Is it crazy to think that downtowns and big-box stores can peacefully coexist?

As I’ve explored Indiana on its back highways, I’ve come to have a heart for historic preservation. While my first love is old bridges, I also really enjoy a restored historic building and I am always delighted to enter one of Indiana’s many small towns and find a vibrant, vital downtown. A real favorite is Plymouth, in the north central part of the state. As you enter from the south on the old Michigan Road, you cross a recently restored Luten concrete-arch bridge on your way to the city’s heart.


Plymouth’s residents are very lucky to have such a charming and well-cared-for main street. Whenever I visit, I feel gently tugged to live in a place like this.

Southbound at Garro St.

But charm doesn’t necessarily translate to utility. A Plymouth resident can’t do all of their shopping downtown; the available stores just don’t support it. I don’t know whether the Wal-Mart Supercenter on the far north side of town helped cause that or merely filled a gap a once-declining downtown created. (My buddy Kurt is a preservationist in Plymouth who participated in some of downtown’s restoration. If he’s reading today, perhaps he knows and can explain in the comments.)

I grew up in the 1970s just 20 miles north of Plymouth in South Bend. I lived in a real neighborhood, with a grocery, two pharmacies, a dry cleaner, a dairy store, a five-and-dime (with a gleaming stainless steel soda fountain!), a library branch, several restaurants and bars, service stations, doctor and dentist offices, two municipal golf courses, and two public schools all within walking distance – sometimes a longish walk, but a walk nonetheless.

Regardless, my family did most of its shopping at a strip mall south of us where the suburbs began. Those stores had more to offer at better prices, and we could park our car once and do the entire week’s shopping in a couple hours. That was, and remains, a compelling value proposition.

Today only the library branch, the golf courses, and the schools remain. I can’t say for sure that families like mine are fully to blame for that. The neighborhood is much poorer than it used to be; its ability to support those businesses waned over the years. Many business owners couldn’t find buyers when they wanted to retire, so they closed their shops. Perhaps zoning has changed to encourage more residential growth there, blocking businesses from opening. Still, when I visit today, I feel sad that there are no more chocolate malts at the soda fountain, no more running down to the corner for a gallon of milk, and no more riding my bike to the dentist for a checkup. But that strip mall is still there, as are two or three more, and their parking lots seem always to be full.

Because it’s what I can afford, I now live in what used to be suburbs before Indianapolis annexed the entire county in 1970. It’s all cul-de-sac neighborhoods, strip malls, and four-lane roads out here. A few neighborhoods like the one in which I grew up still exist in Indianapolis, and they’re sought-after addresses. Perhaps one day I’ll be able to afford to live in one of them. The one nearest me features a few great local merchants who have persisted primarily by moving upscale. There’s an absolutely fantastic butcher shop there, for example, that now sells higher-end meats and attracts customers from far beyond their neighborhood. Perhaps this is how local businesses can survive, as there’s no margin in such madness for Meijer (a midwestern chain that’s like Wal-Mart, but slightly upscale). But even if I do move there, I’ll still do most of my routine shopping at Meijer because of price and convenience.

And so it should probably be no surprise that I’m on the fence about protecting heritage business districts by trying to block development of big-box stores on the edges of towns. I see the damage the strip malls and big box stores have done to small-town downtowns and city neighborhoods. But I also don’t see these large-scale retailers as patently evil; people seem to like them. Perhaps an environment can be created in which local businesses can adapt.

This post was inspired by this post over on Preservation in Pink.

I took photos of that nearby neighborhood last summer with my vintage Agfa Optima camera. See the photos


15 responses to “Is it crazy to think that downtowns and big-box stores can peacefully coexist?”

  1. Kurt Avatar

    Hey Jim. At one time, not so long ago, you could do all of your shopping in downtown Plymouth. The downtown weathered two strip malls, one on the east and one on the north sides of town that were developed during the 1960s-70s. Then in 1990 Kmart, shortly followed by Walmart, opened shop on US 30 northwest of town. Not only did it affect the downtown but also marginalized the other strip malls to a great extent. Now there really are no stores that fill basic neccessites in the downtown. It has consignment shops, restaurants, several vacancies, and attempts at specialty shops now. What is worse is that the entire population of 10,000 plus an equal amount in suburbia south of town have to drive to the other side to get what they need. It is illogical in city planning.

    Big boxes hurt downtowns. There is certainly enough evidence to prove this. Smart planning could help (and by smart I don’t mean the elimination of big boxes); but that has to be accepted by politicians who understand the value of community is higher than property tax revenue. The realty, however, is that small town small mom and pop businesses in the American economy today are at a severe disadvantage, if it is possible for them to exist at all. They can’t compete with their prices, they don’t have staying power to weather economic downturns, and health insurance costs alone could make or break them.

    Well-that’s enough doom and gloom. Have a great day!!!

    1. Jim Avatar

      Kurt, I know I’m kind of a dilletante here, and that this is something you’ve spent much more time thinking about than I. But I have to wonder if the downtown of days past filled with a mix of national and mom-and-pop stores is just something that shouldn’t be recovered. I love downtowns, I want them to be vital, but I think that given how things have turned out that other mixes of businesses have got to rule the day. I have no idea what that would be, other than the things I’ve hinted at above. It does seem to me, as you say, that good city planning is really important so that there’s balance and good flow.

  2. Bill Jurasz Avatar

    In north central Austin, within a walking distance of my house, a Wal Mart went in that the local residents lobbied against for a long time. The result was a Wal-Mart that was half of what they originally planned to have. In my mind this was a good outcome. And it seems, thus far, to have had some, but little, impact to local businesses. One shoe store is gone, a local hardware store relocated about 5 minutes away. But new businesses cropped up that are surprising to see near a Wal-Mart. A high end kids and women’s shoe and toy store. Elevation Burger. Which Which sandwich shop. The Egg and I breakfast joint.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I think people often want to just keep things the way they are because it’s comfortable. I’m not so naive as to think that Wal-Mart hasn’t caused pain and suffering to local businesses everywhere and that some of their neverending quest for the lowest possible price hasn’t taken its toll (just ask anyone who works in a Wal-Mart store). But rather than denying reality and trying to engineer things so they go back the way they were, I think it’s better to accept reality and engineer things for the best possible outcome given it.

  3. davidvanilla Avatar

    And thus Jim comes down squarely on the fence. ;-)

    (But I get it. I have lived long enough to watch the demise of the “downtown.” Nostalgically sad, and yet you are as likely to see me in Lowes as you are to see me downtown.

    1. Jim Avatar

      I like to think of my position as pragmatic — this is how things have evolved, so rather than trying to restore what once was, how can we make the best of it?

      As a kid, I loved going to downtown South Bend to shop at Robertson’s, the big local department store they used to have. I miss it. I miss a lot of things about my youth. Glass bottles of Coke. The locally produced kids’ shows on TV. Ginormous automobiles with vinyl roofs an whitewall tires. Okay, maybe not the cars so much. But the point is, these things are gone. What do we have to work with now?

  4. ryoko861 Avatar

    This is an excellent post Jim! I could rant on about what I’ve seen in my area but that’ll take too long. The conglomerates have definitely taken over, but is it really a good thing. The quality of merchandise sucks, traffic congestion is a nightmare and not for nothing, they’re unsightly buildings! Coming from NJ, I could see what eastern PA was heading for. My little voice wouldn’t have been taken seriously. It’s all about money. Didn’t matter if my area was zoned “agricultural”. They stuck a logistic warehouse 1/4 mile down the road from me anyway. Because the developer promised incentives to the town. So in the middle of farmland, we have tractor trailers whizzing up and down our little country roads. I think they called it “progress”.

    They never took the time to see the impact it may have on the outlying areas. Just saw $$$$.

    Geez, don’t get me started!

    1. Jim Avatar

      I’m not opposed to people making money. I think there needs to be controls in place that protect what needs to be protected on the way to making that money. The devil is in the details, however, as there will be many varying opinions about what needs to be protected.

  5. Kurt Avatar

    I wrote a long response and then my internet kicked out…….and I don’t have it in me again. Read James Kunstler’s newest book for some perspective.

  6. Ted Kappes Avatar

    This is a fascinating topic. I’m old enough to remember thriving downtown retail centers, . One of my biggest childhood memories is of my Dad’s many quests to find a parking space downtown, and think I it is unlikely that we will ever go back to downtown as retail center as long as the car is king. I have seen some downtowns be revived using a mix of office space, restaurants, entertainment, and specialty retail. Champaign Illinois is a good example. They are even having a new hotel built downtown.

    One interesting thing I remember reading in a book about how to compete with Walmart is that 60% of retail sales are made after 5pm and on weekends. After that I remembered that most of the old downtown merchants were closed after 5 and usually only open for a few hours on the weekend.

    1. Jim Avatar

      You bring up two very relevant points about the limits of the old downtown. On the other hand, I decry how the Walmartization of the nation had led to a workforce that has to work at crazy times just so I can get 40% off at 2 am.

      1. Ted Kappes Avatar

        I do think that we may have gotten ourselves into some long-term trouble by building things so that we are so dependent on cars to get to them. As I think we are starting to see cheap fuel was only a short-term probably one-time luxury. I know from visiting Europe that they seem to be better fixed for doing without cars than we are. I remember in Germany that there are usually many services within easy walking distance. Also it is funny that even though people are not very religious there that most things are closed on Sunday. I guess there are laws that put some limitations on when and how much people can work. Probably wouldn’t go over too big here, however the routine of buying and selling things there was fairly similar to what it was here 40 years ago.

        1. Jim Avatar

          I lived in Germany one summer as a teenager and well remember how much was available within walking distance, and how much more was reachable by streetcar. But Germany is so much more population dense than we are here. I think some of what allowed our current state is that there’s so much ground available to cover here.

  7. Chris Avatar

    Jim, I grew up and still live in your old neighborhood in South Bend. And my Dad grew up in this neighborhood too. So I understand what you are missing from the “old” days. I also miss the availability of local shops to handle our everyday needs. I often comment to my family about how much easier it was to ride down to the the Burger Dairy on my bike with $2 in my hand to grab a gallon of milk for dinner. I know that I’m only 5 minutes away from the shopping centers by car but I do long for the old neighborhood convenience. Plus I would love to take my kids down to Brant’s for a chocolate shake at the counter.

    1. Jim Avatar

      Yeah, I used to ride my bike down to Cira’s for that gallon of milk. And I bought Mad Magazine over at Hans-Burkhart Pharmacy. And of course there was stuff you could get at Brant’s that I don’t think I’ve ever seen anywhere else. Maybe Wal-Mart has some of it, but the store’s so big that you could look for a month and miss it every time. And if I had a time machine, the first thing I’d do is go back to 1983 and have a chocolate malt at Brant’s.

Leave a Comment

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: