I used to believe that the best quality of life is found in America’s smaller cities. That was before I knew Reading, Pennsylvania
I spent much of three years in Reading and after I came to know it very well and to love being there, I had a greater understanding of the impact on smaller cities of American neglect – the economic and social changes that have reduced so much of this country to poverty and blight while we refuse to spend public money on our own public good.
I arrived early on a Friday afternoon in another small city, Bentonville, Arkansas and went immediately to the Crystal Bridges Museum.
I spent the next four hours looking at the extraordinary collection of American art housed inside a Moshe Safdie building.
I stayed the night a short walk away from the museum in a beautifully appointed modern hotel called the 21-C that is really an extension of the museum. The ground floor had room after room of paintings and sculptures and every guest floor lobby above had more – drawings, quilts, more sculpture.
The following morning was Saturday and I walked again through the manicured woods between the hotel and the museum and then drove through the town looking at its perfect lawns and carefully tended houses.
I felt as if I were in the Truman Show or in Seaside, Florida
As I prepared to drive away from the town I saw a farmers’ market ahead of me in the little town square. I parked to see it.
The produce being sold there was in quality at least as good what is sold by the Dupont Circle Market in Washington and, of course, at prices a lot more modest.
And then I left town for the long drive to Amarillo Texas, my next stop and I had a lot of time to think about Bentonville.
I drove through all of Oklahoma (a big state) sometimes getting off the highway to explore. I ate fried chicken at June’s Place in Checotah. There wasn’t much else in Checotah. There was, however, a Walmart.
I saw many, many Walmarts.
As I drove on Route 69 to get back to I-40, there was a Walmart Superstore. I had seem them everywhere on my drive, even in Hazard, Kentucky.
I thought about Selma, Alabama. I had been there a week before and it was the first time I had seen it since the Civil Rights march in 1965 that required Justice Department protection from the famous sheriff whose force had attacked an earlier march with dogs and firehoses.
The Edmund Pettus Bridge has not changed at all and I don’t remember what the downtown of Selma was like in 1965. I know what it looks like now – deserted – I mean really deserted, stores largely locked up, the downtown mostly abandoned.
I stopped at a coffee shop, two women serving one customer. They were happy to have another customer. We talked for a while.
Selma was a trading center and cotton market a long time ago, also a manufacturing city. Nowadays its median household income is $21,000.
When I left Selma, I drove past a huge Walmart.
To say that Walmart dominates Bentonville is one thing but what I didn’t fully understand is how much Walmart dominates all of the American landscape I know, I know. Everyone knows this but to experience it was another thing for me and awful.
I went though towns that were always poor, Harlan, Kentucky for example. But as I passed one Walmart after another, I kept thinking: There are more than 5,000 Walmarts in America. It’s as if Walmart is a giant vacuum cleaner that sucked the retail out of every small town I saw in Alabama, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Florida.
When I finally got to San Francisco a couple of weeks later I noticed with a new eye the number of small corner grocery stores there are in that city. There are lots of reasons for it: San Francisco is a big city, a rich city, a city of dense neighborhood, a city that’s doing very well.
Big cities are different from small cities and smaller towns and have greater economic wherewithal. I know. The migration of Americans from smaller places to larger ones began a long time ago. I know. And I have a bias about the contributions made to communities by small businesses so consider that when you read this.
Not every town can be like Bentonville but I can think of no excuse for allowing so many towns to be like Selma.