Monday, April 09, 2007

Not In My Neighborhood

by Libby Hellmann

They call Chicago the city of neighborhoods – all of them diverse, textured, and fascinating. Except mine. I live in the Chicago suburbs, on the North Shore, and it sometimes feels more like a state of mind than a neighborhood. It’s fairly affluent, bucolic, very white, and the biggest issue in the twenty years I’ve been here is the refusal of residents in the adjoining village to widen the main thoroughfare.

Until now. An issue has been festering for over a year, and, while I already know how it will be resolved, it has shaken up my assumptions about
the tyranny of capitalism, corporate ethics, and suburban sprawl.

The northern part of my village is in the throes of big development. Several condo complexes – now called “lifestyle communities,” new malls, and other commercial projects are either in construction or about to be. At first glance, I didn’t think much about them. Their contributions to the tax base will keep my taxes down, and it’s always nice to have the convenience of a Best Buy, a Home Depot, or Whole Foods nearby, right?

Well, maybe not. The plans are to bring it onto the road that intersects mine, an idyllic street with the Forest Preserve on one side and lovely homes on the other. Suddenly the old abandoned Com Ed building half a mile from my home is ground zero for a big box retailer.

The neighborhood is up in arms for all the reasons you’d expect -- traffic, noise, congestion, blight, suburban sprawl. They formed an association, hired a lawyer, and are doing all the grass roots things the little guy does to fight the establishment, in this case the village politicos.

I started out rooting for the association. They were the David, arming their slingshot against the Goliath of reckless development and profiteering. They wanted to preserve the pristine, rural nature of the neighborhood. They wouldn’t go down without a fight.

Then I found out which big box retailer was moving in. Target. Yes, they are a big box retailer, with all the perils of rampant –yet affordable -- materialism.

But last summer Newsweek ( wrote an article about the 15 people and institutions who "Make America Great." Turned out Target was one of the 15. The article described what a progressive corporate citizen they are. How they donate 5 per cent of their pretax profits to nonprofit causes. How they treat their employees more fairly than the other Big Box store. How they offer free long-term housing for the families of young cancer patients. How their employees volunteer at the rate of 7,000 hours a year. For them philanthropy is good for the bottom line. They’re hoping people like me will feel good about the company and seek them out.

Guess what? It worked. I do make an effort to shop at the red Bullseye rather then the Big Wall. And when I plunk down my cash, I do think that perhaps a penny or two will end up in the right hands. I’m not na├»ve enough to think it’s a panacea, but it is something. So, given their altruism, shouldn’t I take off my armor and welcome them to the neighborhood? Or at least cease and desist?

The reality is that, in the final analysis, I think we are virtually powerless to do anything about development. In fact, the furor is almost perfunctory – does anyone really think that, in the further adventures of the malling of America, development will NOT happen?

But it raises an interesting question. Given a choice, who do you want in your back yard? Is it better to have an altruistic corporate citizen? Or doesn't it matter? Should we welcome Target, happy it’s not someone else? Or am I just trying to assuage my guilty conscience for selling out in the first place?

Anyone have any “happy ending” development stories?


Michael Dymmoch said...

When the Catholic Church decided to let go of its Techny farm, Northbrook residents had the chance to convert it to open space. But voters bought the argument that development would bring tax dollars to the Village. Maybe it did, but it didn't keep taxes from rising. And I'll bet whatever the developers paid the Village for infrastructure expansion doesn't come near to covering the added, ongoing police, fire and education costs resulting from the increase in population and especially the number of shopping malls. (Drunk driving and thefts at Northbrook Court used to account for the majority of crime reported in the village.) Techny development did result in big city level congestion at certain times.

Northbrook already has a Target store, and there's one in neighboring Highland Park. Why is another necessary?

Whatever convenience may result from having a Target every half mile is offset by congestion, light pollution and other nuisances. Longtime residents can't be blamed for wanting to preserve whatever peace they still have.

Sara N Paretsky said...

Libby, I don't know--it's a atough one. Dr. Chirag Mehta, Dr. Ron Baiman, and Dr. Joe Persky at the University of Illinois (Chicago Circle) showed the detrimental effect Wal-Mart has on communities in their March 2004 study, “The Economic Impact of Wal-Mart: An Assessment of the Wal-Mart Store Proposed for Chicago’s West Side.” According to their research on how Wal-Mart has affected other communities across the country, a Wal-Mart store on the West or South side would cost the neighborhood a net $1,183,000. The neighborhood would lose a net of 65 jobs even counting the jobs Wal-Mart alleges they will create.

Target is a different kettle of fish, as you point out, but my guess is that their economic impact on a community would be the same.

I spent Easter weekend with a friend north of Boston. All the charming little downtowns along the Atlantic seaboard are dead, replaced by endless iterations of the big box along route 1A. I don't know if Northbrook has its own charming downtown but it would be sad to lose it,