A couple weeks ago, I had the opportunity attend a city-wide business luncheon here in Rockford, where the mayor unveiled a proposal to completely redevelop the old downtown and riverfront district. In theory, this is a good idea. Re-centering and re-orienting Rockford around the river and its historic downtown would help Rockford claim an identity and help to revitalize a city that is coming to terms with its transition away from being a manufacturing center. And yet, as the mayor spoke, I couldn't help squirming a bit, and hearing a little voice in my head that kept shouting "there's something not quite right about all of this!"
That same little voice popped up again this morning when I was reading about the plans that West Windsor, NJ (the town that borders both Princeton, where I lived, and Plainsboro, where Matt's parents live) has for developing/redeveloping businesses along Route 571, a busy main road in the Princeton area. They talk about wanting to recover it as a modern-day "main street," which I assume to mean that they want to unify the scope of its businesses in order to make the 571 corridor a "one-stop-shopping" experience. That is to say, lining up a representative sample of businesses that appeal most directly to the wants and needs of area consumers. They are beginning by proposing knocking down an old gas station in favor of relocating a grocery-store Starbucks to the land, in addition to a drugstore and a restaurant.
I enjoy shopping, I really do. And I suppose that I take some comfort in having familiar and useful businesses close to me. This is evidenced by the placating effect that State Street has on me here in Rockford. As I head east from my apartment on State toward the interstate, I pass a K-Mart, a WalMart, and a Target. I pass a Hobby Lobby, a JoAnn Fabrics, a Hancock Fabrics, and a Michael's. I pass both a Borders and a Barnes & Noble. I pass three different McDonald's, an Applebee's, a Cheddar's, a Chili's, a TGIFriday's, and a Ruby Tuesday. I have my choice of Dennys or Perkins. I can clothes-shop at Kohl's or Old Navy, I can buy my sheets at either a Linens and Things or a Bed Bath and Beyond. This is all to say that within the span of less than 10 miles along this one road, I can find ANYTHING that I would want or need. It makes me feel like I'm provided for, that I won't ever be left in a lurch.
I can't say that I don't feel a bit squirmy about all of this commercialism and consumerism. I find in myself a growing dissatisfaction with the idea that building up retail space is the best way to revitalize communities. I feel a certain resentment toward the notion, no matter how economically or financially true it is, that spending money and resources in order to provide people a place to spend their money and resources is the best way to renew the life of the city. I wonder if consumer demand is really as demanding as these developers would want us to believe.
Looking at the neighborhoods surrounding Rockford's riverfront and thinking about the proposed "redevelopment," I can't help but think about Chicago and the "revitalization" of downtown into a place where people want to live and work and play. Instead of re-establishing and helping the existing communities, redevelopment plans like these instead take over a neighborhood, invest money into it in order to attract those who have money, and displace any people who can't afford to live in these new, affluence-ized communities. They aren't really making the life of the city better. They aren't really improving the quality of life. They are merely importing people who already are living well and exporting people who would actually benefit from true neighborhood revitalization, not this consumerist definition of revitalization.
Is retail development really the only way to create community? Is wealth the only thing that will revive neighborhoods and make them safe, clean, and healthy places to live? Isn't there something backwards about creating a perceived need in order to build businesses to address that need? At what point does appreciating convenience turn into demanding convenience? At what point do we realize that efficiency might not be the only true value in life?