When was the last time you had a Big Mac?
Maybe some of us can answer that question. I can’t. It might have been years. I suspect that it’s been a while for just about anyone who would read this blog.
Unfortunately, that’s not a very large number of people.
If you went to the community meeting last week at Lakewood Public Library to hear the Mayor and McDonalds reps talk about their vision for the dirt that sits beneath the Detroit Theatre, you would have left with the impression that less than one percent of the city has any interest in having a McDonalds on Detroit Avenue–especially if it means demolition of a theatre that dates from the city’s streetcar heyday.
Dozens from the spillover crowd spoke against the idea. They voiced concerns that ranged from nutrition, to litter, to historic preservation, to the city’s long term economic wellbeing. Just one person said the city needs this kind of “economic development.”
Unfortunately, we know those numbers do not reflect the market. There are vast numbers of people who habitually eat Big Macs and fries and drink those great big wax paper flagons of Coca Cola.
It’s unfortunate for our nation’s health. Unfortunate for the cleanliness of our streets. Unfortunate because McDonalds’ business model is all about homogenizing experience. Unfortunate because they cater to car culture. Unfortunate because their buildings are stone cold ugly.
All these are battles Lakewood tries to fight. Every single one of those issues has organized, institutional opposition in our fair city.
We have an architectural review board that won’t let you enclose your front porch because to do so ruins the front porch aesthetic of our vernacular architecture, but doesn’t have the power to simply say “NO” when a fast food operation wants to bulldoze a piece of the city’s history.
We have a Heritage Advisory Board which apparently has produced an inventory of significant commercial architecture in the city (a report which apparently rates the Detroit Theatre well) but apparently not many people have seen it.
We have a Historical Society that hasn’t built the capacity to get involved in the preservation of buildings.
We have an organization called Live Well Lakewood that holds no sway against fast food dealers.
If you believe the rhetoric that emanates from a slew of government and nonprofit institutions, we have embraced streetcar era architecture and a walkable main street as critical to the economic future of the city. The past defines our future.
But we haven’t got the weapons to defend it against a fast food chain that is perfectly happy to knock down one of the buildings that gives the city its character, as long as it means they can sell a lot of burgers.
Lakewood is at a time in its history that so many inner ring suburbs confront: Left with the dignified vestiges of another era, we attract people with our walkable, bikeable streets, and our old architecture. They come to Lakewood even though that means pouring their money and energy into their homes. Those are some of the greatest minds and most dedicated souls in the city. But we have just about no institutional power to defend the asset that draws them here.
At that same point in history, our “obsolete” houses are inexpensive. Lots of them are for rent. Therefore people also land here by default. Inertia draws them. We have the first decent school system west of Cleveland. With 10,000 people per square mile, we remain the most densely populated city for hundreds of miles around.
I’m concerned about the long term economic well-being of Lakewood, and I think more fast food on Detroit flies in the face of any progress the city has made lately. It directly contradicts the apparent agreement of all those aforementioned institutions: that streetcar-era architecture and pedestrian oriented streets are one of the city’s key selling points for people who choose to live here.
But unless some unforeseen patron comes through with a whole lot of money and a plan, the question of whether McDonalds demolishes the Detroit seems to boil down to one thing: Can a corporation be convinced that to demolish a piece of the city’s architectural history is such a violation of good will–and would inspire such a level of resentment–that they devise another plan?
How tenacious are we? How much noise can we make?