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Gentrification and consumerism

What are the consequences of consumerism?

Will Bed-Stuy eventually look like Manhattan? How would the feel of the neighborhood change if more Duane Reade’s (on the way), Starbucks, national banks (Chase, Citi, Bank of America), McDonalds or (even a Wal-Mart) moved in?

Before going too anti-chain remember that Wal-Mart and McDonalds both started with a single store and struggled against local similarly sized businesses before becoming the megachains they are today. They did so by hitting the sweet spot on the dart board of quality and price and outselling their competitors. Now that they have cashflows that make some countries jealous, they have the capacity to refine their position, increasing quality while at the same time reducing prices.

If a person is willing to travel outside his neighborhood to shop at a particular store, that shop receives the money that a local store would have gotten (if a local store carries the product in question). If enough people do this, it make sense for the outside store to open up locations closer to this neighborhood. Presumably if you are willing to pay travel expenses to purchase at a store far away you will be willing to go there almost exclusively if travel is no longer a problem. If there are enough people that do this, Wal-Marts and McDonalds are born.

How can locally owned independent shops expect to keep up? Obviously they should be seeking to provide a higher quality at a lower price than the shops around them, right? But not every shop owner is out to conquer retail, some people simply want to run their own store. The economies of scale aren’t as friendly to small businesses.

Are megachains and neighborhood niche mutually exclusive? Can the wall of mega mall advancing from Manhattan in all directions be stopped? And is that really what we want?

I think a Wal-Mart would ‘benefit’ Bed-Stuy. Cheaper goods ultimately lead to more cash on hand at the end of the month which can go to new clothes, books, college funds, car payments or entertainment. If a person is satisfied with their standard of living it could lead to less work hours, increasing time for playing with the kids, walking through Brooklyn or taking night classes. Then again, just because you can cook things faster in a microwave doesn’t necessarily mean that it saves you time or that it cooks better than conventional methods.

Is business a lubricant of gentrification, or is it the fuel? The proximity of schools and stores is a big part of why people decide to dwell where they do. If an area carries along some perceived advantage, people may be more inclined to move there regardless of what the conditions are. For instance, with the promise of free land people moved West (where poor planning or bad luck could cost your life) seeking Manifest Destiny.

I am not expert and I have only glanced at some of the literature on gentrification, but I’m not sure that the effect of gentrification on small business owners has been looked at specifically. Any small business owners in gentrifying (or gentrified) neighborhoods want to share your experience?