Adam Nossiter has recently published a fascinating look at the decline of small to medium French cities in the New York Times. I recommend not only reading the article but also perusing the comments section, for the latter gives some insight into the larger psycho-cultural barriers to realizing thicker communities.
Nossiter's article is a lament over the gradual economic and social decline of Albi, a small city of around 50 thousand inhabitants not far from Toulouse. He is troubled by the extent to which the once vibrant downtown has become devoid of social and economic activity, apart from, that is, the periodic influx of tourists interested in its rustic charm as a medieval-era town. Nossiter's piece, however, is not a screed against tourists; rather, he notes that the large proportion of visitors can prevent one from noticing that the town itself now has few amenities to offer locals: It is a single bakery and no local butcher, grocery, or cafe. Residents obtain their needs from supermarkets and malls at the outskirts of town.
One might be tempted to dismiss Nossiter's concerns as mere "nostalgia" in the face of "real progress." Indeed, many of those commenting on the article do just that, suggesting that young people want an exciting night life offered by nearby metropolises and that local shops are relics of the past that were destined to be destroyed by the ostensibly lower prices and greater efficiency of malls and big box stores.
I think, however, that it is unwise to do so, if one wishes to think carefully and intelligently about the issue. Appeals to progress and inevitability are not so much statements of fact, indeed evidence to back them up is quite limited, but instead rhetorical moves meant to shut down debate; their aim, intentionally or not, is to naturalize a process that is actually sociopolitical.
If France is at all like the United States, and I suspect it is, the erection of malls was nothing preordained but a product of innumerable policy decisions and failures of foresight. So contingent was the outcome on these external variables that it seems obtuse to try to claim that it was the result of simply providing consumers with what they wanted. Readers interested in the details can look forward to my soon to be released book Technically Together (MIT Press). For the purposes of this post I can only summarize a few of the ways in which downtown economic decay is not inevitable.
The ability for a big-box store or mall to turn a profit is dependent on far more than just the owner's business acumen. Such stores are only attractive to the extent that governments spend public funds to make them easy to get to. Indeed, big box prices are low enough to attract Americans because of the invisible subsidy provided by citizens' tax dollars in building roads and highways. Many, if not most, malls and big box stores were built with public funds, either as the result of favorable tax deductions offered by municipalities or schemes like tax-increment financing. Lacking the political clout of the average corporate retailer, a local butcher is unlikely to receive the same deal.
Other forms of subsidy are more indirect. Few shoppers factor in the additional costs of gasoline or car repairs when pursuing exurban discount shopping. Given AAA's estimate of the yearly cost of driving as in excess of ten thousand dollars per year, the full cost of a ten mile drive to the mall is significant, even if it is not salient to consumers. Indeed, they forget it by the time they arrive at the register. Moreover, what about the additional health care costs incurred by driving rather than walking or the psychic costs of living in areas no longer offering embodied community? Numerous studies have found that local community is one of the biggest contributors to a long life and spry old age. It seems unlikely to be mere coincidence that Americans have become increasing medicated against psychological disorders as their previously thick communities have fragmented into diffuse social networks. While these costs do not factor into the prices consumers enjoy via discount exurban shopping, citizens still pay them.
Despite the fact that these sociopolitical drivers are fairly obvious if one takes the time to think about them, "just so" stories that try to explain the status quo as in line with the inexorable march of progress remain predominate. Psychologists have theorized that the power of such stories results from the intense psychological discomfort that many people would feel if faced with the possibility that the world as they know it is either unjust or was arrived at via less-than-fair means. Progress narratives are just one of the ways in which citizens psychically shore up an arbitrary and, in the view of many, undesirable status quo. Indeed, Americans, as well as Europeans and others to an increasing extent, seem to have an intense desire to justify the present by appealing to past abstract "market forces."
Yale political economist Charles Lindblom argued that the tendency for citizens to reason their way into believing that what is good for economic elites is good for everyone was one of the main sources of business's relatively privileged position in society. In fact, many people go so far to talk as if the market were a dangerous but nonetheless productive animal that one must placate with favorable treatment and a long leash, apparently not realizing that acting in accordance to such logic makes the market system seem less like a beacon of freedom and more like a prison. One thing remains certain: As long as citizens think and act as if changes like the economic decline of downtown areas in small cities are merely the price of progress, it will be impossible to do anything but watch them decay.
Taylor C. Dotson is an associate professor at New Mexico Tech, a Science and Technology Studies scholar, and a research consultant with WHOA. He is the author of The Divide: How Fanatical Certitude is Destroying Democracy and Technically Together: Reconstructing Community in a Networked World. Here he posts his thoughts on issues mostly tangential to his current research.
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