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Tuesday, March 4th, 2014

The Bentonville, Arkansas Effect by Eric McAfee

[ It's frequently alleged that Wal-Mart is a destroyer of small towns. Today Eric McAfee of American Dirt takes a look at Wal-Mart's home town of Bentonville, Arkansas to see what its effect has been there - Aaron.]

It is a truth universally acknowledged that, from the perspective of urban sociologists and planners at least, major discount retailers such as Walmart have thrived on the destruction of commercial activity in traditional town centers. No doubt my assertion borders on exaggeration, but it would have to, considering I’ve cribbed Jane Austen’s famous (and equally ironically hyperbolic) first seven words to Pride and Prejudice, in which a man’s search of a wife sets a blithe tone for much of what follows. By contrast, the unceasing diatribes against Walmart from urban advocates are rarely whimsical. And while not every high-profile writer/blogger on urban affairs excoriates Walmart, the general tenor of the discussion ascribes much of the decline of downtown retail to the much-maligned megachain. After all, virtually every freestanding small city in America over 20,000 people that is not part of a larger metropolitan agglomeration can claim a Walmart, perched at the edge of the municipal limits. And yes, the burgeoning of Walmarts does more or less coincide with the near abandonment of historic, pedestrian-scaled main streets in favor of car-oriented commercialization consolidated into big-box department stores.

But did a corporation—or the corporation—really cause all this?

If the average American consumers genuinely cared enough about Main Street or the courthouse square, wouldn’t they have shunned this commercial cataclysm before it radically altered the entire landscape? Wasn’t it the consumer that ultimately fueled Walmart’s meteoric growth, by opting for the convenience of everything under one roof, abundant free parking, and (perhaps the most objective factor) those famously low prices? Some might argue that I’m unreasonably throwing Walmart a bone, since the folks at the boardroom table clearly knew what would happen to Main Street, as department-store big-box shopping encroached on communities that commercial developers had previously perceived as too modest in size to support this retail typology. And, yes, I recognize the firm’s historic opposition toward unionization, its eventual reneging on a long-standing “Made in America” pledge, and even the management of logistics/merchandising favoring the automatization of functions that once provided communities with stable jobs. Maybe I am cutting Walmart some undeserved slack. But I also think the corporation’s biggest critics fail to recognize that Walmart didn’t become a leviathan overnight, any more than these towns devolved from flourishing to failures with the flick of a light switch.

My own articles on main street America have explored the topic routinely. But it took a visit to Bentonville, Arkansas to develop a more nuanced understanding of Walmart’s approach to community engagement right at the belly of the beast.

My suspicion is that, until probably around the year 2001, 98% of Americans hadn’t heard of this well-scrubbed little municipality in the northwest corner of the state, just a stone’s throw from the rugged topography of the Ozarks. Even today, if people are familiar with the town, it is only because it hosts the corporate headquarters for the world’s largest retailer. And there’s nothing wrong with this seemingly simplified association: after all, one would be hard-pressed to find anyone in Bentonville who would argue that the city is better known for something else. But what sort of impact has Walmart’s presence exerted on what otherwise would likely be a nondescript, mid-southern county seat?

Not surprisingly, the influence has been formidable. I mention the year 2001 because, upon publishing the results of Census 2000, the nation learned that the Northwest Arkansas Metropolitan Statistical Area (consisting of the primary cities of Fayetteville, Springdale, Rogers and Bentonville) had become the sixth-fastest growing region in the nation. While a Census update isn’t the sort of news item that necessarily grabs the public by its lapels, it can flirt salaciously with the unconscious and, eventually, through mimetic repetition, penetrate to the conscious. With each passing year, Bentonville has grabbed the headlines more often, as decisions from the Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. Home Office exert a greater impact on the global economy. I would hesitate to assert that the name “Bentonville, Arkansas” is common knowledge to the same level that a similarly-sized city such as “Beverly Hills, California” might be, partly because the similarities between these two places basically stop there. But its star is rising on both the national and international horizon, since many of Walmart’s foreign retail ventures have proven just as successful as their domestic efforts. And Bentonville, predictably, has enjoyed its share of the region’s growth: at over 35,000 people in 2010, it more tripled its population since the 1990 census, and, as recently as 1960, it was a quiet village of barely 3,500 people.

The impact on this growth is obvious, particularly when viewing the street configuration.

The shift from a conventional grid to a more hierarchical arrangement is conspicuous and unsurprising.The oldest part of the city adopted the grid, which was customary for shaping virtually all communities in the 19th and early 20th century. Yet 80% of Bentonville’s city limits (which extend in all directions beyond the boundaries in the image above) fits the more expansive, automobile-oriented configuration, in which streets curve and wend, sometimes into hairpins, sometimes into full loops. Often they terminate as culs-de-sac. For a municipality that remained a modest village until the 1950s, this growth pattern is normal and broadly characteristic of numerous Sunbelt communities.Thus, the city of Bentonville has decentralized considerably in the last fifty years, in addition to hosting the global headquarters to the retail behemoth most regularly flagged as the culprit in expediting the demise of downtowns. Given these two factors, one prevailing question remains: what on earth does its beleaguered town center look like?

Chances are, you’d be as surprised as I was.

It looks terrific.Nearly 100% occupancy, clean sidewalks, a well-manicured streetscape. And virtually of all the retail mix—from bike shops to brasseries, yoga studios to yogurt cafes, tea rooms to trattorias—caters to an upmarket clientele, suggesting that the leasing rates are fairly high.

The culminating attraction, however, is the humble storefront that spawned it all:

Sam Walton’s original five-and-dime now serves as the Walmart Visitors’ Center and a mini-museum, with interactive exhibits and the recreation of a soda fountain.

These pictures date from a summer festival on the central square, taken a few years ago, in 2010. Though they are obviously a bit faded by now—not all of the visitor attractions were open yet during my visit—I can say with a fair amount of confidence that downtown Bentonville is even stronger today. After all, most estimates show the city has continued to grow another 10% since the 2010 Census results, and, considering that it was demonstrating considerable resilience during the peak of the Great Recession, the downtown is likely only to build on a momentum it had established long before the bubble burst. A detractor might challenge my assertion by arguing that I captured the city during an atypically vibrant time, when out-of-towners had flocked to the city for the summer celebration on the courthouse square. But how could the downtown support a high concentration of restaurants, cafés and boutiques if it weren’t lively during the other times of the week as well?

The fact remains that downtown Bentonville boasts a number of civic associations that have worked tirelessly to boost its cachet, including Downtown Bentonville, Inc, a nonprofit association that promotes, attracts investment, and plans activities for Bentonville’s historic downtown, as well as the Bentonville Merchant District, which seeks to attract upscale traveling merchants through the provision of Class A office space and furnished loft-style apartments close to the city center. The city also has a Convention and Visitors Bureau and a Chamber of Commerce. These organizations have no doubt worked tirelessly to re-centralize investment in Bentonville’s small downtown, even as the vast majority of the population growth over the last two decades has taken place in the purlieus. By most metrics, their efforts have paid off. But plenty of other similarly sized cities can claim the same business associations without these results; I blogged about Jefferson City, Missouri earlier this year, a small city whose civic leaders have collaborated to promote the downtown. However, the results in Jefferson City, while palpable, have been much more modest than Bentonville—and it is nothing less than the state capital.

Bentonville is simply part of a region that is enjoying a persistent economic boom. The other primary cities in this unusual metropolitan area—Rogers, Springdale and Fayetteville—are also growing like mad. It doesn’t hurt that the region is home to two other nationally prominent companies: Springdale’s Tyson Foods, the world’s largest meat producer, and trucking giant J.B. Hunt Transport Services, Inc., based in the town of Lowell, which abuts Rogers. But the real cog in the wheel remains the world’s largest retailer, headquartered in Bentonville, and I still suspect the corporation and its numerous investments has more to do with downtown’s vibrancy than the tourist bureau. Walmart undoubtedly prefers to associate its name with a municipality that enjoys a profile of prosperity and high quality of life; the company will do what it takes to maintain that image within Bentonville.

So what is the visual evidence that this isn’t just a run-of-the-mill boomtown? Beyond from the picture-perfect courthouse square, the air of plentitude permeates the city.

However, it isn’t just the park spaces that distinguish the more recently developed outer reaches of Bentonville; all the spaces in between have received above average treatment as well.

So a city street has sidewalks. Big deal, some might say. But it is out of character for low density, hierarchical, auto-oriented development in the South to make any concession for pedestrians, let alone a full network of sidewalks along all of the major streets. Compare Bentonville to just about any other city in Arkansas (outside of the Northwest) and you’d be hard pressed to find sidewalks on any arterial or collector roads beyond the historic original
street grid. Both the Department of Parks and Recreation and the Department of Planning in Bentonville have determined that core pedestrian access remains critical, even when the development pattern is sparse, in keeping with the preferences of the majority of people who settle in this part of the country. The former of the two aforementioned departments reveals that it has conceived network of parks, greenways and biking trails rivals that of a community three times its size.

Meanwhile, the latter-mentioned planning department has several aces up its sleeve as well. While it isn’t unheard of that a city might support a 76-page Bicycleand Pedestrian Master Plan, a Smart Growth Guidebook, or a Traffic Calming Guidebook, it certainly places the city well outside the bell curve when juxtaposed with its peers. After all, even the neighboring city of Rogers (pop. 55,000) shows no evidence that its planning department has the resources even to conceive of such initiatives.

The aforementioned features are hardly likely to elevate anyone’s pulse; they aren’t exactly competing with Manhattan’s High Line for infrastructural innovation. And it’s unreasonable to surmise that Walmart had any real influence on what remain purely publicly owned assets. But one structure in Bentonville is likely to turn the head of even the most skeptical coastal snob: the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art.

The structure was not complete when I visited Bentonville in 2010, but it opened to the public in late 2011, and made international headlines for both its novelty (first major American art museum to open in 50 years, and the only one in an over 100-mile radius) as well as its magnitude (over 200,000 square feet of space on 120-acre grounds and a collection valued in the hundreds of millions). The striking edifice reaches Bentonville courtesy of internationally recognized Israeli-Canadian architect Moshe Safdie. Perhaps most importantly though, it is resolutely the vision of Alice Walton, daughter to founder Sam Walton and heiress to his fortune. In one of many interviews she offered at the time of the museum’s opening, Walton, who has been an art collector most of her life, acknowledged that she wanted to make a difference in this part of the world by bringing “something we desperately need”. She contributed over $300 million to the project, built on family land. Admission to the museum is free, but because of its destination status, visitors will typically linger, travel the grounds, shop, buy a meal. A Huffington Post article from the museum’s infancy concluded that the museum would skyrocket past its estimated 250,000 first-year visitors, based on the success after just three months open to the public.

If Crystal Bridges Museum lives up to its promise as an attraction of national or even international caliber, Bentonville clearly needs the tourist infrastructure to support those visitors. But it would appear it already has it. Just down the road, in neighboring Rogers, an Embassy Suites Spa and Convention Center flanks one side of the interstate; the Pinnacle Hills lifestyle center sits on the other. And, earlier this year, the sleek 21c Museum Hotel, famous for the prominent positioning of contemporary art, opened right off of Bentonville’s courthouse square – only the third of its kind in the country. (Louisville and Cincinnati claim the other two.) Many of the amenities that have sprouted across Northwest Arkansas over the last twenty years are in keeping with a metropolitan area of nearly a half million people; of course it has a mall, convention center, and a seasonal symphony orchestra. But while growth trajectory of the metro might resemble that of Phoenix or Las Vegas, no single municipality has spawned everything here in Arkansas. As of 1950, only college town Fayetteville had even 10,000 people. The other towns—Lowell, Rogers, Bella Vista, Johnson, Springdale, and of course Bentonville—were isolated villages that boomed simultaneously, swelling their incorporated boundaries until they touched one another. As a result, Northwest Arkansas may be the country’s youngest conurbation: a 35-mile string of small cities—a microlopolis. (The only comparable phenomenon I can think of domestically would be the Texas border towns along the Rio Grande, but even Brownsville and McAllen were more than villages fifty years ago, and they’re big cities over 100,000 people now.)

The rapid ascension of these communities into a regional economic powerhouse—with the amenities one might from a single, medium-sized city—may very well neatly manifest the multiplier effect. But it still doesn’t explain how Bentonville, the epicenter of Walmartlandia, has managed to hold its own with a lively downtown, when plenty of other fast-growing big cities struggle to keep it all centralized (Houston, for example). After all, in one of the most famous journalistic explorations of Northwest Arkansas, Financial Times’ “The Town that Wal-Mart Built”, Jonathan Birchall observed in 2009 that he always found it “hard not to be hit by the irony in this Bentonville Renaissance. Wal-Mart’s football-stadium-sized supercentres are, after all, the epitome of the chain store culture that has destroyed small town centres and homogenised communities all over America in the past three decades.” But it sounds like he took the bait.

The town that Walmart built has either proven itself immune to the main-street-murdering forces that afflicted most American cities, or it has recovered from that ailment magnificently. Bentonville also boasts a regional airport that offers year-round, nonstop daily service to New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago; Alice Walton’s money helped build the terminal, which serves a population that had no regular airfare until 1998. Bentonville Public Schools have offered the prestigious International Baccalaureate program since 2007. And yes, Bentonville has a Walmart not so far away, in what probably was the edge of town not too long ago.

By this point in such a lengthy analysis, it’s obvious what has happened: Bentonville has responded to the fact that it hosts a multinational corporation by offering the sort of amenities needed to attract talent to the region—talent that, its current leadership presumes, will propel Wal-Mart Stores, Inc. to another fifty years of unprecedented growth.

Most MBA grads trained at Harvard, Wharton or Kellogg are going to need enticement to move to an area not recognized for its urban offerings. On top of all the talent in multinational retail, Bentonville and its neighbors most also graciously host the satellite offices of 1,300 suppliers whom Walmart has lured due to its vast trade network—ranging in size from one sales exec to something as large as Procter and Gamble, for whom a few hundred employees call Northwest Arkansas home. The elite business class that routinely visits the Walmart headquarters expects top-tier hotels and shopping, while many of the executives who make it
their permanent home will inevitably seek sophisticated eateries in an attractive, walkable setting. How much of all this was funded directly by Walmart is anyone’s guess (though I’m sure at least someone out there has the numbers). The fact remains that the corporate culture in Bentonville fueled a demand for a Parks Department that builds a network out of its green space, or a Planning Department that performs traffic calming studies.

The hardened cynics can read about this serendipity in the Ozarks and offer an acerbic rebuttal: of course Walmart is going to prop up its hometown, but does that absolve it from the devastation that has taken place virtually everywhere else? This assertion would be valid if every town with a Walmart suffered an equally moribund Main Street. But they clearly haven’t. And there remain villages too small or too remote for a Walmart, which have confronted the exact same decline of entrepreneurism in their historic centers. Arguing from that same angle, the City of Bentonville did not enjoin Walmart to revitalize downtown—or force Alice Walton to build Crystal Bridges—any more than existing laws compelled Cornelius Vanderbilt to endow a university in Nashville, the capital of a state he never even visited. No doubt some of Walmart’s boosterism in Bentonville is self-serving, since a desirable community only helps to improve Walmart’s reputation as both an employer and corporate citizen, which in turn can attract further investment. However, viewing all corporate altruism as suspicious requires a labyrinthine recontextualization that is just as distorted as saying “Walmart killed our downtowns”. Or its equally hyperbolic counterpart: “Walmart has had no impact on the way we shop on main street”. Clearly it has, but the forces compelling consumer behavior remain complicated—baffling even. For while most of us can understand that we abandoned our old downtowns out of convenience and lack of foresight,
no one will ever truly be able to explain want prompted many American consumers
to give up their cars so they could return to bicycles. And if you don’t think I’m concluding ironically, I’ve got a Jane Austen novel to sell you.

This post originally appeared in American Dirt on October 16, 2013.

Tuesday, June 4th, 2013

Suburban Blight in Kansas City by Eric McAfee

[ This week Eric McAfee takes a look at phenomenon that is on the rise in America today - suburban blight. Early generation suburbs across America are falling into decay, bringing with them all the ills we have traditionally associated with the inner city. Eric highlights an example for us in Kansas City - Aaron. ]

Over the past century, the word “blight” has undergone a curious expansion in its denotations. It was originally a botanical term referring to a disease characterized by discoloration, wilting, and eventual death of plant tissues. In contemporary parlance, however, I suspect a far greater number of people use the term in combination with “urban”—a metaphoric reassignment of the characteristics that organic plant matter can suffer, only this time applied to non-organic human construction. So urban blight appropriates characteristics of plant disease but in a sociological form, in which the tissue of a city suffers dilapidation, underutilization, or outright abandonment. In contemporary life, it’s hard to imagine and definition of blight without at least some reference to urbanism; such is the case with Merriam-Webster and Dictionary.com at least.

Anybody getting this far in the essay is probably well familiar with urban blight, not just as a label for a certain condition but its physical manifestations. But does blight always have to affect urban settings or the inner city? In the last 25 years, a new type of blight has emerged in America, affecting post-war, automobile oriented, outer-city districts. It requires little semantic stretching to call it suburban blight; I can think of no more appropriate label, since it is characterized by the same disinvested conditions that urban America experienced half a century ago. But does it ever look as bad? After all, we don’t typically associate a three-bedroom house — with a big front yard and an attached garage — with decay or neglect.

While I’m sure there are plenty of other, more persuasive examples, Kansas City offers the best visual evidence I have ever seen that serious blight can afflict the suburbs in equal measure. The Bannister Mall area, about 12 miles south of downtown KCMO but still within the city limits, was a flourishing retail and residential corridor as recently as 1990, but it took a significant turn for the worse later that decade. As dead malls go, it’s a well-known one: websites like Labelscar and Dead Malls chronicle the one-million-square-foot mall’s downfall (first opened in 1980) in great detail. Needless to say, it follows similar patterns seen in metros across the country: a decline in the desirability of the apartment complexes in the area forced many of them to cater to a lower-income population. This influx of Section 8 tenants, in turn, caused an uptick of crime in the mall by the mid-1990s, scaring away shoppers. By 2000, the first of the major anchors closed; over the next six years, the other three department stores followed suit. For a few of those years, the mall managed to hang on with mom-and-pop in-line tenants. But these local businesses only chose to locate at the mall
because of significantly lower leasing rates, and by that point the mall was already over 50% vacant. The meager revenue proved insufficient to cover expenses for such a large structure, and by spring of 2007, the Bannister Mall closed completely. Various developers floated proposals for the site, the most lucrative of which was a sporting complex for the MSL Kansas City Wizards, combined with office and retail. A Tax Increment Financing (TIF) proposal helped to generate the funds to demolish the mall in early 2009, but the national economy had soured enough by that point that nothing further has materialized.

The remainder of this essay explores the current conditions of the area through an array of photos—not just the Bannister Mall, but also the extensive regional shopping cluster that once surrounded it. It is a grim site to behold these days. Here’s what the Bannister Mall looks like today:

And here’s a map of the area, in which the mall sat at the northwest corner of Bannister Road and Hillcrest Road

Sitting at Hillcrest Road and looking to the west, a motorist will see nothing more than a vast, crumbling parking lot with a pile of gravel as its centerpiece. And it goes on:

And on and on:

Very little of this parking lot is accessible these days; most has been barricaded.

The east side of Hillcrest Road doesn’t look any better. Some might argue that it looks worse: it includes several independently operated strip malls tethered to big-box anchors, the vast majority of which are completely vacant.

Because the buildings are still standing but have suffered from a decade of neglect, they enhance the feeling of desolation far more than the vacant parking lot where Bannister Mall once stood.

Sometimes its possible to guess the previous tenant, based on colors or architectural details associated with a certain brand. On the slightly zoomed-in photo below, my suspicion is that the store on the left, with the big red block as an entrance, used to be a Circuit City, which of course is now completely out of business.

Incidentally, the strip mall above is in better condition than most: as of the fall of 2012, it still had at least a few tenants:

Yes, it’s that old mainstay of struggling suburbia: the notorious Burlington Coat Factory, known in many circles as “the Grim Reaper of the retail world”. I’ve written about it on this blog before, because it’s no different in Indianapolis or Cleveland or Philadelphia or Anchorage. Clearly the corporate strategy is to locate in depressed big-box settings, which not only keeps its expenses down but improves the stores’ accessibility to its target low- and moderate-income demographics. Burlington Coat Factory’s approach, however, has become so unsubtle that many people immediately associate the retailer with poor parts of town. And since BCFs tend to survive long after other middle-income retail tenants have fled the scene, situations like the Bannister corridor in Kansas City only amplify the retailer’s potentially undeserved seedy reputation. In this particular strip mall, the only other surviving tenant was an urban-oriented apparel store whose name was unknown to me. The rest look like this:

According to the buzz online, the storefront next to the Burlington Coat Factory used to be a Wal-Mart, but it, too, flew the coop. I’m not sure I believe this though; nothing I could see suggested the appearance of a former Wal-Mart, though the magnitude of this shopping node would have made it a smart location for the world’s number one retailer back in its heyday. Here’s a distant shot of the strip mall, revealing the small remaining trickle of lifeblood in the distance:

This stretch of Hillcrest Road also offers a number of interesting outparcels, presumably used as restaurants at one time. All of them are vacant. The first outparcel that a driver will see has a familiar look:

Tropical Palms Restaurant may be closed, but the distinctive appearance of the building hints at its likely origins. I could be wrong, but the striped awnings, the brickwork, and the trim all evoke an aged prototype of Applebee’s. (Inter alia, the awnings have a greater variety of stripes these days.) It would make sense if this were an Applebee’s, since the restaurant megachain has its headquarters in KCMO. Other shuttered restaurants sit nearby.

Again, many of these outparcel structures have distinct enough design features that a good pair of eyes (or anyone familiar with the Kansas City chain restaurant scene in 1992) could discern what used to inhabit them.

Apparently Luby’s Cafeteria once had locations in the Kansas City metro; these days the small chain survives almost exclusively in Texas.

Only one of the outparcels suggested it hosted something other than a restaurant:

Continuing north along Hillcrest Road as it approaches its terminus at East 87th Street, the abandonment is most pronounced.

With an unusual combination of bold colors and a formidable size, I cannot guess what tenants this big-box contained two decades ago, though a Google Streetview suggests, from a handful of cars in the parking lot, that was still marginally occupied as recently as September of 2011. Across the street, an isolated big box shows traces of life, evidenced by the few cars parked at the far-right margin of the photo.

But, upon making a u-turn and reverting southward along Hillcrest, another strip mall on the west side of the street (the same side as the former Bannister Mall) is so derelict that all entrances have been blocked off.

I wouldn’t have dreamed of driving through regardless; the potholes would have been murder on the tires. But I could still pull into the little alcove between the access road and the barricades so I could snap a few more photos.

The labelscars left by old tenants revealed the following: a nail salon, a tax preparer, a beauty parlor, a dry cleaner—in other words, the shopping center was only attracting minor, lower-tier tenants before it closed completely, just as was the case with Bannister Mall. What’s particularly interesting to me is that, even though the privately-owned shopping plazas were uniformly derelict, the right-of-way itself—city managed Hillcrest Road—was in surprisingly good condition, and it was even undergoing some minor repairs while I was there that day.

Notice that the road is four-lane, with a median and copious turn lanes. When the Bannister Mall flourished, this was no doubt a bustling corridor, but these days a person could crab-walk down the middle of the street with little threat of contact with car. The only reason Hillcrest Road was built for such an LOS was the retail it served.

After continuing southward to return to the Bannister Mall site where Hillcrest intersects with Bannister Road, the sign for one other prominent retail pokes up above the slope.

Yes, a Kmart still survives, even as its competitor, Wal-Mart, fled the scene of the crime years ago. Such is the fate of this once mighty budget department store. Kmart has persistently failed to compete with Wal-Mart or Target, and it has only survived by clinging to Wal-Mart’s discarded suburban fragments. In 2010, I blogged about how Kmart has resigned itself to locations that neither Target nor Wal-Mart will touch; the dying old chain can only compete because there’s nothing else around for miles. Such is the case with Bannister Mall, and it doesn’t get much better at other smaller retail nodes in southeast Kansas City: about a mile east on Bannister Road, the Robandee Shopping Center is in nearly as sorry of a state. This portion of the Kansas City limits declined at the same time as the now-prosperous suburb of Lee’s Summit (pop. 91,000 in 2010) skyrocketed.

Yes, Bannister Mall and its ensuing suburban blight is a byproduct of white flight. Similar life cycles first emerged all over America in the 1950s, leaving impoverished urban inner cities in their wake. Meanwhile, the earliest suburbs, preferred destinations of the emergent post-war white middle class, are now routinely showing their age. All too often, their demographic profile is similar to the inner cities, but with a determinedly auto-oriented suburban appearance. For those of my readers in Indianapolis, the 1990s trajectory at Bannister Mall eerily parallels what happened in the Eagledale neighborhood and Lafayette Square Mall over the last twenty years. (I blogged about Lafayette Square in the same article where I explored Burlington Coat Factory, which—surprise!—is a tenant at the aforementioned dying Indianapolis mall.) In both Indy and KCMO, these auto-oriented districts fell within the city limits and fed into their already declining public school districts. The housing in Indianapolis’ Eagledale is almost identical to that in the Bannister Road corridor of Kansas City.

But the economic forecast of Lafayette Square and Eagledale still seems nowhere as bleak as that of Bannister in Kansas City, at least to me. Not only is Lafayette Square Mall still hanging on (though hardly flourishing, with about 50% vacancy), the sundry strip malls and big-boxes around it are surviving as well. None of them are thriving, and national chains have largely fled Eagledale to the suburb of Avon, just as they migrated to Lee’s Summit outside Kansas City. But the Lafayette Square district has hosted a huge variety of immigrant entrepreneurs, and now the area is known for its ethnic supermarkets, taquerias, hookah cafes, and restaurants catering to a few dozen different non-American cuisines. The city is teaming with the Department of Public Works to re-brand the area as an international marketplace. In addition, an emergent artist community has taken advantage of the cheap rents and leased an old Firestone outparcel near Lafayette Square, turning it into the Service Center for Contemporary Culture and Community: a performing arts space, library, community garden, and art gallery, taking advantage of the area’s eclectic demographic mix. Eagledale in Indianapolis may no longer be a middle class neighborhood, but it doesn’t look like the aftermath of a nuclear holocaust.

The Bannister Mall site has stumped developers and city officials over the years, since southeast Kansas City in general seems to be evading any sort of organic re-invention. I suspect that Kansas City, generally a prosperous metro area, has its own immigrant-influenced equivalent to Lafayette Square/Eagledale in Indianapolis, but the old Bannister Mall certainly isn’t it. This variant on socioeconomic blight poses a wicked challenge. I’m not holding my breath for the hipsters or the gays to colonize it, the way they are in some of Kansas City’s formerly dying old walkable neighborhoods closer to the central city. And the yuppies won’t come in later to gentrify it either. The blight that afflicts Bannister and Hillcrest Roads has yet to reveal a treatment.

This post originally appeared in American Dirt on November 30, 2012.

Tuesday, March 5th, 2013

What Killed Downtown? by Eric McAfee

What Killed Downtown?: Norristown, Pennsylvania, from Main Street to the Malls
by Michael E. Tolle

For those of us who have grown dyspeptic on the over-indulged topic of the collapse of the American city center, Michael Tolle’s What Killed Downtown? Norristown, Pennsylvania, from Main Street to the Malls earns much of its anodyne appeal by straying from a commonly accepted convention in urban studies—that an analysis of the socioeconomic decline of a community should draw heavily upon socioeconomic variables. Isn’t there another way to get the point across? And more importantly, aren’t there other contributing factors?

This compassionate narrative of the 20th century rise and fall of an older Philadelphia suburb avoids graphs and charts for the most part, becoming much more engaging for its alternative approach. And likeability is exactly what it will need to win over skeptics, or the merely apathetic, because most people in the US probably have never heard of Norristown. In fact, it’s likely that quite a few people on the other side of the Keystone State aren’t familiar with it either. After all, the borough at its 1960 peak only had 39,000 inhabitants (the 2010 Census records a population of 34,000). But Norristown merits further observation, not so much because its downtown has declined in the mid-20th century—that happened everywhere, in municipalities of all sizes—but because Norristown sits squarely in the middle of Montgomery County, an expansive bedroom community of Philadelphia with 800,000 people and a median household income of over $78,000, placing it within the top 100 wealthiest counties in the nation. Meanwhile, Norristown’s median household income, according to the latest Census, is approximately $43,000 and its poverty level of 16.4% is almost triple that of the county’s 5.7%, and still a fair amount higher than the state’s rate of 12.6%. While Montgomery County boomed over the last half century, Norristown has not shared in that prosperity. It is by no means a devastated town—many old neighborhoods remain charming and fully intact—but the commercial heart of Norristown has never healed.

The above paragraph contains a higher concentration of raw data than one should ever expect to encounter in Tolle’s new book. Rather than delving into the Bureau of Labor Statistics, the US Census Bureau, or rankings from Urban Land Institute or the Brookings Institution, Tolle manages to chronicle the rapid ascent of this suburban outpost, its 75-year dominion over commercial activity within the county, and its precipitous decline shortly after the Second World War—and he achieves it through a diligent perusal of old city directories, interviews with almost two dozen of Norristown’s older citizenry, and a vigorous exploration of the internal machinations of the Borough Council. He applies an anthropologist’s lens to a subject that sociologists have long overcrowded.

While Norristown’s early history—first as a manor under one of William Penn’s initial surveys, followed by a subdivision into smaller farms by Isaac Norris in 1712—is clearly never the focal point for Tolle’s methodical dissection of downtown, he avoids glossing over it. Not surprisingly, Norristown emerged as the most desirable plot of land in the sprawling manor because of its accessibility: it abutted the “canoeable part of the Schuylkill” and the interconnected American Indian trails that allowed for easy fording of the river. By 1784, the Pennsylvania Assembly carved Montgomery County out of the existing Philadelphia County, and a subsequent deed conveyed lots reserved for county buildings at the intersection of two of the only extant roads at the time. Due to its advantageous location, it became a nearly self-sufficient Town of Norris within a few years, abiding by Penn’s “Town Model” for Philadelphia and other Pennsylvania cities, employing tightly organized, gridded streets that maximized uses of available space. The construction of some of the earliest turnpikes helped to stimulate the town’s steady growth and prepare it for its incorporation as a borough of 520 acres in 1812, followed shortly thereafter by the rail networks that galvanized further expansion.


Swede Street just north of Main Street, known by some as Lawyers’ Row. Photo from Spring 2011, courtesy of Matthew Edmond.

The early chapters of the book may only provide a backdrop for Norristown’s 20th century rise and fall, but Tolle chronologically accounts for the factors that helped Norristown emerge as the primary urban center in Montgomery County. And unlike neighboring 19th century boomtowns that dot both the Delaware and Schuylkill Valleys, Norristown “lacked the characteristics that define similar towns of sufficient size and influence that could easily explain the downtown’s decline. . . [It] was never a one-company town. It was never dependent on [a] single employer whose corporate fate might have led it to a catastrophic domino effect; rather Norristown’s workforce has always been distributed among many workplaces.” It owed much of its steady growth to its fortuitous location 17 miles northwest of Philadelphia, the convergence of several modes of transportation, and its role as the administrative center of a large and increasingly prominent county.

By the book’s twentieth page, Tolle reveals the real heart of his study: the bustling commercial core of Norristown’s six-block Main Street. At the borough’s Centennial Celebration, population approached 30,000, swelling largely from immigrants who arrived to work in various industries: first the northern European Protestants, then the Irish, then, in by far the highest concentration, the Italians, overwhelmingly from Sicily. Mennonites, Amish, and Jews (predominantly of German heritage) along with African Americans arrived in smaller numbers. While the population self-segregated along largely ethnic and economic lines (working and lower-middle class Protestants on the West End; the wealthy, Northern European original settlers in the North End and DeKalb Street; Italians and African Americans in the blue-collar East End), all the strata converged along Main Street’s densely commercialized blocks. Tolle explores the full week’s worth of celebratory activities, from the details of the floats in the Industrial Day parade to overhead weave of flags, bunting, and electrical wires. The pace of the narrative slows at this point, but Tolle employs a humanism that he retains across the ensuing pages. When he intermittently bogs down in relentless detail, he’s easily forgivable—even a little admirable for not shying away from his obsessions.


A view of DeKalb Street, Norristown’s most affluent residential address, from its southern junction with Main Street. This was once the center of commercial activity in the borough. Tolle details the controversy of the implementation of the Comprehensive Plan to make DeKalb Street one-way northbound in 1951, a restriction which remains today. Photo from Spring 2011, courtesy of Matthew Edmond.

The Directory of the Boroughs of Norristown and Bridgeport, Montgomery County, Pa, for the years 1860-1861 serves as the bedrock for his chronological exploration of the commercial health of downtown Norristown. For some of the most resilient businesses—Chatlin’s Department Store, Egolf’s Furniture, Zummo’s Hardware—Tolle offers vignettes on their immigrant backgrounds and the financial maneuvering necessary to start their trades. Interspersed with these brief accounts are updates from subsequent City Directories, chronicling the change in business composition over time. But Tolle generally eschews tables and charts—with few exceptions, he narrates the changing commercial landscape of Norristown by integrating the livelihoods of the proprietors with the demands of the consumers. Because the authorial voice depends so heavily on firsthand accounts of the business climate—articles from the Norristown Times Herald, advertisements (including misspellings and solecisms), and, in the later years, eyewitness accounts—the routine references to City Directory data never grow stuffy or monotonous.


What Killed Downtown? is a concatenation of anecdotes. While such an indulgence in human-interest nostalgia could take a maudlin turn, Tolle again counterbalances these episodes with moments of acerbic subjectivity, as any conscientious anthropologist cannot help but do. My two favorite anecdotes feature a building and a person. The Valley Forge Hotel emerged in the roaring 1920s, purely driven by the local business community, who felt that the proud city demanded a first-class hotel. A stock subscription campaign raised enough to complete the massive six-story brick structure by November of 1925. Though it rarely made a profit, its size and relative opulence made it an icon for the city, and as an emblem of civic pride, it succeeded. The other great anecdote involves the detailed account of the life of the city’s most colorful politician, the recalcitrant Paul Santangelo. Lacking greater aspirations than borough administration, Santangelo earns more ink on these pages than any other civic leader, including the mayors. He fiercely defended the interests of the poorer Sicilian immigrants who comprised much of his district, voting ferociously in their favor but often—in Tolle’s opinion—at the expense of city progress as a whole.


Norristown Main Street, west of Swede Street and looking westward. Photo from Spring 2011, courtesy of Matthew Edmond.

Tolle’s account of Norristown’s Main Street after its 1950 apex avoids mind-numbing predictability even has he identifies the usual culprits contributing to its decline: growing dependence on the automobile, competition from suburban shopping plazas like the now-mammoth King of Prussia, shift of the population center toward the far-southern part of Montgomery County, construction of limited access highways outside of the borough’s limits. And of course, all these factors converge with the suburban amenity that wounds Norristown the most: “free, ample parking”—a mantra which Tolle repeats enough that it tacitly answers the question to his book’s title. Anyone with a scintilla of knowledge of American urbanism will know where this is headed. But by the1950s, Tolle reaches a point in time where procures firsthand accounts of Main Street’s changes. The worm’s-eye view continues, imbuing the narrative of Norristown’s saddest days—by the 1970s it is not safe to walk Main Street at night—with empathy and hope.


Courthouse Plaza along Main Street, one of many mid-century projects that removed commercial buildings and replaced them with staid, largely unused civic space. Photo from Spring 2011, courtesy of Matthew Edmond.

For a person as enamored by details as me, Tolle’s worm’s-eye view never really grows old, even when he’s a fussbudget over counts of shuttered storefronts from year to year. At the same time, this intricate approach to an already small subject could easily undermine the ability for What Killed Downtown? to find a broad audience. What happens to a little-known suburban city can hardly resonate as much as if he had explored the devolution of downtown Philadelphia—or even Allentown or Erie. The fixation on downtown storefronts—at the expense of geographic context—firmly ensconces the book in the “local interest” category. His 250-page narrative rarely explores impacts on Norristown Main Street outside of Montgomery County. From an early point in the book, he describes street intersections with specificity that would only mean anything to a local; then he only provides two referential maps.

None of these cavils really amount to an inherent weakness of the book—after all, it might prove just the right medicine for Tolle’s fellow Norristowners. But the narrowness of scope does foretell an oversight as to the broader implications for this city’s decline, which could have made for a much bolder peroration than the one the book currently provides. The only atypical bogeyman contributing to downtown Norristown’s precipitous decline is the persistent political gridlock and resultant incompetence of the Borough Council, which he relates with the same humanist eye he applies to his wonderful vignettes of immigrant entrepreneurialism. But Tolle had the chance to make this story matter on a scale that could mean something to someone from Ashtabula or Waukegan, and he spurned the opportunity.

My knowledge of Philadelphia, having lived there for a time, gives me an unfair advantage, but I can’t help but ask a few questions. Norristown, the seat of wealthy Montgomery County, declined and its main street is moribund to this day. But Media, the much smaller seat of neighboring Delaware County, boasts a flourishing main street of local shops and restaurants—all despite the fact that Delaware County, while equally urbanized, is much less affluent than Montgomery County. Meanwhile, cities like Chester (also in Delaware County) and Camden, New Jersey can claim a similar lifespan to Norristown, strong transportation access, and an industrial boom. But today these two cities are not only among the most devastated municipalities in their respective states, Chester and Camden are among the poorest cities in the country. Perhaps most interestingly, after several decades of population decline, Norristown began to trend upward again in the 2000 census, and by the 2010 Census the city grew virtually 10%–an unprecedented occurrence for a city that still has the reputation of being the poorest place in its respective county.

What Killed Downtown? remains a welcome contrast to countless other chronicles of downtown decline whose narratives depend on sociological detachment. Recognizing that true objectivity is impossible, Tolle instead depicts the Norristown transformation from the perspective of people who experienced it. Because its vision is geographically precise and obscure to people outside southeast Pennsylvania, I suspect our author felt driven to write it even if it enjoyed a readership of zero. Such an endeavor could reek of self-indulgence, but Michael Tolle’s opus has way too much empathy for that. Hopefully Norristown’s coterie of model train owners and newspaper collectors will put this book on their to-do lists—and then recommend it to others.

Tuesday, October 2nd, 2012

Big Boxes: Keeping All the Ducks in a Row by Eric McAfee

[ Eric McAfee writes the wonderful blog American Dirt, where through careful observation of the urban environment he draws out very interesting findings from the most ordinary of places, focusing on places like overlooked strip malls and transition spaces between towns. I hope you'll check it out - Aaron. ]

I have chronicled the tireless migration of retail across metropolitan landscapes several times in the past; it formed the central topic of one of my earliest blog posts.  Unfortunately, most of my posts have focused on the blight left by outdated retail typologies: the dead malls, pockmarked parking lots, blighted strip malls, or (at the very best) the once widely coveted destinations that are now dominated by check cashing centers and pawn shops.  I’m not trying to dwell on the negative, but the fact remains that focusing on the less prosperous retail centers helps to substantiate an already manifest assertion: retail in the US is more or less always soft.  The supply of new retail options always far exceeds the demand; some have even argued that developers’ ambitions to construct retail has become completely untethered from consumer demand, to the point that they are no longer related.  Retail locates where the investors see fit, and those investors can range from experienced developers to an elderly couple hoping to build a strip mall to provide a nest egg for the grandkids.

Thanks to the almost exponential proliferation of shopping centers over the last half century, the rules for straight-line depreciation of a retail outlet tend to employ estimations of about 15 years, meaning that the average commercial plaza will need a thorough renovation in that time frame if it is to retain a lucrative market.  In fast-growing metropolitan areas, that number could even be smaller.  But suburban growth patterns, where decentralization is the primary force acting upon new settlements, are fairly predictable in nature: an auto-oriented shopping plaza that still lures top-dollar tenants after 40 years is the exception, not the norm.  I have covered the topic of metropolitan retail periodically over the years, and at the moment I’m not sure I have anything new to offer.

But smaller communities are another story altogether.  Many of them are static in population; quite a few are shrinking.  Presumably their retail landscapes would echo these patterns by demonstrating very little change, right?  An evaluation of the small Louisiana city of Houma (50 miles to the southwest of New Orleans) would suggest that this is not the case.  The region itself is not particularly depressed; consistent growth in the fishing and petrochemical industries kept the unemployment rate among the nation’s lowest in the spring of 2009, during the peak of the Great Recession.  It’s unemployment has inched up to above 5.0% since then, but it still remains well below both the state and national rate.   It’s relatively vigorous economy, however, is exerting only a modest impact on population change. Houma itself grew 4.1% from between the 2000 and 2010 Census, and the surrounding parish of Terrebonne grew 7.04%— not bad, considering Houma suffered through four hurricanes in the last decade, and even better considering Louisiana’s anemic population growth of 1.4% over this time frame.  But these figures hardly indicate an oil boomtown comparable to the many that have sprouted like mushrooms in Texas, or the more recent equivalents in Williston, ND and Gillette, WY.

Despite relatively modest growth, the retail developments have relentlessly shifted away from Houma’s town center.  This pattern isn’t merely referring to the hegira of downtown businesses to auto-oriented shopping centers—that obviously happened decades ago.  The latest phase shows a move from those neighborhood strip malls to a marginally different automobile oriented typology.  The side of Houma west of the Intercoastal Waterway that bisects the city is both higher income and more heavily populated.  Nonetheless, most of the shopping centers that hug the main street look a bit like this:

Granted, this isn’t an altogether fair example, since this tired old shopping center sits just a half-mile west of downtown Houma, in what is visibly the lowest income part of town.  But a mile further down State Road 24 is wealthier, and the strip malls still look the same.

The hobbled giant K-Mart has been in decline for decades now, to the point that surviving branches only occupy that faded strip malls that Wal-Mart would have jettisoned from its portfolio long ago.  (I blogged about this trend in K-Mart a few years ago.)  The only other major retail neighbor to K-Mart?

A boarded-up dollar store.

Continuing further down State Road 24, the subdivisions are conspicuously middle class, but tenants suggest low leasing rates in all the strip malls.  The Southland Mall is hanging on and still boasts some major chains like American Eagle and Bath and Body Works, but it’s not exactly thriving:

From my observations during an August visit, the mall is barely 60% occupied, with particularly high vacancy levels in the wing adjacent to the long-atrophied department store Sears (a frequent occurrence in malls with Sears that I blogged about earlier).   Many of the other remaining tenants are mom-and-pop stores; nothing wrong with this in theory but clearly an indicator that the mall isn’t commanding high rents.  The outside strip mall across the street looks better from a superficial visit; at least it’s heavily occupied.

But the tenant mix is hardly lucrative: temp agency, tax filing, gold/silver exchange, and not one but two Armed Forces Career Centers.  (Both are in operation.)  I have no objections to any of these tenants, but Michael Moore observed almost a decade ago the tendency for military recruiters to seek low-rent retail space.  This relatively large strip mall does not host a single nationally recognized tenant.

East Houma, with a mostly older housing stock and a smaller, less affluent population, predictably shows much of the same trend in terms of its shopping centers:

Most of the centers are either surviving in poor repair, struggling with high vacancies, or completely abandoned.  East Houma residents still have access to several reasonably large grocery stores, fast food restaurant chains, a smaller Wal-Mart, and a handful of basic services, but not a single strip mall would could be considered flourishing.

My favorite example, however, is the old shopping center just a few blocks from Houma’s partially revitalized Main Street.  It’s proximity to city and parish government offices fostered an idiosyncratic reinvention:

Yes, a former shopping center with one large anchor has transformed into administrative offices for city government.  However, the City of Houma does not seem to have renewed its latest lease:

This photographic array of shopping centers at various levels of neglect does not intend to paint a negative portrait of Houma.  Frankly, few onlookers have demonstrated much sentimentality about the decline of automobile-oriented shopping centers from the 1960s to the 1980s.  But up to this point, nothing I’ve revealed has suggested a small metropolitan area with unemployment far below the national average.  A map of Houma is essential to distinguish the Houma’s flourishing retail corridor from its various struggling pockets.

Almost all of the shopping centers photographed up to this point have rested within the Houma municipal boundaries; if they haven’t, they at least were close to large residential developments.  (The last photo series, showing the grocery store converted to City Hall, sits almost exactly where the Red “A” stake rests on the map.)  But the thriving retail corridor does not intersect with any major subdivisions; it is removed from the grid.  It largely sits on what was probably cheap land outside the city limits, and it represented by the red ellipse on the left side of the map: State Road 3040, called either Tunnel Boulevard or Martin Luther King Boulevard, depending on the location.  Along this arterial, the commercial landscape looks more like this:

It doesn’t win any awards for aesthetics or pedestrian accommodation, but it is a prosperous retail corridor by almost every measurement.  It carries some of the most ubiquitous national brands: Books a Million, Target, Applebee’s, Chili’s, Best Buy, Hobby Lobby, as well as some emerging brands that fastidiously avoid sub-par locations, such as a Charming Charlie’s.  Predictably, the corridor also contains a Wal-Mart.   I counted only one sizable (over 20,000 s.f.) vacant storefront across the entire strip of more than a mile in length.  This stretch of State Road 3040 has become the official commercial/retail hub for the 100,000 residents of Terrebonne Parish.

What this proves is that a city with the size and relative prosperity of Houma can sustain a diverse array of retail that befits its status as a minor metropolitan area.  (It earns this label through shared economic activity with the smaller city of Thibodaux, in Lafourche Parish 20 miles to the north; the Houma-Bayou Cane-Thibodaux Metropolitan Statistical Area contains around 200,000 people.)  Empirical evidence suggests that the retail typology has shifted significantly over the years; using definitions provided by the Urban Land Institute’s Dollars and Cents of Shopping Centers, the standard in Houma has evolved from several smaller neighborhood centers (averaging 60,000 s.f. in Gross Leasable Area) to a more metropolitan scale.  Like beads on a string, a series of loosely connected community centers (averaging 150,000 s.f.) function in aggregate as a regional center of well over one million square feet, allowing all the national names to stand rank-and-file in an easy display as motorists cruise by in their vehicles.  Meanwhile, any smaller shopping center that doesn’t fall along this corridor has kissed national names goodbye, with the exception of perennial laggards like K-Mart.

While I’d hardly assert that a single community like Houma can operate as a microcosm for similarly sized metros across the county, it is not entirely difficult to find other examples in otherwise culturally unrelated municipalities.  My home state of Indiana has two smaller cities, neither of which can boast an economy as strong or stable as Houma but are more populous (at least for now).  Anderson and Muncie have witnessed a similar migration of all major retail: in Anderson, most all retail hugs a two-mile stretch along Scatterfield Road, running just to the east of the older parts of the city.  And the smaller shopping centers not abutting Scatterfield are typically dying or dead.  In Muncie, the commercial main street is McGalliard Road, an arterial north of the old city center.

Houma and Muncie at least share indications of a reawakening interest toward specialty retail in their historic downtowns; Anderson cannot claim such a renaissance at this point.  While the trends on display in these smaller cities may not shed much light on what’s happening in metros over one million inhabitants—metros with an extensive network of discretely incorporated suburbs—they at least provide some added texture to our understanding of the omnipresence of decentralization forces at work.  Automobile dependency is ostensibly so great that neighborhood shopping isn’t necessary; in a small city, it is just as convenient to line all the retail up in a row on a busy highway on the more prosperous side of town.  One could critique the thriving commercial corridor of Houma as mindless sprawl for its appearance and utter disregard for transportation alternatives, not to mention its apparent avoidance of municipal boundaries that would require it to contribute to the city’s tax base.  But retail supply has long pursued the latest locational trends to save money and capture a broader clientele, while leaving the blight of obsolete older typologies in its wake.  Whether the shift in Houma is sprawl or part of a broader regionalist way of thinking (opening the visibility of these storefronts to all of Terrebonne Parish and not just those who live in Houma), really depends on how planners and economists contextualize their data.

This post originally appeared in American Dirt on September 6, 2012.

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