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Retail Wars, Urban Sores: A New Jobs Project

If we can defend democracy overseas we can rebuild our decaying Main Streets. This could be a building stimulus project both political parties could respect if we see it as a restoration after a retail business war.
CCC workers constructing road, 1933.

CCC workers constructing road, 1933.

The Citizen Conservation Corp might serve as a model for a job project except this time instead of restoring our farms we might think of restoring our blighted cities. The CCC was a brilliant move by the FDR administration. They deployed hundreds of thousands of unemployed young men into rural camps to restore barren farm land which was destroyed by poor crop rotation and other poor conservation technique. The also built our National Park system building roads , cabins and picnic areas.

The young men were paid $30. a month plus room and board. They were given three meals a day and worked six hours , mostly doing manual work. They would have $25 of the $30 sent home to their families which played a significant role in improving consumer confidence.The workers would keep $5 for spending money for the weekends. At the time a meal in a restaurant cost around $.25.

The time working on the project was regarded as a positive experience.They not only learned new skills and discipline,it was also culturally educational in that people of all races worked together and learned to respect people from different backgrounds.

We could copy this program today in urban areas. Urban blight is often equated with poverty when in reality it is frequently the result of banking “redlining policy” but another rarely discussed development , the retail wars between small retail stores and the retail chains. Much of urban decay takes place on Main Streets. While the right wing has been able to get away with calling this the “failure of our welfare system,” the reality is that most blight are stores which have “bit the dust “because of a retail war between say a shoe store and a KMart, where at the chain store prices are lower and parking is easier.

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The image of urban decay is really an image of business decay. If you accept the fact that this is the law of the economic jungle , you should also accept the fact that residents in these areas had little to do with the blight. They are in fact victims of the blight that comes with capitalist competition , the big fish eating the little fish. The late economist Joseph Schumpeter’s concept “creative destruction of capitalism” is often quoted.This idea is of “creative destruction” can be seen on many of the Main Streets of America, small retailers being driven out of business by big stores with a whole range of competitive advantages.

The terrane, however, has to have a negative effect on the local population, especially the children and the unemployed. The boarded-up stores also have an effect on local residential property values. If the Obama administration would take this perspective “urban retail creative destruction,” they could come up with a significant jobs program that could transform our urban landscape and reduce unemployment at the same time.

Each small business that is boarded up is a story unto itself. The mens clothing store that couldn’t compete with stores at the mall where the owner’s son and daughter went to college and went into other fields, so the owner threw in the towel. Each store has a similar story a tale taylor made for our gifted President to argue for an urban redevelopment/stimulus strategy.

A tale where no one is to blame, where the big retailer and the small retailer played within the retail industry rules but where the “little guy” could no longer compete leaving a blighted building a community eyesore, a scare on the neighborhood children's psyche and a reduction on the value of local residential property values. In FDR’s Civic Conservation Corp, workers were housed in dormatories , today we could convert empty factories into urban dormatories on very short notice.

If we can defend democracy overseas we can rebuild our decaying Main Streets. This could be a building stimulus project both political parties could respect if we see it as a restoration after a retail business war. If you respect business but understand there will be winners and losers, then now is the time to clean up the mess left by the competition. We have an extravagant budget for the wars overseas yet there has been an almost secret war going on in our cities between a David and Goliath , where Goliath is winning and David is boarded up and covered with graffiti. The graffiti might be saying “See the new urban CCC.”

craig williams

Craig Williams
Developing Democracy