Sunday, January 11, 2009


Suburb followup. I think where the suburbs get interesting is where they diverge from what they're intended to be. My colleague Julia Christensen embarked on a fascinating project exploring how abandoned big-box stores get repurposed.
America is becoming a container landscape of big boxes connected by highways. When a big box store upsizes to an even bigger box "supercenter" down the road, it leaves behind more than the vacant shell of a retail operation; it leaves behind a changed landscape that can't be changed back. Acres of land have been paved around it. Highway traffic comes to it; local roads end at it. With thousands of empty big box stores spread across America, these vistas have become a dominant feature of the American landscape.
Basically, she explained at a recent reading I attended, it's cheaper for Wal-Mart to build an entirely new building, so they can turn the lights off at the first and on at the second simultaneously, than to simply add on or renovate. But the abandoned Wal-Mart is sold under a strict covenant that it cannot house anything that remotely resembles the original tenant--not so much as a potato chip may be sold there, or anything that would compete with Wal-Mart, which sells pretty much everything. So people have gotten creative and turned old big-boxes into churches, go-kart tracks, charter schools, museums... you name it.

See some examples, or better, peruse the big beautifully-designed book.

Today the New York Times mentions her project as well as the general problem of abandoned half-built suburbs and exurbs. ("What Will Save the Suburbs?") Mere raze-and-salvage isn't going to do it; the building materials often aren't even good enough to be worth saving. A commenter makes an astute point that the soil beneath the tracts is more valuable than the buildings will ever be--I've seen houses sprout up like weeds all over the rich fields surrounding Fargo, ND and Iowa City and Beaverton, OR. Farmland is too easy to develop--already flat and cleared, and the only farmers who can make money from growing food are the ones hooked into the agribusiness mega-naut.

I've got to finally read The Geography of Nowhere, which my brother gave me for Christmas a couple of years ago and I've put off reading because I was worried it would depress me.


AnnMarie said...

"Let us first be as simple and well as Nature ourselves, dispel the clouds which hang over our brows, and take up a little life into our pores. Do not stay to be an overseer of the poor, but endeavor to become one of the worthies of the world."


we aren't doing such a good job of that, are we?

Anonymous said...

Looking for more comments about Bill Jones from Park Rapids. Do you have more comments?

Chelsey said...

Anonymous: Nope. But plenty of information about him can be found in the Park Rapids Enterprise. Check there.

click clack gorilla said...

aaaaand this is much more terrifying than the "keep your door cracked so you dont fall into the ice" thing. shudder. damn you walmart.