Changing the Record

There is something painfully insidious about the banal ways we are homogenizing and corporatizing cities. Something sad that we are so desperate to erase the character of our cities, to make them the same in every way possible so that we feel some sort of safety and comfort that we could find in other ways.

It’s nothing new, really, when generally it’s the wealthy that own the buildings in cities. I recall a small indie bookstore I worked at years ago where the owner of the building would just pop in from time to time and sit in a comfy armchair and take a nap while he waited for his wife. This man kept fooling with raising the rent on a small business that the store left for another location and there have probably been ten other businesses in that space in the twenty years since I worked there. Everything from a Wiccan store to a lingerie store, to a hookah shop, to a drug testing site. It’s crazy. And sure, businesses come and go. And rents change. But in this case, it’s a stupid owner that seems to be driving this mess.

So, it’s not as if private owners are geniuses that care about the city and its people.

They don’t.

Sure, SOME might.

Because they are wealthy enough to have that luxury, but most don’t.

They care about the money.

In a city like Flint, we know those sort of people.

Slum lords.

Even if they keep the property nice, they are what they are.

I had a friend that rented a house and the owners lived in Florida and all they did was cash checks and say ‘no’ to anything she wanted to do. Re-do the porch? No. Pets – after seeing them with their dog in the house – no. Hey, can you clean up the basement after it flooded with human waste? – No.

We have a lot of them.

Owners who want a check and little else.

The thing is though, that the private owners are the ones that were renting to the ‘regular folk’s The delis. The ice cream shops. The comic bookstores. The fetish stores. All of the stores that give a place character and personality.

Here I am speaking about Royal Oak, Michigan, the place that, when I was getting into adulthood, was the ‘cool’ city in our region. Sure, Detroit was swell but Royal Oak had all the stuff for the people of my generation, a huge comic bookstore, a magnificent and intimidating fetish store, an amazing art house theater, and other little gems that made up the small businesses that were what gave RO its personality. Alas, investors, and owners, and other high-minded people got involved and suddenly the notion of – wow, this city could really be something if we cleaned it up a bit – seemed to spread and all of those great places I mentioned have now all been shown the door.

Gotta have more space for condos.

Gotta have more room for chain restaurants.

Gotta make it feel a little more, you know ‘normal’ so people want to come out.

Only, people DID come to RO.

A lot of people.

Just not the people with a lot of money they were looking to spend.

It happens everywhere.

And some of it is gentrification, removing anything of cultural or ethnic interest. Literally whitewashing the city to bring in the race that abandoned the city when it got too ‘different’.

This though is different, in that it’s more corporations moving in and getting rid of anything that they can’t bilk for lots and lots of money.

Anything that isn’t high concept, high dollar, or part of a chain.

I get it, the point of money, is to make more money.

You don’t want to put just anyone into your space because that’s an asset and you don’t give away money.
Got it.

But it isn’t as if the smaller businesses WEREN’T paying rent. Maybe they didn’t pay as much as these others might, but they added something else, something that we’re slowly removing with deliberate intent.

Personality.

Yes, it’s great to have all the fun little things we like in cities, bars, and restaurants, and dancing, and night life, and whatever.

Great.

And that is all part of the personality of a place, but so are the delis, so are the bookstores, so are the theaters, and the comic shops, and the t-shirt shops, and the resale shops, and a dozen others that you may have no personal interest in, but which still add to the culture of a place. And yeah, they will still come and go, but in a thriving city they are replaced by other businesses that are interesting, not the same thing you can find a block away.

There needs to be a balance of the corporate – stadiums, theaters, chain restaurants – and the independent. We need that balance to draw in and keep different types of people. THAT is how you keep a city healthy and flourishing – by making sure it’s not the same type of person filling it.

When I moved into downtown Flint, I moved into a building that had a boarded-up front and an empty first floor. The building had its quirks, it had its issues, but I moved there because I was becoming heavily involved in the downtown arts scene and wanted to be nearer to it and my friends. The arts scene drew me downtown. Not the bar. Not the restaurants. Not anything else. As things started turning around down there, I got to be part of that in that I was involved in the arts scene, and we were putting shows together that drew people and added to the culture of things.

Flint is at a strange turning point where we have our major theater open again, we have a bookstore, we have bars, restaurants, and a few cool shops but a lot of the land is still owned by big dealers who want to shape the city in their image. In this case that’s not necessarily an awful thing as they haven’t done anything that’s overly egregious, but it also puts the city’s future in a few hands.

Now, if I had a bag of loot and wanted to put something down here, could I?

Maybe?

But then, maybe not.

I remember when an old boss I had was looking to rent out a café space and he was interviewing people to see what they had. There was a resale shop. An ice cream shop. A sandwich shop. Among others. The sandwich shop got the space and ended up buying it eventually and the owner became an integral part of the culture and vibe of this city. She had that place of over ten years until she essentially retired and sold it and another similar place filled the space.

And I ask myself, what would our city be without the contributions of these places?

A city, a downtown, needs a lot of things to be healthy and vibrant – space, shops, business, entertainment, food and drink, vibe, culture, presence, but most of all people. It’s the people that make the cities come to life and it’s their businesses and art that give them a spark. The idea of removing the things that make a place unique, to replace them with things that can be found in any other city or small town, is crazy to me. To homogenize the vibrance and personality of a city to make it attractive to one type of person is unthinkable.

There has to be a middle ground.
There has to be space for the arts, for the funky shops, for the personality and culture of a city alongside the corporate aspect that just wants money.

If there isn’t, if we kill the culture of a place then when the next ‘flight’ from the city happens you will be left with an empty shell full of steel and glass and you’ll have to turn to the people you turned away in the hopes that they’ll come back, and you know what…they may just say ‘no’.

…c…

I write books and stuff, check them out in my bookstore.

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