8/22/11 - homogenizing america with "new age chains"

In today's excerpt - the homogenization of America, the phenomenon that works to turn suburbs and medium-sized cities into placeless places, and comes currently, at least in part, from "new age chains." (Our readers will recall that the sameness of these suburbs was the subtext for Rod Serling's television series The Twilight Zone):

"Main Street in our minds—the ideal that many of us grew up with or got from postcards, black-and-white movies, and trips to Disneyland—starts with a brick church at one end of town and a granite bank at the other end. In between, there is a string of two-and three-story buildings, each looking a little different from the other and selling something a little different. All the shops have window displays and half-opened doors. They sell hometown newspapers and Life, penny candy and fresh-cut meat, clothes for Easter and the new school year, and chocolate shakes and Cherry Cokes paired with thin burgers and shoestring fries. The owners know their customers' names, sizes, and fashion sensibilities. In the middle of all of this is a quirky Woolworth's or a J. J. Newberry's—that's it for national stores.

"Sure, there is a heavy dose of nostalgia in these memories, but the downtowns of the past were different from today's upper-end downtowns. From Madison, Wisconsin, to Charleston, South Carolina, to Pasadena, California, you've got chains—not, in these places, McDonald's or Burger King, but 'new age chains,' as the Canadian activist-writer Naomi Klein calls them, like Starbucks, the Body Shop, and Qdoba Mexican Grill—outlets with small yet still distinctive signs, that use natural-looking products and color designs, and talk about community and corporate social responsibility. Along branded Main Streets from Maine to California, Einstein Bros. Bagels stands next to a Barnes & Noble next to a Banana Republic next to a Ben & Jerry's next to a Chili's next to a Starbucks.

"In the next town, there is a Gap (which owns Banana Republic), Cosi, Borders, the Body Shop, and Starbucks. Out on the highway, Applebee's saddles up next to Borders next to the mall with a Gap, Foot Locker, Children's Place, Sunglass Hut, and Build-a-Bear. Inside as well as in the parking lot, there is a Starbucks. Across the highway in another sea of parking spaces are The Home Depot, Petco, and Target with a Starbucks kiosk inside. The next town over has the same strip. It is not like there is one Main Street and then another anymore, or one commercial strip and then another. It is more like there is one single, low-slung, set-back Main Street of branded stores in America, and it gets repeated over and over again like a film trailer in a loop.

"There is a tipping point here, however. Too much sameness alarms, rather than reassures, many bobos [borgeois bohemians, a term coined by David Brooks to describe those who  are heirs to the yuppies want to be safely different and to be viewed as socially conscious] and creative class types; it cuts into their sense of individuality. '[C]hain stores,' Houston's Thomas L. Robinson lamented, 'have homogenized the landscape so that there are few remaining external clues [to] where you are.' Like others anxious about the most recent spread of 'generica,' Robinson blames Starbucks. This isn't entirely fair. Starbucks isn't the only chain out there, and the predictability it sells wouldn't work if people didn't want it. But Starbucks has grown so rapidly and spread so far, so fast, that it has replaced McDonald's and as the symbol for many of the newest and most troubling wave of homogenization."


Bryant Simon


Everything But The Coffee: Learning about America from Starbucks


University of California Press


Copyright 2009 by Bryant Simon


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