The old Target store on University Avenue in Saint Paul is being torn down, to make way for the parking lot of the new SuperTarget.
At its most visceral, the most striking part is how incredibly ugly the scene is. When a large building goes down, even one built as little more than a large warehouse, there is filth everywhere. But a few moments spent contemplating the ugliness shows just how our disposable culture creates disposable buildings, and what that means.
As surely as the total value of a neighborhood is the sum of the value of its components, disposable buildings lead to disposable neighborhoods. Neighborhoods never succeed over the long haul with a transient population or, especially, transient structures.
Absent the connectivity of a neighborhood, disposable buidlings dispensing disposable products lead us to disposable lives. Bulk Cheez-Doodles are designed, manufactured, and sold on an industrial scale – not a human one. Eventually, all of this leads to a disposable politics, where the only thing that races through the cholesterol-encrusted veins to break the insulin coma is a flash of adrenaline. Anger the only thing that breaks through.
And so our disposable world becomes a world totally beyond our control or even understanding. It all just happens. Why is that?
Not that the market for disposable goods is inherently bad, of course. Ever since this thing called “Civilization” was nailed down, people have met in large markets to buy dinner, exchange gossip, scope out potential mates, and so on. But that was done in a very human, one-on-one, haggling world. It had no industrial efficiency. And many of these ancient markets remain at least in form to this day.
Contrast the Agora of Athens with the bones of the Target for a moment. Which of the two better edifies the human spirit?
I would like to make it clear that I don’t begrudge Target the chance to compete in the market as we know it. They have to give people what they want, and that’s the way it is. The act of purchasing stuff needed to survive is not only essential, it’s the basis of many of the finer points of “civilization” if done right. No arguments on any of these points.
And yet … there is little doubt that the automobile is heavily subsidized, making it the transportation of choice. The gasoline tax does very little to make local roads, and so those come from non-auto taxes. Private companies, like Target, are either compelled either by zoning or competition to provide an ocean of parking spaces. The public and private subsidy needed to maintain the automotive paradise we live in is quite large.
Target, as a disposable building on University, is an inevitable product of our need for gigantism. The idea that industrial-scale efficiency somehow will make our lives better is built into every aspect of our system. We spend huge gobs of money subsidizing transportation to create supposed efficiencies, if you are incapable of looking beyond the act of turning the key to your car’s ignition.
The only way out, to most people, is to spend more and more and more, allbeit on a different subsidy – the billion dollar LRT system known as the Central Corridor. While transit is admirable, questions of appropriate scale never even make it into the debate. It is planned on the same scale as the interstate just behind the new SuperTarget, not on a trolley scale. It feeds the same monster that promises efficiency and selection and gobbles land and buildings for it.
Once again: Disposable buildings create disposable neighborhoods, which create disposable lives. If you can buy that, the next question to ask is why we create such disposable buildings in the first place. Obviously, the people who do this do it for very rational reasons. What system are they operating under?