Sunday, November 1, 2009

Chains in Uptown?

Penzeys Spices: A chain, yes, but not exactly a Walmart, either. What is the role of chains in Uptown? Are there "good" and "bad" chains?

A lot of locals (both those who live in Uptown, as well as those who like to visit) like to bash Uptown for its "corporate culture" and "suburban" design. Yeah, I know, I complain about chains plenty myself. Still, I think we could all use a little more time spent in thoughtful debate about the role of chains in Uptown (and Lyn-Lake).

Here's a representative comment from the anti-chain crowd, or what I think of as the "I hate suburbanites" subsection of anti-chain people, written by "Lisa" on the City Pages' blog posting about the Uptown Bar's closure:

"This is the further suburbanization of Uptown, bringing in suburban-style chain retail designed for suburbanites. Destined to fail, as most have: Gap, Limited, Garden of Eden, TCBY, etc. Maybe the city planners should think about THAT. People who live in the city do not want to patronize suburban-style chain retail. If there is no character or history left in the city, forget it.

This is also a consequence of all these big, stupid festivals taking place at Henn/Lake, like that Loppet, that bike race, etc., designed to bring the greater Twin Cities into town with their generic mentality. You get that going in the neighborhood, then it is marketed to these chain retailers as a place to capture that business. This is NOT progress."

This is a pretty typical rant. They tend to incorporate the same basic themes: "Uptown is suburban. All the cool people left. It's just a big mall. People from outside of city limits are inherently bland or have no taste." I don't want to patronize suburban-style chain retail, either. But a lot of this is rather uninformed, pointless, and doesn't move us forward to what we DO want, or how to go about getting it.
Lisa throws out a list of "chains" she doesn't like, so let's start with that. First, I'm pretty sure Garden of Eden isn't/wasn't a chain. My memory is a little fuzzy, but I'm pretty sure it's the same store that is now located on Grand in St. Paul; if that's true, then they are Twin Cities-based, currently have only one location, and proudly sport the 3/50 project's logo on their website), and given that it lasted so long in its location I wouldn't say it's a failure, either. I don't bring this up to argue the specifics with someone who probably will never read this post, but rather to question why one would list Garden of Eden as suburban-style chain retail. Is it because bath products and lotions are seen somehow as suburban? Do city-dwellers not take baths? Granted, I never could afford to buy much of any substance at Garden of Eden, but they filled a niche, and I think they were a nice addition to the neighborhood. Fancy oils and lotions aren't exactly a necessity in life, but there's nothing about them or the store that is inherently "suburban" or "generic" in style or function. My translation of this is to mean that it's not hip enough, perhaps because Garden of Eden lacked irony.

Let's go on to the rest of the list: Gap, Limited, and TCBY. Was there ever a Limited? I don't think so, although my memory may be failing. I assume she means the Express (part of Limited Brands, so she's not so far off). I never loved having an Express there, but did appreciate the opportunity to buy some basic women's clothing in Uptown. The store itself opened out both the street and into Calhoun Square, which isn't exactly traditional mall-style, either. And finally, the company as a whole has had problems, so I don't know if Express's ups and downs in Uptown reflect at all on the neighborhood, either. In sum, I didn't love Express, but do think that variety in clothing options in Uptown (in both style and cost) are a good thing. I would agree that I would prefer to have those options be independently-owned. Gap... well, the Uptown store was its first non-mall store in Minnesota, and it did last for much of a decade. I can't say that I love the Gap, but I prefer it to the Victoria's Secret. On the other hand, I think it's better to have a chain than a vacant storefront. I can think of many ways I'd rather see in that prime corner location, though. Finally, TCBY. Yes, I think of this as being a mall-store, but thought that it was a good use of its corner location. I doubt it went out because neighborhood residents avoided it because it was "suburban" in nature.

Again, I'm not picking on Lisa in particular, but rather attempting to figure out what people think of as acceptable versus non-acceptable chain stores in Uptown. Why does she list these stores, and not others? There are, after all, chains in Uptown that I think a lot of people don't even realize are chains; Paper-Source and Penzeys Spices come to mind as prime examples. I prefer my stores to be locally-owned and operated, but as far as chains go I think both are a far cry from "suburban-style chain retail," and demonstrate that chain stores can adapt to fit their surroundings.

The other thing that the anti-suburban crowd (as in: anti-suburban residents) forgets is that local people are also often frequenting the chain stores, the bland bars, and the other places that get so often derided for being geared only to those dreaded interlopers from Eden Prairie. One of the issues that Uptown faces is that it IS both a regional and a neighborhood destination. Overall, I think that's a good thing. Uptown's residents aren't enough to support the number of stores, restaurants, and other businesses that most of us want in the neighborhood. Maybe that could change if Uptown's density were to increase, and if more of us were to actively concentrate on keeping our spending in the neighborhood, but for now, if we want diversity and quantity then we've got to encourage visitors from across the metro area. That does NOT mean that we need to embrace chains or "suburban-style chain retail." In an ideal world, Uptown would be able to serve both residents and visitors with its innovative mix of local businesses and let the chains go elsewhere.

I try to avoid chains, I don't like shopping at malls (although find them oddly fascinating in their way), and I prefer my neighborhoods unique and mostly chain-free, but I also disagree with the anti-suburban advocates as to their characterization of suburban residents. There's often a smugness, an air of superiority, a feeling that "I'm better than you because I live in Minneapolis and you live in Eagan." I hate Eden Prairie, and think it would be an absolutely terrible place to live. I also think that many suburban lifestyles ARE damaging, unsustainable from an environmental viewpoint, and destructive to the fabric of society. I think city living IS better. That doesn't mean that the residents of those suburbs deserve to be bashed, though, or even if they actively prefer to live in a modern subdivision in exurbia that doesn't mean that they can't enjoy a visit to Uptown, too. On that note, take a look at the number of Uptown residents who think nothing of a trip out to Southdale and the Mall of America, or the city residents who live lives virtually indistinguishable from those living outside of city limits. It's not so simple as city residents are unique and individual, while suburban residents are "generic." Kind of ironic, given that I'm guessing many of the same people who profess horror when someone from the 'burbs drives in to get dinner at Figlio are the same people who tout diversity as one of the reasons to live in the city. That doesn't mean we have to make Uptown mall-like in function or appearance, of course, or accommodate every visitor's wishes and desires (including on things like parking), but it does mean that we as a collective whole need to stop complaining if people from outside of city or neighborhoods limits drive (or, ideally, bus) in to do some shopping.

In the end, I would prefer that Uptown have few or no national chains, but realize that that's probably unlikely to happen. I don't think all chains are bad for Uptown, and think that there are already existing examples of chains that have made a positive impact on the neighborhood. Paper-Source and Penzeys are both great fits; Urban Outfitters, too, seems to be an overall positive influence on the neighborhood. I'd prefer to see Victoria's Secret leave, or at least see it move indoors to Calhoun Square. I don't think chains (or franchises) automatically translate into "suburban" style development, and in some cases they are filling a niche that has otherwise been left empty. I like to be able to shop in the neighborhood, and if a chain is the only locally-located business filling a need then I will probably go there to do my shopping. When I have a choice, though, I will always make the attempt to go with the local option first, and believe that we do need to take a greater active role in helping support new and existing independent businesses.

And finally, I think there are good and bad chain stores. Some fit in well and are good neighbors; others, not so much. Admittedly the same could be said of independent stores, although with less financial resources than the big places they have limited power to create as much havoc. Ultimately, though, those people who complain about chains need to actually do something to support the alternatives. I'm trying to be good about this; whenever possible I'll spend the extra couple of bucks to buy local, and if I can't afford the extra then I'll try to hold off on the purchase until I can. That doesn't work for everything (there are definitely some gaps we need to fill...) but after reading Big-Box Swindle I do find myself increasingly thinking about every purchase I make.