Barbarians at the gate: The modern-day slayer of cities

“We used to build civilizations. Now we build shopping malls”

Bill Bryson

I remember going down to the market with my Dad on a Sunday morning. It was an exciting atmosphere. Glorious smells filled my nose. Too many interesting and colourful things to see. A hubbub of noise bubbled through my ears as stall owners haggled over a fair price with their customers. Still a vivid and wonderful childhood memory.

The contrast between the faces of the stall owners of my childhood and the checkout staff at the supermarket could not be more apparent. The smiles and cheeky jibes have been replaced by the sullen stare and pained courtesy of the minimum wage labourer.

For much of our history the market place in our cities have been the heart of community life. On occasion where a foreign army threatened a town locals manned the walls to protect their mother city and repel the invader. To fail was to let the city fall. Once the marauding army moved on whatever population that was left began the long task of rebreathing life into the dying city.

Foreign armies at the gates is still a threat, but more recently the killer of cities, as Jane Jacobs points out in The Death and Life of Great American Cities, are now the developers of big box retail, malls and supermarkets. These monstrous city slayers drive down life, destroy meaningful occupations and have become atherosclerosis in the heart of our towns and villages. The individuality, variability and good service provided by a myriad of small business owners has been replaced with unappealing uniformity. Mall after mall in town after town have become carbon copies. Our shopping experience has become very boring. The small high street trader can no longer compete with these giant siege machines. Jobs  that were once personal, fulfilling and profitable have been replaced with low paid repetitive, low skilled McJobs.

Many of those small family owned shops used to fulfill other important community functions. These shops were (and still are if you can find them) the club house of sub-culture. Cyclists, skaters, musicians, and artists loiter at the independent bringing with them a richness and energy that well never be found in aisle G at K-mart.

Supermarkets and big box retailers are warehouses yet they charge us retail prices. The irony of they system is that many workers need never leave the supermarket. They are paid so little for their efforts and the prices so high that the must quite literally pump their wages back into the supermarket that has just paid them in order to eat. Where can they afford to live on what is left? Better to pull double shifts and try to sleep in the staffroom.

Megabox retailers drive traffic growth making our streets more dangerous. They also drive terrible environmental practices and conditions on food producers and farmers. They market heavily and litigate forcefully so that we continue to embrace their expansion.  If you are saying to yourself, ‘what’s wrong with a supermarket?’ click here. I find it very strange that civic planners will let supermarkets replace entire city blocks, but they won’t allow someone to build their own small  (nano, yurt, strawbale or tree) house themselves.

Okay this has been a very negative critique of megabox retail and gocery stores so far. More negative than I like to be, but it all has a happy ending trust me.

So what is one to do when the mega store is omnipresent, convenient and highly persuasive?

1 ) Harbour the view that shopping is corrosive and enfeebling

I wish to have a happy life that makes a positive difference. To do this I must have enough money to escape money. This can only be achieved if I save my money and spend only on low harm goods. The typical view of the saver is of delayed gratification and of missing out. My view is completely different. I view shopping as an admission of my own personal incompetence. I must shop (therefore I must work and am not free) when I can’t grow, make, create or discover a solution myself. When I am in the mood to admit incompetence (which as my friends will tell you should be far more regularly given my numerous failed craftings) I prefer to admit that the local boot maker is a better shoe repairer than me. I can confidently say that we are both infinitely more capable and interested in fixing my shoes than the Super Shoe Mart employee who will be fixing my soles for $7 an hour.

2) Stop financing slayers of cities and instead fund the wonderful independent business that are more than just stores.

Shop small. Shop local. Help break the monopoly of faceless corporations. As local merchants return they will pay us dividends by providing interesting jobs and caring employers, they will treat us as individuals, they will give us discounts because we are friends, they will sponsor and help fund our children’s sporting adventures and they will give us back our meeting houses and community hubs.

3) Grow a garden and buy in bulk

If you are buying from a warehouse, you may as well benefit from paying warehouse prices by shopping with wholesalers. Some wholesalers sell minimum quantities that are too big for one family. Think 50 kg of brown rice. The neat solution is to form a cooperative with you neighbours and shop collectively. Doing so provides opportunity for friendship. It also enables you to produce meals for cents instead of dollars.

You will never see me with a placard throwing stones and protesting the development of a ghastly over fat shopping mall.

Instead, if you are looking for me come to the cobbler’s. We’ll be there drinking coffee together and talking about life.

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