Sociology professor: new Wal-Mart could result in loss of community

Diane Bates, assistant professor of sociology, said a new Wal-Mart could result in a loss of community when she spoke at the Ewing chapter of the International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers last Wednesday discussing the social consequences of the new Wal-Mart planned for construction in Lawrence.

The talk was sponsored by LET’s Stop Wal-Mart, an organization of local residents from Ewing, Lawrence and Trenton against the construction of the building.

Bates, a Trenton resident and member of LET’s, centered her speech on the social consequences that “Big Box Retail,” or stores such as Wal-Mart, will bring. This phrase was coined due to the stores’ large, box-shaped structure and their practice of selling many products in bulk.

The main issue covered was the loss of community that accompanies the arrival of large, chain-owned businesses.

“When we think about community, it’s grouped with Norman Rockwell,” Bates said in reference to how communities identify themselves by local shops with friendly owners.

According to Bates, Wal-Mart has been extremely successful at meeting these new demands and has spread as a result. She said as people became less community centered, “Big Box Retail” stores began taking over neighborhood shops, which towns had supported heavily before.

“People are doing things, but they aren’t doing them with a sense of ‘we-ness'” Bates said.

The small crowd, just short of 20 people drawn from three different communities, proved her point.

Bates explained that the loss of community is furthered by the similarity of all chain stores. This is called “Geography of Nowhere,” a phrase coined by James Howard Kunstler, an author and writer for the Sunday New York Times, in his book of the same name.

Since most “Big Box Retail” stores have similar layouts across the country and even worldwide, their construction can cause towns to lose their feeling of uniqueness.

As Bates explained, a Wal-Mart in California will feel exactly the same as a Wal-Mart in New Jersey, whereas local businesses give their individual towns a unique flavor. “This is a divorcing of community and place,” Bates said.

According to Bates, the problem of “Geography of Nowhere” intensifies as retail stores drive the remaining local merchants out of business. Economically, small businesses cannot compete with the prices and resources of giant companies and so are forced to close down or relocate.

Bates did acknowledge that Americans might be willing to pay more in order to keep small, friendly merchants in town.

“We might sometimes do things for non-economic reasons,” she said. She went on to tell an anecdote of a conversation with a watchmaker at the Trenton Farmer’s Market.

If Bates had her watch repaired at a large chain store, she explained, it would have been unlikely to hold a friendly conversation while it was being repaired.

After the speech, the audience discussed the problems at hand. Carol Lerner, one of the coordinators of LET’s, summarized the current plans for the construction of a local Wal-Mart, what has been done so far to oppose it and what will be done in the future.

According to Lerner, Wal-Mart originally introduced its plan to construct a new outlet last summer but pulled out after they experienced problems with local zoning laws.

However, according to Lerner, Wal-Mart resubmitted an application in January after the previous problems were resolved, and the store will likely be constructed if they community does not resist. “We are going to challenge it from a community perspective and a legal perspective,” Lerner said.