I went to a FedEx store to ship a package and the store was located inside a Walmart. The parking lot was full of cars and people bustled in and out of the building continuously. Located just before the row of cash registers, the FedEx shop was cozy (500 square feet). Two women were working there, and I chatted with the manager while she prepared my package.
I asked her how she came to manage the store, and she said she used to work in traditional retail for Target and Kohl’s. When she saw that online retail was outpacing traditional, she switched to FedEx. The women were clearly intelligent and capable of solving problems without asking for permission. They struck me as people who would make great small business owners.
There were many things about this simple experience that were significant. The bustle of the parking lot was an almost perfect slice of the population, including people from various races, socioeconomic classes, and religions.
Looking for the hidden graveyard of things unseen, the picture gets more complicated. Where is the downtown to which all these people would have gone in a previous era?
I remember the conflict between Walmart and small towns that happened all across America in the 1990s. Looking at Walmart’s continued success and the further decline of small towns, the conflict has long been settled. The traffic through the parking lot would have been the envy of any downtown development authority.
The flow of money throughout the experience was also interesting. As a customer, I paid FedEx for the service of shipping a package hundreds of miles within 18 hours. My money goes to FedEx corporate headquarters in Memphis, Tennessee. FedEx sends money to the manager for her time and a rent check to Walmart. The FedEx manager probably uses some of her income to save for retirement. My personal retirement account has a “U.S. Equities” allocation, which means I am probably paying Walmart a portion of every paycheck.
When Walmart bought the property in the early 2000s, there were a lot of narratives at work. Maybe some were “Yay, jobs!” or “Yay, efficiency!” or “Yay, capitalism!” These narratives were stronger than the ones advocating for localism and neighborhood economics.
Fast forward to today: I didn’t buy anything at the Walmart, but I still shopped at Walmart. Everyone shops at Walmart. The money I paid to FedEx flowed into Walmart through rent, and every moment I was standing there in the FedEx store, my retirement savings were shopping at Walmart.
This is not to say that anything I observed was bad; it just is what it is. I am trying to observe the realities on the ground. There are people that want to articulate a new vision for how we can inhabit the landscape, and that’s fine, but first we need to understand the current environment and how money flows through the system.
What are the hidden things we can’t see because we’re blinded by three generations of the Suburban Experiment? The Suburban Experiment is held up by narratives of infinite growth and perpetual motion. These narratives are like a black hole that swallow anything and everything that stand in their way. They are a gravitational force that move our society. Think about how many peoples’ livelihoods depend on the current narratives surrounding infrastructure, economics, finance, ordinances, grants, etc.
When we try to see with fresh eyes, all sorts of interesting possibilities arise.
What if FedEx rented space in a building owned by the manger that prepared my package? She seemed more than capable of owning her own business and the FedEx shop could fit in any historic downtown building across the country.
I live in the City of Smyrna, Georgia. Smyrna has a great downtown that tries to be a real walkable place. There is a neighborhood one block from downtown which has big houses with decent density, and each house has a two-car garage oriented toward the street. Every Halloween, the streets are probably bustling—like the Walmart parking lot on a normal Thursday afternoon, or any downtown street prior to 1930. Why do we dis-incentivize the bustling on the other 364 days of the year?
What if the homeowners were allowed by right to convert their garages into small shops? This violates a significant number of unwritten rules within our current culture:
More traffic on our streets will make them unsafe.
Cars parked on streets impede the flow of traffic, making them less safe. Also, this impedes a fire truck response time.
Mixing commercial and residential uses is wrong.
Any change in the neighborhood character will reduce property values.
Everyone wants to attract the “right kind of people” to the neighborhood.