened up in the Pittsburgh area with five sections called “neighborhoods.”

Shribman’s point was to stress just how important neighborhood values are even in today’s sprawl-dominated landscape. The sense of place and community, local responsibility and human courtesy are the values that he chooses to highlight.

The article also takes a shot at the Applebees “Neighborhood Bar and Grill,” and points out that a generic menu and d├ęcor and 1,700 outlets worldwide can’t be considered part of a distinctive local neighborhood. We do think, however, that Shribman misses a larger point. Applebees and the Pittsburgh mall, while trying to portray themselves as neighborhood-based, are part of a greater trend that has led to the death of these very neighborhoods: the malling of America.

It is like the tomato sauce that was marketing itself by claiming that 20 Italian grandmothers couldn’t replicate its “authentic” Italian flavor. The mass produced sauce substitutes for the real thing and then, voila, the real thing isn’t needed anymore, replaced by a mock-up that symbolizes its lost glory.

Neighborhoods and Small Business

Shribman also fails to mention the importance of the neighborhood store. When he talks about “walking down the street on a streaming July night with an ice cream cone and, even if you're new in town, running into at least one person per block whom you know,” he is talking about a Main Street that gets its very essence from the mom and pop stores that populate it.

We have made this argument a central feature of our conservative case against Wal-Mart but it is not only directed at the world’s largest retailer. It is about the importance of preserving the ecology of neighborhoods and the stores that give them their unique identity. That is what is so objectionable about the neighborhood facades constructed by mass marketers who, if left unopposed, will bury the last vestige of the real thing.