“Peter Scott on Big Box Reuse”
Review of Julia Christensen’s book

NYFA Current

Crossing a large suburban parking lot as they march blindly toward the shopping mall, the zombies in George Romero’s 1978 movie Dawn of the Dead are driven by memories of the significance of this place to their lives. A handful of survivors negotiate a post-apocalyptic landscape and seek refuge in the mall. Holed up inside, they indulge in the occasional shopping spree between bouts with the zombies, who press themselves against the security gates in a vain attempt to breach the retail outlet-turned-fortress that protects the living from the undead. In Romero’s gory yet deadpan account of the future of consumerism, even the no-longer-living are compelled toward the mall, driven by an insatiable quest to consume those that now inhabit it.

Perhaps the recent remake of Dawn of the Dead (2004) speaks to its prescient narrative, which equates the power of consumerism with a kind of involuntary, postmortem activity dominated by forgotten, illogical urges; the ultimate “impulse shopping.” Made in the late ’70s, the film anticipated the growth of consumer culture in the 1980s via the neoliberal model, exporting living-wage manufacturing jobs while importing cheap goods that undermined the economic stability of middle- and working-class livelihoods in favor of satisfying the consumer’s desire for low-cost products. No retailer has played this zero-sum game, which pits worker against consumer, better than Wal-Mart. As the largest employer in America and unchecked by government oversight, Wal-Mart has suppressed wages, abused workers, and extorted billions of dollars in tax breaks from communities nationwide, enriching the owners while impoverishing the towns where they set up shop.

Into this bleak scenario ventures Julia Christensen, the author of Big Box Reuse (MIT Press), who has crisscrossed the country to document examples of inventive reuses of the bland, cast-off structures left behind by Wal-Mart and Kmart. Motivated by curiosity and genuine enthusiasm for a growing national trend, Christensen’s book consists of 10 thoroughly researched case studies of reused big boxes. Although somewhat short on contextualizing the dire economic realities of the “Wal-Mart effect,” Big Box Reuse offers ample evidence for the practicality of reusing these abandoned sites. Because many of the buildings are leased for decades with stipulations that prevent competitors from making use of them, civic groups like libraries, churches, schools, and museums often repopulate these formerly commercial outlets, challenging our common associations of a building’s original architectural form and its present-day function.

Occupying a former Kmart building, the Spam Museum in Austin, MN (a “fan favorite” with audiences on Christensen’s lecture circuit) shares the building with the offices of Hormel Foods Corporation, the parent company of Spam. Because it attracts tourists to the adjacent downtown and solves the problem of a blighted structure, the museum appears to fit Christensen’s paradigm of constructive reuse. But in exchanging one corporate tenant for another, the Spam Museum makes the smallest conceptual leap from its former function, playing a dual role as tourist attraction and large-scale advertisement for Hormel Foods.

While the transformation of buildings left abandoned by unsustainable corporate policy implies a progressive act, in the case of the Hormel Foods reuse, there is an unfortunate irony in the fact that the company’s history is tainted by their brutal suppression of a 1985 strike at the plant. Occurring within a few years of then-President Reagan's firing of striking air traffic controllers and documented in Babara Koppel’s film American Dream, it represents one of two key events which led to labor’s long slow decline as a viable protection against the excesses of the neoliberal economy, paving the way for Wal-Mart’s regressive labor policies.

Christensen states clearly that she does not wish to dwell on the negative by criticizing the retail chains that are dumping the carcasses of their spent outlets on towns nationwide. But in the absence of a causality between the weakened economic state of local communities and their increased dependence on the cast-offs of corporate retailers upon which the book is based, her premise runs the risk of being praised as a long-term solution rather than a resourceful compromise. Although the example of the Spam museum is unique, and many of her case studies—including charter schools and a senior resource center—reveal the resilience of a civic culture that is often denied the benefits and tax subsidies that the lobbying power of a corporate giant affords, the relentlessly upbeat tone of Big Box Reuse often seems disconnected from the brutal economics that spawned big box sprawl in the first place.

Because big box retailers operate on a scale that dwarfs their competitors, they exist in perpetual competition with themselves, opening new stores within a few miles of the old stores every few years. As this struggle plays out among gargantuan retailers, the citizenry is mostly relegated to the role of spectator, watching new “superstores” open up while the “regular” Wal-Mart sits abandoned in the middle of an empty parking lot—physical evidence of the ultimate disposable object in a vast landscape of consumable goods.

In an effort to stem the tide of big box stores entering their towns and ultimately littering the landscape, communities nationwide are increasingly passing local bylaws to fight off the well-documented strong-arm tactics of corporations like Wal-Mart. While the examples in Big Box Reuse offer a pragmatic response to an urgent issue, it is worth remembering that these stop-gap successes are born of government’s failure to restrain the excesses of companies whose bottom line is met at any cost, regardless of the ruinous effect they’ve had on local communities across the country.