Big Chains Are Sucking the Life and the Variety Out of Our Cities

CC BY 2.0. Lloyd Alter/ Hard Rock Cafe on Yonge Street

People in Toronto are complaining that many music venues are closing, their sites gone to condos; I have been meaning to write about how important bars and restaurants are being lost, gone to drugstores, and took these photos for the story. But Colin Horgan of the Guardian beat me to it. It is not just Toronto, but a problem in a lot of successful cities.

On Yonge Street in Toronto, the once seedy strip everyone came down the road from all over Canada for music, sex and drugs, the Friars Tavern where The Band played, became a Hard Rock Cafe and now is becoming a boring red store selling a different kind of drugs, across the street from our new Nordstroms. Horgan writes:

Normally, a Hard Rock Cafe – itself a chain – giving way to a pharmacy might not prompt dismay. But the move has sparked a debate in Toronto about what exactly its streets are for. “If this particular drug store brand goes in, and does the exact same thing they do in every other case – they put one door at each end and they wrap the whole thing in an advertisement – that’s not adding to the dynamic of the neighbourhood,” says Toronto city councillor Mike Layton. “That’s in fact taking a sledgehammer right to the heart of it.”
Brunswick Tavern

Lloyd Alter/ The Brunny is now a Rexall/CC BY 2.0

Corporatization is happening everywhere; even Toronto’s famous Brunswick Tavern, where they rented the beer instead of selling it, has gone to drug store. I assumed that it is because the boomers are now more interested in buying Depends instead of drafts, but according to Horgan, there is a bigger story, the invasion of the chain stores on main streets and high streets around the world. And they are not just trying to stop this in Toronto:

Most famously, in the mid-2000s the city of San Francisco adopted policies to limit chain stores, known as “formula retail”. Broadly speaking, the city defines formula retail as stores with 11 or more locations anywhere in the world, a uniform aesthetic, and a few other criteria.
boycott tesco

Jim Killock on Flickr/CC BY 2.0

In the UK, there are planning guidelines that limit the size of stores, but it hasn’t worked very well; the big chains like Tesco just opened up smaller shops. According to Rafaella Sadun of the Harvard Business School, it made things worse for the small locally owned businesses.

“Independent retailers were actually harmed by the creation of entry barriers against large shops,” Sadun wrote. “Instead of simply reducing the number of new large stores entering a market, entry regulations created the incentive for large retail chains to invest in smaller and more centrally located formats, which competed more directly with independents and accelerated their decline.”
Buy Local

© Local First

There is a lot of worry about the dynamic of the neighbourhood, but in fact there is a bigger issue that we have covered in TreeHugger before: where the money goes. In a study done by Local First in Grand Rapids, Michigan, it was found that for every hundred bucks spent in a locally owned store, $ 68 stayed in the community. For non locally owned businesses, only $ 43 stay locally. Michael Shuman, in his book the Small-Mart revolution, quoted even more extreme numbers; in one study comparing two bookstores in Austin, economists found that 13 dollars out of every hundred spent in Borders stayed in town, whereas in the local bookshop, 45 dollars circulated in Austin.

Back in Toronto, the discussion is about the quality of the streets and neighbourhoods.

“We’ve got to have a conversation about: what is the need of the neighbourhood? What makes a great neighbourhood?” says Mark Garner of the non-profit Yonge Business Improvement Area. “How do you preserve small independent business based on what a neighbourhood needs? Our neighbourhoods used to be great. You used to be able to walk to your butcher, your dry cleaner, the fruit stand to pick up your stuff ... and you had relationships with those small, independent, family-run businesses.”
Small business sign

© Support local business

One way to help is to save those small businesses is for people to patronize them. To shop local every day, even if it costs a little more, to keep our dollars in the community. Michael Shuman wrote:

Going local does not mean walling off the outside world. It means nurturing locally owned businesses which use local resources sustainably, employ local workers at decent wages and serve primarily local consumers. It means becoming more self-sufficient and less dependent on imports. Control moves from the boardrooms of distant corporations and back into the community where it belongs.
holy shitzu

Lloyd Alter/ Seen on Bloor Street, Toronto/CC BY 2.0

Local businesses add so much more to our communities, and provide so many opportunities, and sometimes even a bit of humour. We should be doing everything we can to support them, and to keep out the big chains that are sucking up all the money.