Lakewood, McDonald’s and community

This one feels a long time past. I originally wrote it in mid-2011, but it seems like so long ago.* I have always felt that I did some good thinking here, however. Meanwhile, I’ve decided now is the time to repost it here in my long-term archive. Lakewood is currently confronting another top-down plan to replace a familiar piece of the community** with some sort of corporate wheeze, and one of the most vocal critics has even declared the pending liquidation of Lakewood Hospital “another McDonald’s.”

No, no and no. Among many other differences, Lakewood Hospital actually matters, I think. Whereas the arrival of McDonald’s on Detroit Road, I argued and still argue, was mostly just a petty annoyance. Unfortunately I have a growing sense that too many people cannot tell the difference, a want of perspective that cannot be helping anyone, except those powers that are content to see citizen “meddling” diffused into griping about a dozen issues rather than concentrating on doing something about one.

For this reason among others, I’m going to skip most of the opening paean to Lakewood…

Lakewood is packed with locally-owned bars and restaurants; I even did a cartographic guide to the bars once. Meanwhile, fast-food chains and big-box stores are almost unknown. The biggest “big box” is a supermarket and there’s really just no room for a walmart or home despot, etc.; there are a few chain establishments like a Schlubway and a Domino’s and a Dunkin’ Donuts, but aside from one Taco Bell the only big-league standalone drive-thru greasepits are banished to the fringes of the city and completely absent from “mainstream life” in Lakewood. (Cue ominous piano chords.) That is, for now

This morning, I got up, stumbled around through the usual re-orientation to consciousness, pulled up teh intarweb and read with dismay of the “potential McDonald’s move to Detroit Theatre property.” Sacre bleu!

Oh the ignominy. When the theater closed several weeks ago, I wasn’t really concerned since it had always looked kind of shabby and I go to a movie theater at most once every two or three years anyway. Had I known, though… the Detroit Theatre is hardly “paradise,” but on the other hand “a parking lot” would be far less demoralizing than a McDonald’s.

Oh dear. No more easily-forgotten outposts in the provinces for McDonald’s Lakewood, now they’ve determined to settle for nothing less than prime real estate, to plant their flag right in the middle of the city’s major commercial thoroughfare. I rarely even see the other Golden Arch locations, and could overlook Taco Bell as the exception that proved the rule, but this development will clearly sweep away all those cherished illusions and put an end to the dream of locally-owned progressive-economy exceptionalism.

It would seem that we are not only to be assimilated, but must know that we have been. Sigh.

Bless the concerned do-gooders of Lakewood who organized a “community forum” yesterday (I guess I should check the Lakewood section of more than once a month), though it seems that their “concerns” will ultimately prove irrelevant. “City administrators made it clear that the site is privately owned, has been for sale for years and is zoned for commercial use. They also made it clear that if McDonald’s wants the property, they can not prevent them from acquiring it.”

And even if some sort of rearguard could “save the Detroit Theatre” (and I’m sure that signs in support of this cause will begin appearing soon alongside “Save St. Pat’s” and other such examples of front-yard-activism), if Mickey-Dee’s is really determined to expand into the center of Lakewood I expect they can find a space somewhere. I hate to pooh-pooh local community activism and don’t really want to see McDonald’s on a daily basis, myself, but I have a feeling that resistance is futile.

Moreover, to be honest, I’m a little uncomfortable with the aim of such resistance given that it seems to be little more than snobbish, even “elitist” NIMBY-ism. People can kvetch about “traffic” or “litter,” but I don’t think that’s the issue here; “property values” may get closer to the truth and I think even it’s of dubious legitimacy, but I suspect that a lot of “concerned citizens” simply don’t want McDonald’s “spoiling” Lakewood. That’s my own feeling, and it could be that I’m projecting. But it isn’t as though such phenomena are rare.

I read the San Francisco Chronicle, after all, so I’m quite familiar with bourgeois liberal nose-wrinkling at the approach of large, national chain businesses. I also remember regular outbreaks of reactionary suburban NIMBY-ism back in Des Moines.

And when it comes to McDonald’s, in particular, I also can’t help recalling an instance of embarrassing liberal-elitist whining from my Des Moines years and almost literally right in my own backyard. At the time I was represented in Iowa’s legislature by Ed Fallon. I loved the guy. Liberal, earnest, generally down-to-earth; you’ve got to love someone who organizes a frisbee golf tournament as a fundraiser.

But even I winced at a newsletter in which Ed bemoaned the arrival of a new McDonald’s franchise in our mostly low-income, minority neighborhood. As I recall Ed mainly restricted his complaints to relatively “legitimate” targets like litter and that trademark vegetable-grease smell. But I’m pretty sure his reaction was in fact driven largely by a real-life liberal-elitist perspective, offended by the encroachment of cookie-cutter corporate junk-food into his bohemian neighborhood.

Because it seemed like he was determinedly ignoring the obvious question of just who was carrying all of those discarded paper cartons and wrappers out of the place, who was keeping the brand-new McDonald’s busy, as I recall, 24 hours a day? Who was, in fact, apparently delighted at the arrival of McDonald’s?

It seemed then and seems now, to me, that the equally obvious answer could only be his own constituents. This was a relatively poor, unfashionable residential neighborhood in central Des Moines, remember; I’m pretty sure that “outside” traffic would have accounted for only a small part of the restaurant’s business. And certainly litter on the sidewalks would, logically, have been the result of frequent, local, foot-traffic.

Perhaps I verge on stereotyping, but aside from my intuition the evidence alone would seem to suggest that the very people Ed Fallon was supposed to represent were, in fact, thrilled with the availability of low-priced “convenience food” within walking distance. Perhaps even more thrilled than were the residents of my hometown, who waited in a seemingly ridiculous line to partake in the presumably much-welcomed arrival of McDonald’s in Anamosa a couple years ago.

I’m sorry, Ed, and I find it rather unfortunate too, but the fact is that there’s a McDonald’s damn-near everywhere because people damn-near everywhere genuinely desire their awful garbage-food, and choose to spend money on it and to go back and keep going back again and again.

So, who are we, of more-easily-offended tastes and stomachs, to impose our preferences on everyone else? You can make pieces of a true, public-interest, argument against some elements of McDonald’s, I suppose. But that’s really an argument for changing McDonald’s as a whole system; it’s not an argument for keeping a particular McDonald’s out of a particular neighborhood.

Especially when that neighborhood, like Lakewood, is already jam-packed with businesses serving up not only greasy fried food, and caffeine, but alcohol as well; I love Lakewood’s bars, but in fairness to McDonald’s it’s very probably a lesser threat on the poison-vending scale than many of this fine city’s beloved local establishments.

Which, in a putatively free country of equality before the law, seems to leave awfully little justification for trying to block McDonald’s from Lakewood just because one thinks it ruins our image. About all a city can really do is placate the community ego with various building and sign requirements, like the contrasting city of Hudson which in my opinion just ends up looking petty and stupid; McDonald’s with a wooden sign is still McDonald’s.

The addition of McDonald’s presence to my daily life, however, is still a bummer, no glossing over it. But then, much of what’s happening at any given moment in this nation, and on this planet, is a bummer. All that most of us can do is keep trying to carve out spaces, physical and figurative, where the evil and the oppression and the repellant are held at bay, for a little while longer. Which, disappointingly for the community-minded, often means smaller and more personal spaces because shared spaces are shared with many people of different tastes and values, who have their rights however lamentable those tastes and values may be.

Notes: A “Save the Detroit Theater” campaign did make a brief, absolutely ineffective appearance, and as I recall McDonald’s had razed the old building and substituted one of its vile prefab drive-throughs before year’s end. On the other hand, its old building is now occupied by a health-food store, and I just recently observed that a local Detroit Road coffee shop has now seen two corporate challengers give up on a space across the street. So, realistically, the Lakewood “we” know and love probably is doomed, but it may at least go down swinging.

* Hell, McDonald’s is now in the midst of a huge slump that just cost its CEO his job.

** Another difference: Lakewood Hospital actually is community property, literally, rather than in a non-binding figurative sense only like the old theater. Whether this will amount to more than a technical difference, um… I have my doubts.

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