Well, it’s an ongoing discussion, of course. But it leads to a bigger question, a deeper question, and that is this: what so we want our community to look like, to feel like, to contextualize for us?
It seems to me more and more that the promise of convenience has come to trump everything else. It’s certainly trumped privacy, as we’ve taken shopping, banking, and even personal interactions online. It’s trumped personality, as eccentric mom-and-pop shops have given way to nationally predictable aisles of identical merchandise.
In some ways, America seems to be striving to become one gigantic Disneyland. We want everything to be pastel and pretty all the time. People who really should know better—men and woman alike—have plastic surgery and end up looking as real as Barbie and Ken themselves, with plastic faces, breasts, teeth, and more. They copy the Disney prince or princess du jour (we adults call them celebrities), while the rest of us are told that that’s what we’re to be attracted to.
Or look at how America shops. Never mind online—that’s good for an op-ed all by itself—just look at malls, whether the large enclosed ones or the smaller “strip” open-air ones. These retail centers are theme parks all their own, and they deliver just as fake an experience as you can get at Epcot (“never been to France? the French pavilion is just like going there…”). And that experience is reflected in the food they offer. You can have an Italian eating experience in a restaurant that looks like somebody’s idea of a Tuscan villa. Or you can have a taco bowl in a fake Mexican hacienda. Or you can eat Mediterranean cuisine in something that looks like a Turkish bordello.
I did one of my undergraduate degrees in Cambridge, thrilled to live a few blocks from Harvard Square. The square was filled with bizarre and quirky establishments along with equally bizarre and quirky individuals. There was an edginess to it, an excitement—for me at least—about being in a special place. That was back when you could sit in the Wursthaus and eat amazing heavy German food, or have lunch downstairs over at Grendel’s Den. There were eighteen bookstores. The Harvard Coop was a real, viable general store instead of an advertisement for a university. You could hear live music at Casablanca or Club Passim.
Today, Harvard Square is a mall. Urban Outfitters. GNC. The Gap. Starbucks. Oh, and—yeah—CVS. Two of them, in fact. I don’t go there anymore.
Actually, that invokes the question: why go anywhere? If you’re looking for the same hamburger, the same shampoo, the same clothing, why travel? Buy something down the street and call it a souvenir. Cheaper than getting on an airplane.
Which brings us back to Ptown. We want tourists. We need tourists. We may complain about them, but they support most of us in some way or another. And part of tourism is shopping.
Sure, CVS is convenient. Visitors can have their hometown prescriptions available in town. If they know which aisle their favorite mascara is in, it will be the same here as it is everywhere else.
But in a year where we’re all trying to make sense of living in Whackoland, when the smug image of our Idiot in Chief is in the forefront of our minds, conversations, and nightmares, let’s be clear about the difference between corporate needs and people’s needs. About the difference between convenience and character. About the difference between what we want our community to look like and what outsiders want it to look like.
Our context isn’t Disneyland. It’s fishing in bad weather and good. It’s giving up everything for art. It’s living in a garret because a garret here is somehow better than a palace anywhere else. It’s being part of a community of eccentrics, because eccentrics are the kind of people who congregate at land’s end. And here’s the thing: once that changes, it’s forever. It’s done. We don’t get to have a do-over; we don’t ever get it back.
Is that a risk you’re willing to take?