To Save A Town, Why Did They Destroy It?

Santa Maria used to be a city of small stores and Main Street lives. Now, all that is gone — and so is its soul (Originally published in BusinessWeek Online, August 31, 2004)

I took a short vacation with my family to visit the town where my wife
grew up. It was the town where we met some 15 years ago, the place
where my parents retired, and where I landed after wandering overseas
between college majors. Back then, Santa Maria was an agricultural
backwater on California’s central coast, a pit stop on the way from San
Francisco to L.A. It was a town with a vibrant history, but little use
for it — an impossible place to love if you didn’t have roots there.
For me, it became the town where I met my wife, where my father died,
and where I got my first tastes of both business and journalism.

Today, Santa Maria is a burgeoning Wal-Mart suburb. Everything and nothing has changed. Where once there were neat
rows of strawberries and broccoli that went on for miles, now there are
endless fields of single-family homes. In a town that once couldn’t
attract a national grocery chain, you now find the same brand-name
strip malls that dot almost every town in America. Starbucks-Blockbuster-Subway-Kinkos — prefab economic zones you can buy off
the shelf to drop into your half-acre plot along Main Street, some
assembly required.

On a national scale,
this is the face of progress. These manufactured main streets feature a
star-studded array of brands that are leading markers on the stock
exchange, where they build our retirement accounts and our children’s
education funds. But on a local scale, especially in a place like Santa
Maria, the history that is being paved over holds some interesting
clues about the future — clues that are convenient to forget in the
face of short-term profits.

Like most California cities, Santa Maria has an old town —
the intersection of Broadway and Main — where solid buildings from the
early 1900s line the streets. Well, Santa Maria used to have an old
town. Where many California cities now have a revitalized core, with
old brick buildings turned into stylish restaurants and side streets
turned into open air markets, Santa Maria has a massive monument to one
of the most influential fads ever to sweep city planning — the Town
Center Mall.

In the mid-1970s, Santa Maria bulldozed their entire city center in
order to build a huge shopping mall and parking lot. The new mall
generated a lot of wealth — for about a decade. As soon as outlet
stores started cropping up along the freeway, and then Big Box discount
stores, even a Barney Carousel couldn’t salvage the Town Center’s
consumer appeal.

Now the mall is half
empty, and the anchor-tenant department stores are struggling. During
our vacation, my wife took advantage of the 15-hour Super Double
Discount Sale at one of the major retailers. When my wife balked at
paying the "slashed" sale price of $29 for a Finding Nemo
throw pillow my son was clutching, the check-out clerk whispered the
name of a nearby discount store where she could get the same pillow for
half the retailer’s sale price.

You don’t need an MBA to do the math on the future of that
retailer, or the future of the mall. In fact, the city is already
trying to figure how to do what they weren’t willing to do with the old
downtown — revitalize a retail ghetto of empty storefronts. One of the
leading ideas is to turn the entire mall into an assisted-living
facility. That’s right, renew the city center with a very large nursing
home. I suppose there’s a certain logic to it — all the unused parking
space could easily convert to a cemetery.

What no one seems to be asking, either in Santa Maria or many
of the other towns that now look exactly the same, is what time frame
should drive investment decisions. Just as business-development and
investment decisions on Wall Street are driven by quarterly results,
our city-planning decisions are increasingly governed by short-term
payoffs. But instead of losing our shirts to scandals like Enron and
Worldcom, we lose something far more profound behind the new facades of
one-size-fits all city streets. What we lose are the stories that make
our lives meaningful.

Okay, call me a romantic.
Tell me I just don’t understand the capitalist economy. Tell me all
about the cycles of change that have gone on before, and how we always
move forward. I’m not buying it.

Taking Santa Maria as an example, the payoff on the mall that
wiped out much of the city’s history lasted little more than a decade
— and that’s not counting the hefty residual, which hangs like a
mall-sized albatross around the city’s neck. The economic cycles of
outlet centers and big box stores are running even faster. As soon as
one town builds The New Thing, the town at the next freeway exit has to
get one too in order to recapture escaping sales tax revenues. In a
couple of years, demand is diluted too much for any one city’s
investment to pay off.

In the short run, of course, developers do well, cities
collect some nice fees and sales taxes, and retailers expand volume.
And there’s always the potential for another big project to bail us out
when the current scheme runs out of steam.

But how much value do we
place on a sense of place, or a sense of history? History only tells us
where we’ve been, but it’s those stories that help us understand who we
are and where we’re going. What stories do we tell about our
communities when our history is relegated to some old black and white
photos in the barber shop or a doddering historical society?

The sad truth seems to be that we are reduced to telling stories only
through our possessions. We are what we own. We are what we drive. We
are individual "brandscapes," buying and assembling our identities
through the metaphors of clothing, furniture, and food.

There’s some beauty in this. Everything is invested with
meaning, since everything we own has the potential to say something
about who we are. And the whole grand economic exercise, from corporate
marketing to supply-chain management has a masterful efficiency — our
purchasing power as consumers, the lifeblood of our economy, is now
directly coupled with, and driven by, our psychology of being.

 But at the end of the day, we
are giving up a society in favor of an economy. When every decision —
even decisions that cut to the core of our community — are dictated by
the most immediate profit opportunity, it makes sense to tear down a
city in order to build a mall. It makes sense a few years later to
build big discount centers to undercut the mall. Cross every bridge
when you come to it, and let every decision be driven by the shortest
break-even point on the balance sheet.

Maybe it doesn’t matter, but Santa Maria no longer feel like
the town where I met my wife, where my dad died, and where I got my
first taste of business and journalism. It just feels like every other
town on the way from San Francisco to L.A. That relentless consistency
is what made McDonald’s  a household name in 150 countries around the world. But I don’t want to live there.

One thought on “To Save A Town, Why Did They Destroy It?

  1. Alain Jourdier

    I drive through Santa Maria on my way up the coast several times a year. And have done so for at least 35 years…Mostly I go to Cambria, which has somehow resisted the lure of malls and all other economic behemoths we call progress these days. I, too, remember Santa Maria as a place that had character and a sense of history. Alas, this is happening everywhere. The same can be said of Murrieta in Southwestern Riverside County, next to Temecula, where I live. We’ve gone from 35,000 10 years ago to around 85,000+, which makes the city fathers happy due to the tax revenue, but has brought us more traffic, a deteriorating sense of community, graffiti, not enough schools, and you know the drill. Sad to reflect upon this, but thus is the reality of living in Paradise. I fear we are losing our sense of connection to the land and thus our humanity.

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