Today, I write about Wal-Mart's plans to come to D.C., to the essentially desolate spot pictured to the right. As someone who lives near one of the planned stores, I wholly support the move. A reader who can relate to my experience writes in:
DC consumers have dealt with paltry shopping choices for too long-- but of course for decades, crime drove away retail investment. I am a Capitol Hill resident with limited shopping options so therefore make most of my purchases in Virginia.
Precisely. This isn't about Wal-Mart per se, although I'm happy to see them trying to be part of the solution. Many if not most D.C. residents go outside the Beltway to shop. (That's one reason most of D.C.'s small businesses have little to fear from Wal-Mart -- most people are already shopping elsewhere anyway.) The exodus of retail cash to suburban stores is bad for the local economy, and all of that driving is bad for the environment. It shouldn't be this way. Why should residents of one of America’s most important cities have to get in the car and drive to the strip mall desolation of Maryland when they want to buy something?
That's my view, anyway. There is an alternative, anti-urban view that says we should settle for the idea of the city as a commercial backwater. This is the notion embraced by Brian Gray, who ironically calls himself the Urban Bohemian:
It isn’t that I’m against city improvements, but trying to turn the city into the suburbs is foolish. Just move to the damn suburbs! Most people know the lay of the land when they move to DC. It doesn’t have mini/strip-malls, it has more take-out shops and liquor stores than big box chains and you usually have a choice of one grocery store while relying on the nearby CVS or convenience store for those last-minute items. Anyone who drives or walks through DC neighborhoods while looking for housing can tell that.
This is wrong in so many ways that I don't know where to start. First of all, the Wal-Mart planned in Ward 4 (with underground parking) will actually be replacing an ugly, abandoned strip mall (a car dealership, to be precise). But more importantly, Gray is confusing the idea of “the suburbs” with the idea of what cities are supposed to be – the place people flock to rather than flee from when they want to engage in commerce. There is nothing about commerce that requires soul-sucking ten-acre parking lots, long drives and ugly strip malls.
Cities used to be great places to do business. They can be once again.