July 25, 2015

Being local vs. being rooted

The rise of the "buy local" phenomenon is understandable given the omnipresence of chain stores across the nation and corporate control over the economy. Normal people distrust mega-sized entities having so much influence over their everyday lives. Supporting a local business, even if they sell mass market products, or purchasing local products, even if it's at a chain store, allows ordinary people push back against wealthy and powerful outsiders who are trying to gobble up the local ecosystem.

At the same time, we shouldn't mistake being local to a community with being rooted in that community. Depending on where you are in the country, a majority of the "buy local" businesses may not have been around for even five years, and may not exist another five years into the future.

This is part of the broader pattern where businesses catering to trendy upper-middle-class tastes go through a much more rapid and volatile churning, as yesterday's stairmaster farm gives way to today's yoga studio, or as one shabby chic design store becomes too predictable and gets replaced by another, more refreshing shabby chic design store.

These locally owned and operated businesses do keep outside corporate influence at bay, but they do not provide local residents with a sense of belonging to a community. Feeling anchored within a place requires that place to be fairly stable itself. No one can feel secure within a house that becomes unglued from its foundation and keeps shifting all over the landscape.

Chain stores, too, may be here today, gone tomorrow — especially if they're chasing after those with large disposable incomes. In one of the main shopping centers where I grew up during adolescence, there used to be a Whole Foods that arrived sometime during the 2000s, but has since moved 20 to 30 minutes away to a wealthier suburb. I don't think it lasted even 10 years.

As for places that are rooted, some may be local and quirky — such as the few mom & pop grocery stores still left — but others may be nondescript chain stores that have been there forever.

If it's been in place long enough, even a bland generic chain store may serve as an anchor for local residents' experiences and memories, in effect making it a one-of-a-kind and distinctly local place. Particular experiences of particular groups of people have unfolded there across several generations. Only to an outsider would the place look and feel "just like any other chain of its kind," blind to the social history within and around the built environment.

The inability to recognize one's outsider ignorance of local history and conditions stems from autism, which runs high among people who like to gab about architecture, geography, space, place, etc. And of course the handful of longtime residents who whine about nearby rooted businesses most likely never fit into the community in the first place.

"Why can't the city council just knock down those ugly two-story brick apartment buildings next to that lame barber shop and that useless hardware store? It could literally be a mid-rise tower with luxury condos above a Starbucks and a Panera on the ground floor. Oh wait, I forgot — the tacky locals here can't conceptualize how epic a mixed-use space would be. I swear, I'm getting out of this dump and moving to Minneapolis!"

It's disturbing to think of how much influence over commercial and civic life is wielded by this coalition of tone-deaf autistic outsiders and bratty local misfits.

Cohesive communities where folks have deep roots are not so easily destabilized, as the intentional lack of dynamism encourages the local brats to leave and makes it unattractive — BORING — as a target for colonization by trendoid transplants. Likewise, you can easily spot which areas to avoid living in, where none of the shops have been in place for more than five to ten years, mirroring the flux-driven anonymity among the residents.

On the practical side, how can these patterns be used to try to cement an otherwise rootless area? Rootedness would have to be an intentional plan at first. Start with something as "simple" as passing municipal legislation about turnover rates for commercial real estate. "Simple," assuming the will is there to begin with.

That would also go a long ways toward solving the problem of high turnover among residential real estate, as only those residents who prefer stability will stay or move in.

Attacking residential turnover is hard to accomplish directly. People will rightfully chafe at having their residency being regulated so closely by the government, even if it is in the best interests of communal stability. Regulating businesses for the greater community's interests is far more palatable politically.

Moreover, businesses, churches, libraries, and the like can remain in place indefinitely into the future and serve as anchors across the generations. A particular person living in a particular home cannot do that. Those who were closed to them may remember their house as "the house where Mrs. Baumgartner used to live," but that doesn't spread out too far as second-hand or third-hand knowledge, and will not be understood by future generations who don't know who Mrs. Baumgartner was to begin with. But they all may have worshiped in the same church, spent summer days in the same pool, and eaten at the same mom & pop cafeteria across the street.


  1. yeah, even small business turnover is as disruptive as a big market chain moving in. I see that tied to status-striving also - lots of strivers starting their new small businesses

  2. in the small college town I went to, there was main street, a few blocks long, where businesses were always turning over. only one or two eateries there were long-lasting.

  3. Great post. I work at a small (one owner and 3 employees) shop in the Poconos (Pennsylvania). We've been in business since 1981. We have a tremendous following amongst the locals and whenever out-of-towners come in they are impressed by our service, selection, and prices. A lot of our local customers say that they prefer to support the local guy instead of feeding the behemoth corporate monster 30 miles away. A lot of people try to buy local when they can. And it works out, because the money they spend here goes into my pocket and I'll in turn spend it locally. Micro-economics is a really interesting subject. I'd write more but I'm too busy enjoying a beer brewed in PA I bought down the street from the town general store. Cheers!

  4. Where I grew up there is one old supermarket that has been there forever. Part of a big chain but so old its unique in its outlay and look.

    Where I live now is a very rooted place but too close to an overpriced city so the city slickers are began moving in a few years back and now the developers have followed them and want to knock down all the old buildings and put in high rises. Its a major problem in Australia with people trying to escape the city to find a little town only to have the developers follow and then turn it into an overdeveloped hell hole that city slickers left the city to get away from.

  5. "lots of strivers starting their new small businesses"

    Hubby makes enough money, but I don't want my business degree to go to waste -- I know, I'll start that shabby chic design store I've always been thinking of. It's so in, and I know women, so it'll be a hit!

    :shabby chic shop folds in two years, is replaced by another that will fail in another two years, led by another restless housewife who majored in business:

    It's way worse out West, of course. Not just all the start-ups in tech fields (which are designed to be sold off to some big rich gobbler-upper). Indie coffee shops are way more numerous and here today / gone tomorrow. Quirky clothing boutiques. Really anything you can think of.

    Striving out West is based on lifestyle rather than wealth and power (back East), so the point is not to form a start-up to get forever rich and powerful, but just-rich-enough from the buy-out in order to live a fashionable lifestyle. Or crafting a persona where starting up businesses is a lifestyle.

    It adds to the feeling of impermanence out West, despite having been settled for over 100 years now. Turnover is a matter of lifestyle.

  6. "in the small college town I went to, there was main street, a few blocks long, where businesses were always turning over. only one or two eateries there were long-lasting."

    Any area with built-in high residential turnover will have greater transience of commercial places. College towns and military towns.

    Most high school seniors who prefer a college-town atmosphere think they're going to get a quaint small town atmosphere. But folks aren't constantly coming and going in a small town, vs. all the time in a college town.

    There's not a whole lot to anchor onto, other than the school buildings. You can't even share memories of many stores with alumni who were five years before or five years after you. The commercial landscape there is as generationally specific as bell-bottom jeans, or having listened to "Baby One More Time" during frat parties.

  7. I wonder if Millennials aren't very attached to specific places, if they have grown up during a period of such high turnover. The building where they went to school, maybe (unless it's seen a major remodel, which is more common in striving times). But I mean in general.

    They must have the same instinct to want to attach themselves to places, but wind up frustrated during their development by the always shifting landscape, and become cynical about it in young adulthood and after.

    Might as well not expect anything to be there in five years, so why try to preserve it when you can make it a customizable playground right now?

    And it's not the Millennials' fault, when they're minors anyways. It's mommy and daddy, and the childless grown-ups of the community whose lifestyle contests are causing all that commercial churn, rather than let it be and allow the neighborhood kids a stable landscape to anchor themselves to.

    It's not out of malice, of course, since striving is short-sighted and neglectful rather than spiteful. Still, don't they realize that it's bad for a kid to change schools every couple years, or homes, or social circles, or parents / guardians? Sure they do. So why the blind spot for all the stores they'll be visiting during their formative years?

  8. "Micro-economics is a really interesting subject."

    It'll be hard to make that go mainstream, though, by taking an economic approach. Fact is, mom & pop stores are slightly more expensive, and for today's atomized consumerist Americans, having to pay 10 cents more per can of tomatoes is unthinkable.

    Rather than arguing that it makes better economic sense, appeal to their sense of tribalism and cultural autonomy. You can get that can of tomatoes for 10 cents cheaper at the mega-market, but then you'll have to endure charmless mega-markets your whole life, and possibly get pushed around by them (if they want to redevelop, buy off the city council, bring out the lawyers, etc., they have the deep pockets to do so).

  9. Baz, for some reason your comment went into the spam folder.

    "Its a major problem in Australia with people trying to escape the city to find a little town only to have the developers follow and then turn it into an overdeveloped hell hole that city slickers left the city to get away from."

    You might try looking for a town where most of the homes were built before 1950s, preferably during the '20s. Everyone recognizes how sacred those styles are, and won't knock them down just to put up tract homes, apartment towers, etc.

    There could still be gentrification problems if all the wealthy hipsters are piling into these neighborhoods that scream VINTAGE. But there must be some places where the residents tend to stay put, allowing little turnover. It'll be harder to get in, but worth it.

    Most of the gentrifiers want a place that will put up minimal resistance and that has a huge selection to choose from at any given time (i.e., high turnover).

  10. "Where I grew up there is one old supermarket that has been there forever. Part of a big chain but so old its unique in its outlay and look."

    I do most of my grocery shopping at a mom & pop place that is so old it doesn't even have conveyer belts at the check-out line. Just an island for the cash register, an open space next to it where a single shopping cart can be parked for unloading the items, and another larger island at the end where the items can be placed for bagging. There's also a small shelf on the bagging island that will hold a hand basket.

    The shelves ("gondolas") are about a foot shorter than what you'd see in a mega-market, and are not nearly as deep -- one to two feet, I'd say, compared to three or four. Each aisle feels like a (very well stocked) pantry in someone's home, not a warehouse where preppers for the zombie apocalypse are stocking up on essentials for the next 10 years in a single trip.

    It's been in business since the late '80s, but the owner more or less acquired an older small-scale grocery store that had been there since at least the '60s, maybe the '50s.

    And I remember going there as a child, so it feels even more familiar and comforting.

    Most of the customers, too, have clearly been going there for years or decades. I'd put the median age at 50 to 60, mostly longtime local residents.

    There are two upscale mega-markets for trendoids -- both national chains, neither of which has been there even 10 years -- where most everybody goes, sucking away what could be going to a rooted local business. It goes to show how fake much of the "buy local" attitude is among the upper-middle class, especially if they're transplants.

  11. There is a popular song about growing up in a small, close-knit area. It's called "Good Time Charlie's Got The Blues." Perhaps you've heard it.

    1. That was a 1972 hit by Danny O'Keefe. It might have been written about Wenatchee WA where he grew up (and where I lived in 2013). Anyway, it's a good song.


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