Las Vegas, NV
San Bernardino, CA
Los Angeles, CA
It seems, given the opportunity, every city in this country will sprawl. Albuquerque, Flagstaff, Los Angeles, Las Vegas and its neighboring Henderson all have accelerated in claiming the flat landscape. The intersections of major freeways are now the points of interest instead of city street corners.
In the past these sprawling cities must have seemed like growths with no end in sight. Today some peripheries have reached natural boundaries forcing development in new directions. Henderson is a typical bedroom community with commuting traffic to Las Vegas via the oversaturated outer loop freeway. The loop itself is functioning beyond its capacity like a clogged artery. New developments are being built without restrictions, taxing the freeways even further. Los Angeles and its growing suburbs continue to create new cities with the same strip of retailers every so often.
Could Wal-Mart make the difference? Could Wal-Mart re-organize the landscape of suburbia?
As a major supporter of suburban communities, Wal-Mart is essentially the town center. In some cases it can divide a city by placing several Wal-Marts on the outskirts of the city, reconfiguring local regions according to their distance to the closest Wal-Mart.
The problem with Wal-Mart as a town center is that it obliterates the importance of the town center, by re-signifying the program as a shopping center (often paving the way for other large retailers to join nearby, in which case the shared parking lot becomes the town center). Although it seems appropriate for the accelerated consumerism of this culture, communication within a community is lost, therefore sprawl and the distancing of communities physically and emotionally follows predictably.
California has fought Wal-Mart’s attempts to set up its oversized architecture in large suburb-cities, although many smaller suburbs already have Wal-Marts as town centers and plenty more are on their way. In recent events, Wal-Mart had lost a battle to open its Superstore (the size of 17 football fields) in Inglewood. Many opposed the construction based on what we have seen all over the country. Wal-Mart’s interests are solely to provide the lowest prices possible to attract the most customers possible, all in the name of profit and growth. The side effects of such policies are abundant and significant. Even after Wal-Mart’s one million dollar campaign to convince the public, the residents of Inglewood voted against Wal-Mart’s arrival. It is surprising to find the widespread effects of Wal-Mart’s proposed influx do not end there. “Last fall, some 70,000 grocery clerks throughout Southern California walked out on strike against the Ralphs, Vons, Albertsons, and Pavilions grocery stores; after four months and 18 days spent on picket lines, those workers agreed to a new labor contract full of concessions, including steep cuts in wages and health care benefits for newly hired employees.”( Voters in Inglewood, CA Reject Wal-Mart Superstore , Democracy Now!, Thursday, April 22nd, 2004 http://www.democracynow.org/article.pl?sid=04/04/22/150248)
Even after their victory against Wal-Mart Supercenters, no retailer can go unharmed without opening to customers for over 4 months. Today the morale and the inventory of the grocery stores are not to par. Many customers who were forced to find new outlets have not returned to the stores that went on strike. Has Wal-Mart become so powerful that it can put others out of business simply with a threat? This is only the beginning to the many battles Wal-Mart is going to face, as the media and the public’s interest in Wal-Mart’s policies help establish opinions among the population.
Wal-Mart is currently testing the “Neighborhood Market” (among others), which is an attempt to provide a local grocery store to customers who avoid shopping at their massive Supercenters. It will be interesting to see how this scenario pans out. Other Wal-Mart stores being tested are banks and clothing stores. If they are successful it would introduce a new model of localization of businesses by large retailers. Perhaps the division of merchandising could be taken further, so other families of products could have their own spin offs as a solo storefront on a downtown street, recreating the mixed used downtown that most suburbs lack. Current store managers of Wal-Marts are encouraged to treat their division within Wal-Mart (whether it is the sporting goods section or the auto repairs section) as a private store within a store, so in reality each section could have a storefront of its own.
I often hear people speaking of their “love, hate” relationship to Wal-Mart. Meanwhile they “go to find things I never new I needed.” Wal-Mart has its own consumer culture. There are those who love Wal-Mart and swear by their low prices and then there are those who cannot help shopping in what is familiar and convenient even with ethical dilemmas lingering in their minds. Wal-Mart for many is the quickest solution, or the best bet in finding whatever merchandise is needed. Why waste your time anywhere else, when you know Wal-Mart has what you want. Ultimately it is the consumer who decides how Wal-Mart will change to best serve the populace.