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Reimagining My Geography of Consumption

Maybe a mental remapping can make Main Street mainstream again.

As so often happens, it was a sojourn in Europe that suggested it was possible for things to be different.

The year after college I moved to Beauvais, a small, rainy town in northern France, to teach English. To acquaintances from Lyon and Paris, Beauvais was a sad place, caught as tragically in the conundra of post-industrial economics as any mid-American city of 50,000—lacking culture, leasing its last bit of life on the strength of its proximity to the metropolis.

To me, it was perfect.

Down the street from my long-term hostel was Europe’s tallest cathedral, facing one of five boulangeries within easy walking distance (not counting three chain bakeries). I could meet most of my daily needs by adding a detour to my 15-minute walk to either of the two schools I worked at: to the office supply store or the post office or the laundromat or the pocket-sized chain grocery store tucked usefully, if shamefaced, into a block facing the weekend open-air market.

For extraordinary needs for manufactured goods—a plastic hook to unclog my shower drain, for instance—I made the half-mile trek along the small, canalized river Thérain, around a corner, past a barbed-wire fenced gendarmerie, and into the freeway-connected, asphalt-paved moonscape of The Big Carrefour.

It had taken me months to discover the full-sized supermarket’s existence, and the impression it made as I dodged Peugeots on the roundabout and walked through sliding automatic doors was accordingly potent. A distant, fluorescent ceiling bathed me in a dazzling aura of pure consumer power. Unlike at the boulangerie or the bistrot, with its ceremonious waiters, here, among these anonymous aisles, I could hand my labor across a rubber conveyor belt in exchange for any object I could think of, no questions asked.

I wish I could say I resisted the charms of the grande surface. Some Saturdays I worked up the courage to mill through the open-air market, dodging eye contact with fromagères and hawkers of mushrooms and coming home, flushed with pride, with a carton of brown eggs. But more often I found myself trekking out to the moonscape. After weekdays spent navigating personal and working relationships in my second language and a foreign cultural world, I returned quietly to myself among the undemanding, self-explanatory, packaged goods.

When I eventually returned to my hometown, I found the proportions reversed. What had been one too many demands on my capacity for cultural engagement when the environment was foreign became a restless craving when the terrain was familiar. Living for the first time as an adult in St. Paul, Minnesota, my goal became to work my way into precisely the culturally embedded system of economic exchange I had learned to recognize from the outside in France.

I intended, as much as possible, to graft onto the minivan-dotted landscape of my childhood the pedestrian lifestyle I’d grown used to over four years as a college student and three years in walkable, transit-served cities abroad. I, alas, couldn’t dynamite the freeway system or instantly implement a regime of radical infill development. How far, I wondered, could I get by stubbornly pasting the habits of elsewhere onto this place?

Despite speaking the language here, it seemed a bit harder than it had looked in Beauvais. Beauvais’s 50,000 residents are concentrated in a tidy 13 square miles, yielding a population density nearly six times greater than that of my home region, a twin metropolis in which four million residents sprawl over a freeway-crisscrossed region of 6,000 square miles. Meanwhile, the French town’s butchers and patisseries and creameries are supported by a populace in whom a respect for good food has been so thoroughly instilled that even my generation calls a grocery store cheese “industrial.”

My native Twin Cities’ midwestern penchant for single-family homes and backyards means even urban neighborhoods quickly stretch beyond comfortable walking proportions. Neighborhood commerce, while present, is scarce; our general lack of debilitating traffic makes a short freeway drive as convenient as a local errand.

But here the mental aerobics begin. To make my life here more like the life I observed in Beauvais, I first have to shrink my frame of reference. Within the 13 square miles that fall within a 2-mile radius of my house in urban St. Paul, the smaller of the two Twin Cities, 83,000 people live, giving what could figuratively be called my neighborhood a population density 60 percent higher than Beauvais’s. This area, while not forming a coherent whole like the French city, contains, when you look closely, more than 3,000 businesses, spanning more than 40 North American Industrial Classification System codes.

To wit, within a 1-mile radius of my house, there are 44 restaurants, 27 churches, 23 attorneys, 21 real estate agents, 20 beauty salons, 13 schools, 10 clothing shops, eight gyms, seven each of coffee shops, financial advisors, chiropractors, and plumbers; six clinics; five each of banks, childcare centers, florists, funeral homes, fire departments, liquor stores, massage therapists, and physicians; four each of art galleries, barbers, caterers, dentists, grocers, gyms, insurance agents, pharmacies, jewelers, roofers, remodelers, and kindergartens; three architects, auto mechanics, bakers, bars, bonds salesmen, counselors, curiosity shops, shoe shops, tattoo artists, pet groomers, and music shops; two acupuncturists, brewers, carpet cleaners, donut shops, performance venues, interior designers, investment advisors, landscapers, libraries, manicurists, marketing consultants, martial arts studios, museums, optometrists, photography studios, ceramicists, publishers, tailors, tanning salons, tax return preparers, toy shops, and yoga studios; one bagel shop, one candy making supply store, one cigar shop, one craft supply store, one fabric shop, one flea market, one furniture store, one greeting card shop, one hardware store, one ice cream parlor, one juice bar, one lighting shop, one garden store, one shipping store, one office supply store, one spice shop, and one yarn shop.

The hardware is there. What’s lacking is the software. And that’s where the mental aerobics continue.

The urban fabric here might objectively have a looser weave, but as my navigation of Beauvais suggested, lived space is as much a mental and imaginary construct as a physical construction. If I train my mind and habits to run on local infrastructure, to intentionally connect the dots and connect my life to local cultural touch points (purely through intentional consumer choices), the data seem to suggest that there is enough there in the real world for me to be able to construct a more communally embedded, coherent, culturally rich life—even without changing anything in the outside world.

A few months into the experiment, I have to admit my forays are fraught with contradiction and compromise. For Christmas, my family all got local honey and hot sauce from a co-op for local independent retailers and a local food/gift store a five-minute walk from my house. Upon my first visit to the same retail co-op, however, I emerged having spent $60 on a pair of gloves and a set of blue light glasses that I soon discovered had been made in China. In search of drawing pencils once, thinking fondly of the excellent stationery shop down the street from my apartment in Montreal, I walked to a nearby PaperSource—and couldn’t find any pencils among the twinkle lights and monogrammed agendas. On the occasion of a friend’s wedding, I walked three quarters of a mile to an independent miscellaneous shop in search of a card and came out empty-handed. My most successful outings are consistently to the local Walgreens, for lotion or shampoo. 

Is such a life merely quirky—or worse, an exercise in futility? I haven’t changed the world with my stubborn pedestrianism, or even developed a sustainable lifestyle here of my own. In France I resisted the cultural landscape to pursue American consumer habits; here, perhaps, I am only perversely doing the reverse. The French regard big box stores as essentially American. Maybe they’re right.

Still, I don’t plan to give up reimagining my mental map until more of the local businesses litanized above have become visible for me. They’re out there. They remain largely hidden for me by the constrained horizon of my mass-channeled consumer habits. But I have geography on my side. Beckoning to me every day from the windows of St. Paul’s shops, promising to redeem the invitation I largely declined in France, is another foreign cultural world: my own.

Madeline Johnson is a research analyst for a commercial real estate firm in Minneapolis. She holds a degree in urban planning from McGill University. This New Urbanism series is supported by the Richard H. Driehaus Foundation. Follow New Urbs on Twitter for a feed dedicated to TAC’s coverage of cities, urbanism, and place.

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