Every well-traveled cosmopolite knows that America is mind-numbingly monotonous—the most boring country to tour, because everywhere looks like everywhere else,” as the columnist Thomas Friedman once told Charlie Rose. Boston has the same stores as Denver, which has the same stores as Charlotte or Seattle or Chicago. We live in a “Stepford world,” says Rachel Dresbeck, the author of Insiders’ Guide to Portland, Oregon. Even Boston’s historic Faneuil Hall, she complains, is “dominated by the Gap, Anthropologie, Starbucks, and all the other usual suspects. Why go anywhere? Every place looks the same.” This complaint is more than the old worry, dating back to the 1920s, that the big guys are putting Mom and Pop out of business. Today’s critics focus less on what isn’t there—Mom and Pop—than on what is. Faneuil Hall actually has plenty of locally owned businesses, from the Geoclassics store selling minerals and jewelry, to Pizzeria Regina (“since 1926”). But you do find the same chains everywhere.
The suburbs are the worst. Take Chandler, Arizona, just south of Phoenix. At Chandler Fashion Center, the area’s big shopping mall, you’ll find P. F. Chang’s, California Pizza Kitchen, Chipotle Mexican Grill, and the Cheesecake Factory. Drive along Chandler’s straight, flat boulevards, and you’ll see Bed Bath & Beyond and Linens-n-Things; Barnes & Noble and Borders; PetSmart and Petco; Circuit City and Best Buy; Lowe’s and Home Depot; CVS and Walgreens. Chandler has the Apple Store and Pottery Barn, the Gap and Ann Taylor, Banana Republic and DSW, and, of course, Target and Wal-Mart, Starbucks and McDonald’s. For people allergic to brands, Chandler must be hell—even without the 110-degree days.
One of the fastest-growing cities in the country, Chandler is definitely the kind of place urbanists have in mind as they intone, “When every place looks the same, there is no such thing as place anymore.” Like so many towns in America, it has lost much of its historic character as a farming community. The annual Ostrich Festival still honors one traditional product, but these days Chandler raises more subdivisions and strip malls than ostrich plumes or cotton, another former staple. Yet it still refutes the common assertion that national chains are a blight on the landscape, that they’ve turned American towns into an indistinguishable “geography of nowhere.”
The first thing you notice in Chandler is that, as a broad empirical claim, the cliché that “everywhere looks like everywhere else” is obvious nonsense. Chandler’s land and air and foliage are peculiar to the desert Southwest. The people dress differently. Even the cookie-cutter housing developments, with their xeriscaping and washed-out desert palette, remind you where you are. Forget New England clapboard, Carolina columns, or yellow Texas brick. In the intense sun of Chandler, the red-tile roofs common in California turn a pale, pale pink.
Stores don’t give places their character. Terrain and weather and culture do. Familiar retailers may take some of the discovery out of travel—to the consternation of journalists looking for obvious local color—but by holding some of the commercial background constant, chains make it easier to discern the real differences that define a place: the way, for instance, that people in Chandler come out to enjoy the summer twilight, when the sky glows purple and the dry air cools.
Besides, the idea that America was once filled with wildly varied business establishments is largely a myth. Big cities could, and still can, support more retail niches than small towns. And in a less competitive national market, there was certainly more variation in business efficiency—in prices, service, and merchandise quality. But the range of retailing ideas in any given town was rarely that great. One deli or diner or lunch counter or cafeteria was pretty much like every other one. A hardware store was a hardware store, a pharmacy a pharmacy. Before it became a ubiquitous part of urban life, Starbucks was, in most American cities, a radically new idea.