Friday, May 23, 2014

The Concrete Grocery Blues

The new Kearney Hy-Vee, and its massive concrete parking lot (Kearney Hub)

Readers familiar with the Iowa-based Hy-Vee supermarket chain may think I’d celebrate its arrival in my jerkwater hometown. Hy-Vee runs a similar luxury grocery model that Wegman’s or Dean & DeLuca bring to larger cities, making healthful, sophisticated food available in prior cultural wastelands. And because Hy-Vee runs an employee-owned model, it spends more on workers than investor-owned chains like WalMart, Safeway, and Kroger. What’s not to love?

Plenty, actually. When Hy-Vee’s newest store opened in Kearney, Nebraska, this month, I arrived on opening day and left carrying six grocery bags and a market tracking card. I also left with a queasy feeling about the faceless, geographically indeterminate building and enormous parking lot. Rather than merging into Kearney’s existing community, Hy-Vee paved a cornfield, dropped an anonymous cube building on it, and lit it with halogen and dreams.

This never previously bothered me. But as my wages haven’t kept pace with inflation, as many prairie locations had record-setting high temperatures this spring, and as Nebraska’s economic growth remains a shadow of American aggregate trends, much bothers me that never did before. While Hy-Vee does nothing other chain retailers don’t, its sudden appearance and aggressive growth make it a new locus for my swelling anti-corporate umbrage.

Rather than building near where working Kearneyites live, Hy-Vee chose to locate within loogie-shooting distance of Wal-Mart, Target, K-Mart, Menard’s, and the Hilltop Mall. This makes six concrete slab buildings, which could be literally anywhere, surrounded by enough parking to pave Luxembourg, closer together than six lesbians in a Penthouse Forums letter. One starts to wonder what planning genius considered this arrangement beneficial to Kearney’s interests.

Importantly, this strange conglomeration is so isolated that few people could possibly walk there. The nearest housing is a developed region behind the Wal-Mart, dominated by houses on quarter-acre lots, fronting onto looping, Rorschach-inspired streets, which may or may not have sidewalks. Beyond the first street or two, walking anywhere would require massive time investments, besides the extreme aesthetic displeasure of crossing multi-acre parking lots on foot.

That’s if you can walk anywhere. Many real estate developers don’t bother equipping new neighborhoods with sidewalks anymore. Residents drive everywhere, because everywhere is too far to walk; but developers don’t pave sidewalks because nobody uses them. Cause or effect, who can say? Either way, car dependence becomes the norm rather than the exception, walking becomes the refuge of children and the destitute, and responsible driving becomes increasingly impractical.

Find your way without a car. I dare you.

Hy-Vee built amid five enormous parking lots which are almost never full. The parking around big-box retailers and malls generally only gets used on one day, Black Friday; every other day, it sits unoccupied, putting physical distance between people and businesses, and encouraging irresponsible motoring. Yet rather than pooling with this already extant but substantially unused parking, Hy-Vee paved even more parking. Because it needs to be theirs, or something.

Lay aside how parking makes residents more car-dependent. Disregard how big-box stores building on towns’ fringes undercuts community ties. Forget how corporations, to construct essentially interchangeable buildings, must flatten the loess hills that my Nebraska ancestors, and the Indians before them, successfully farmed for ten thousand years. Even without that, these vast concrete tombstones, by their very existence, do manifest harm to the people and the land.

Though poured concrete sets solidly enough to walk on after six or eight hours, the chemical reaction that makes concrete hard continues for fifty years or more. Because that reaction runs on calcium carbonate, it exudes carbon dioxide as a by-product. Thus concrete creates greenhouse gases even without cars. It also doesn’t absorb precipitation or grow trees, so concrete is unbelievably cold in winter, sweltering in summer, and ugly year-round.

So, to reiterate: this new Hy-Vee, by its location, stands aloof from existing commerce. It forces me to burn carbon if I want better groceries. It makes locals even more dependent on cars, which, in a predominantly blue-collar town, isn’t small beer; transportation costs now outweigh housing costs for most Americans. And even without cars, this added concrete does added harm to global climate, just by dint of its existence.

To reach the Kearney Hy-Vee, I must drive four miles, past three supermarkets, two locally owned. (That’s besides groceries from Wal-Mart, Target, and elsewhere.) Though Hy-Vee has Kearney’s best grocery selection, it’s like eating the whole Cracker Jack box to reach the prize: by the time I get there, I feel sick and don’t want the reward anymore. Therefore, good groceries notwithstanding, I cannot return to Hy-Vee.

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