When I think of the alternative to Wal-Mart, the supposed ideal society of small shopkeeper and the family farmer, I’m reminded of the abyssmal [sic]service, high prices, lack of selection, and utter dreariness of Hyde Park, Chicago, where I went to school. ~Chris Roach
Now perhaps I have been living in Hyde Park for too long and have been taken in by the place, but the words abysmal and dreary do not pop into my mind when I think of it. I won’t pretend that it is a marvelous neighbourhood, or that it is an instantiation of the small community ideal, but it is actually still something of an urban neighbourhood community (to the extent that this has not always been something of a contradiction in terms), which cannot be said for its counterparts in Glen Ellyn, Aurora and Naperville with their antiseptically beautiful rows of identical houses full of people who do not know each other. Evanston is similar to Hyde Park in many of the same ways with respect to being free of the box and chain stores, and while it has plenty of problems no one I know could reasonably describe it as abysmal or dreary.
The neighbourhood co-op does not seem to be charging such terribly expensive prices (since it is the main grocery store for the neighbourhood, I don’t have many handy comparative examples to know whether their prices are competitive–presumably, as a small co-op chain, they will not be perfectly competitive with a much larger chain such as Dominick’s), the selection seems perfectly adequate and the service in dreary old Hyde Park is no better or worse than that found in chain groceries in the suburbs of Chicago. The neighbourhood is, of course, oriented around the University and so tends to be heavy on services (mostly restaurants) and light on other kinds of stores. And no one would deny that the South Side surrounding Hyde Park is of an almost entirely different character from the neighbourhood. But if we want to speak about dreary places in Chicago, the “revitalised” Cabrini Green would be a better target than Hyde Park, which remains one of the few bright spots on the South Side in part because of the presence of the University. It is also undeniable that for things like appliances or furniture or any of the durable goods that the box stores sell in huge numbers that Hyde Park does not have stores that offer these things, but it is not hard to imagine why small stores providing these services would not exactly flourish in the age of Target and Wal-Mart.
In any case, Hyde Park is hardly a complete hold-out against chain stores of all kinds nor is it some hard-core center of mom ‘n’ pop businesses, though you will never encounter one of the sprawling megastores here or anywhere east of the Dan Ryan and south of Roosevelt. The city has made sure of that. I don’t know whether native Hyde Park and South Side residents would prefer to have Wal-Mart open in their neighbourhoods, but I strongly doubt it. Undoubtedly, opening these chain stories would save the people some money, perhaps quite a lot of money. But perhaps there is something else about their place, for all its flaws and higher prices, that they would rather save. Perhaps the people who live in the dreary abyss do not see it as such, but instead love it for what it is and would rather bear the costs of keeping it more as it is than succumbing to the rush to homogenise every corner of America.
Chicagoans will certainly have their chance to turn out the city councilmen who have kept the Lords of Bentonville from entering the city, but I think we all know that this isn’t going to happen (this is Chicago, after all, not some sort of kooky democracy). Probably in the end, in the name of growth and efficiency, the Wal-Marts and the chain restaurants will come, which will not mean a vibrant and happy Hyde Park to replace the abysmal dreariness that some remember, but simply a neighbourhood with shuttered windows on every block.