Endangered Places

by Jay Parini, poet, novelist and biographer who teaches at Middlebury College and lives in Weybridge, Vermont.

In case you haven't followed the story so far: The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently put our state on the endangered species list. Their reason was this: "behemoth stores" like Wal-Mart. This Wal-Mart would occupy 146,000 square feet of commercial space in what is now open country two miles north of St. Albans. Governor Jim Douglas was behind this move, urging the superstore to consider this site, apparently convinced that heavily discounted products and low-paying sales jobs are good for us all - despite the larger impact of superstores on the communities that attempt to absorb them.
Was the Preservation Trust being alarmist? Did they simply want to roll back the clock, trying to keep Vermont in the 19th century - a picturesque place, full of pretty small towns and idyllic farmland, green woods and rolling fields? Isn't the business of America really business after all?

Let me talk personally now. I grew up in a fairly small, well-integrated community - West Scranton, in northeastern Pennsylvania. There was a family-run grocery store across the street from our house, and that's where we bought most of our food. On Main Avenue, about ten minutes on foot from our front door, you could buy almost anything you needed: baby shoes and shovels, typewriters and radios, bow-ties and dresses. My dentist had an office there, as did my regular physician, who had treated my parents and grandparents before me. One could get a uniquely good hot dog with chili sauce at the Liberty Lunch on Main Avenue - the sauce was a special recipe, long held secret by the family that owned the joint. There were also half a dozen funeral homes on the avenue, making this a kind of cradle to grave marketplace, in a thriving community.

Then the malls opened - three miles north of West Scranton. A couple of hayfields were blacktopped over. Discount shoes, dresses, bow-ties and shovels - you name it - became available. The local residents, my parents included, cheered. They liked the deep discounts and the easy parking.

But fifty years later, West Scranton, in Pennsylvania, is the municipal equivalent of a graveyard. The place looks like a war zone. Empty brick buildings, boarded up store fronts, broken windows. The funeral parlors are all that are left, though a few tattoo parlors have sprung up, catering to the handful of young people who haven't flown the coop. The hot dog diner is gone, but a McDonald's is not too far away.

When you kill Main Street, the commercial heart of village life, you kill the community that it serves. Young people move away, and the buildings fall into disrepair.

This is a big price to pay for a slightly cheaper TV set, for a $10 pair of jeans, or for a cheap set of luggage that your children will almost certainly need as they prepare to leave home for good, looking for better work, for a better way of life.

© Copyright 2004, Vermont Public Radio & Jay Parini
Vermont Public Radio commentary