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9:35 a.m. - October 02, 2005
A Generic America?
In selecting songs for a mix CD for someone recently, I re-discovered a good rockin’ tune called “Generic America” by Blue Mountain. It’s a typical “I don’t need you and your corporate ways – I’m just going to rock and roll with my band” song, which I think we all need to hear once in a while. But it does strike at the heart of things that I have noticed.

For one, it does decry that fact that our farmland is being bought up and paved over. I know that’s been happening for years – but now it seems to be more and more prevalent as suburban sprawl becomes exurban sprawl. Farmland may be dull to some people, but I’d rather see a cornfield than a new subdivision of McMansions with their postage stamp yards. I just think stacking 2,500 square foot houses with three car garages on top of each other, where the yards are the size of the owner’s SUV, is just ugly.

Second, my favorite line is “prison walls and shopping malls all look the same to me.” I can relate to that:

“I sentence you to 10 to 20 in Abercrombie and Fitch.”

(As this essay said, me no likey malls.)

I was struck by the notion of a Generic America. So I did a lot of thinking about that phrase, and was trying to determine if we truly have a generic country in some aspect.

What I came up with is yes, on some fronts, we are becoming more generic. But I don’t know if it’s a good thing or a bad thing.

For one, the people of this country are not generic, and that is the best thing about living here in the United States. (Calling our country America seems a bit pejorative to me– mainly because the continent is North America (and South America) and by doing so it seems we claim Canada and Mexico don’t exist. That’s why I always say “in the States” when talking to my Canadian friends. But Europeans call us Americans, so at least in this essay I’ll go with it.) My children, for one, are prime example of the diversity in this country, and a reminder that we should not be afraid and encourage diversity.

Unlike several countries, people of different races, cultures, religions, sexual orientations, and belief systems can all live and work in the same place. Sure, there are idiots afoot that are prejudicial and want to discriminate against those who are different than they are, or that want to impose their beliefs and value system on everyone, some of that prejudice is still ingrained in society (but thankfully not as bad as it was 50 years ago or even 25 years ago), and there’s still some ways to go to make it a totally free land off opportunity for all, but as long as we can marginalize the idiots I think society as a whole will thrive because of our diversity.

And even though this country is seemingly fractured in its political beliefs, that fracture really not as bad as it has been historically (we haven’t had someone literally being attacked with a cane in the Senate for over 125 years – now we just sic so-called pundits after them on talk shows), and virtually every transition to a new president or new congress has been smooth. So even while I can’t believe (Tom DeLay) what some of our leaders (Tom DeLay) think they can get away with (Tom DeLay) in the name of politics (Tom DeLay), and that I disagree vehemently with several policies (that I won’t get into because this isn’t about that and there are enough pundits afoot that spew forth on both sides of the line) that our leaders have set forth (in the past and in the now), I am assured that we are not generic at all, because we CAN disagree with our leaders and still live, work, and breathe without any fear of reprisals.

(I mean, my boss is a former FBI agent, and if he can’t get me locked up for something I’ve said then I don’t know who could!)

So as a people, we are not generic. This is a good thing.

The country has a great diversity in geography as well. I’ve been to 49 states and I have driven through most all of the ones I have visited. Most of the time, I’ve driven the roads less traveled because I prefer to see the people, places and things of this country than looking at trucks on the interstate.

Montana is definitely different than Vermont. Arizona has its charms, the same as Washington State. Wisconsin and North Carolina couldn’t be any more different.

Geographically, we are not generic.

We used to be quite fractured in this country. There were vast differences between east, west, north and south. Those differences caused a nice little skirmish that killed many people (and created a cottage industry for historians and battle re-creators). Those differences, because of the way people have migrated, are diminishing.

Yet, there is a somewhat of a cultural difference in how someone living in an urban setting thinks and feels versus people in the heartland. That’s natural, though. There are different kinds of opportunities for culture in each of those settings. That’s what makes it great to go on vacation and experience the art and culture of a city like New York or Chicago, or to go exploring out west in Durango, Colorado and seeing the old mining towns and beautiful scenery. People in some cities have one pace, one motor, one direction – and in other areas of the country the pace and drive is quite different.

Regionally, we are not generic, either.

So why does that phrase “generic America” still stick with me?

I think it has to do with Irving, Texas.

Last year I attended some training classes in Irving, Texas. I’ve been to Texas several times. I’ve had business meetings in Austin, I spent some time in Dallas and East Texas on vacation, and I’ve also explored some of West Texas around Amarillo (on the way to Clovis). Texas is not Indiana, for sure, so I thought Irving would be kind of neat.

Irving, though, reminded me of a suburb of Indianapolis. (Or, actually, the very northern part of Indianapolis along 86th Street.)

Chain restaurants, shopping malls with the same stores, and blah looking office buildings that have 6 to 10 floors of cube farm companies.

I flashed to some time I spent in Denver as a consultant. I spent ten weeks staying in a Marriott that could have been anywhere – went to work in another cube farm office complex that could have been anywhere – and in the neighborhood the stores could have been anywhere. The only difference is that I could see mountains on the horizon.

Each one of our cities is unique. Indianapolis is quite different from Chicago. New York is different from Boston. Those differences make this a great country.

And while a small town in Kansas may look similar to a small town in Indiana, they are not the same, really. By spending time in small towns you can get a sense of the differences. Just see what kind of shops they have, what kind of houses they live in, what they serve in their diners, what the people drive.

To me - it’s suburbia that is becoming generic.

And that’s – that’s not a good thing, or is it?

Actually, small towns are becoming more generic as well. Every town seemingly has Satan’s Discount Store…er…Walmart…and Satan’s Fast Food Place…er…McDonald’s. And now, more of these towns are getting a Staples, a Home Depot, an Applebee’s, and are growing strip malls all over their outskirts with banks, video stores, tanning beds, and more chain restaurants. Even the upscale stores are becoming generic.

Even big cities aren’t escaping this genericism. Marshall Field’s will cease to exist in Chicago because the corporation is going to rebrand the store as Macy’s. Well, that ain’t right! Macy’s is New York – Marshall Field is Chicago. Otherwise, it’s just wrong. And of course in many cities you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Starbucks. (Would a dead cat in your latte improve the flavor? Nah…)

Construction of houses is also becoming very generic. Except for places where you really can’t build them because of the soil, etc. each development is becoming very samey. There seemingly is no local charm to a development anymore. It could be plopped anywhere from Alabama to Maine.

While I worry about the generic state of the suburbs taking away any local character, I find myself enjoying the stores that are causing the genricism. I love Staples (yes, you can love office supplies – they are your friends! Because your stapler can turn on you if you don’t watch out) and as much as I loathe Satan’s Discount Store – I love Target. And Target is all over the country as well. And I do go to Applebee’s, and Wendy’s. Our family has a monthly money extraction trip to Costco. There are always good deals at Dick’s Sporting Goods, or even Bed, Bath and Beyond.

But while the stores themselves are great, they do tend to make the suburbs and outskirts of urban areas all look the same, and they make it harder for local merchants to establish themselves, and several long time businesses (especially hardware stores) find themselves having rocky times going against Home Depot or Lowe’s.

So as I sit here in my unique house in a small town, and I worry about the genericification of the suburbs, I realize that it is a paradox. Sure, you can lament over the lack of local character, but many of us would not want to live without the stores and shops that come with that lack of character. I guess the solution is to support local merchants, avoid living in cookie cutter band box houses, and try to encourage developers and big stores to protect the local character and charm of each area.

Now I must go – I need a new printer cartridge. Staples, ho!

(And yes, I realize that I wrote almost 1,700 words that meandered into nothing, really. But you get what you pay for, here at Smed’s Corner!)

(Oh, and thanks to Lisa! for her insight as I was bouncing this off my head).


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