The Christmas Endowment
The most important civic decisions of the year may be made in the next four weeks
The Christmas Endowment
You may not find time to read this column. We can understand that. It’s that crazytime of year: parades and parties and dinners and lots and lots of obligatory shopping. Everyone complains about the holidays, but we spend every December the same way, in a mad rush to buy as much as possible for as little as possible.
We’ll do most of our non-grocery retail spending for the year in the next few weeks. We’ll spend tens of millions, right here in Knox County. If we’re typical Americans, we’ll spend more here in the next four weeks than the total cost of the biggest public projects ever proposed in Knoxville. With that money we could build a major research hospital, or an international airport, or a public university, or throw another World’s Fair.
We won’t, of course. We’ll spend all that money on clothes and liquor and sundry beeping doodads. There’s nothing wrong with that. It’s Christmas, after all. But this Christmas, just for once, put some thought into what happens to your money after you give it to the cashier. With some thought, we may be able to use it to change the city for the better.
Some of East Tennessee’s rugged individualistsbristle at the idea that business and property owners might be subject to a community government proposing restrictions or incentives to foster one kind of growth or inhibit another. They get especially peeved at some urban-planners’ assumptions that individuals have no intelligence, no discernment, and no pride. American people, they say, will decide with their feet and their pocketbooks what sort of community they’ll live in. They’ll vote for it with their spending money.
If the people do care whether a certain store abandoned one gigantic parking lot to build this slightly more gigantic one, or whether there’s one exactly like it in every city and town in North America, they won’t support it. If shoppers do care whether any given big-box chain department store is a wholly owned subsidiary of The People’s Republic of China, they’ll just stop shopping there, simple as that.
That’s the theory, anyway. But shoppers know that locally owned places tend to be a little more expensive than the big-box stores. It’s a simple phenomenon, the economy of scale; and people like bargains.
When people find bargains, individual families may save money. The community doesn’t. The effect of single-minded bargain hunting on a community isn’t always a pretty thing to behold. Bargains don’t always make for good architecture, or efficient use of land or a thriving local economy.
The logical result of favoring the discount stores is that decisions about what’s to be available for sale in Knoxville are made in Dallas or Minneapolis or Beijing, and a certain amount of the money we spend on Kingston Pike ends up very far from Kingston Pike. We may raise hell with our own elected officials about taxation or easements or billboard restrictions or eminent domain, and fancy ourselves individualists—but to the international Svengalis of Christmas sales, we are predictable and obedient servants. We happily send our money to support their projects, even when they’re ugly or wasteful—and even if we know part of the money we spend goes to support overseas regimes we don’t understand very well.
Meanwhile, our own community stagnates, or at least doesn’t grow as vigorously as it could. Let’s do something a little different this year, and see what happens.
Spend an extra buck or two more to buy something at a place because it’s locally owned. More of your money will stay in the Knoxville area. You may even see some of it again someday.
Buy a gift that’s produced here. A CD by a local band, a jar of local barbecue sauce, a local painting, a pot of local preserves. A local boat.
Moreover, invest in individuality and distinctiveness. Spend a dollar more at a store because it’s different from any other store you’ve ever been in your life. If you don’t know any places like that in Knoxville, make a New Year’s resolution to get out more.
When you’re looking for bargains, calculate the cost in gasoline. If you’re saving two bucks but spending two and a half bucks for a gallon of gas getting there and back, it’s no bargain. When you calculate time and transportation, the best bargains may turn out to be the ones closest to your house.
And spend a dollar more at a store because it looks good from the street. You’re not wasting your money; you’re investing in the future of your city’s architecture. If the authors of national bestsellers can’t stop being astonished at Knoxville’s commercial ugliness (see Bill Bryson’s 1998 travelogue, A Walk In the Woods , in which Knoxville’s chain-store culture is described as “a ceaseless unfolding pageant of commercial hideousness”), it’s in part because we keep subsidizing ugliness, and voting for it with our spending money.
But mainly, let’s buy local. Our chainish habits can sap the economic and cultural vitality of the city in the long run. In lieu of the government controls on business that some other cities impose, let’s see if we can affect it on the consumer level.
We’ll be investing a whole lot of money in the next few weeks. Let’s be sure we invest it in something worthwhile.