Meg Ryan and the Big Box
This is the first blog that is part of the ongoing series Planning in Other Disciplines posted a few weeks back.
[Spoiler Alert]-this article includes detailed discussion of crucial plot points in the films discussed.
In 1998 Meg Ryan and Tom Hanks starred in the romantic comedy You’ve Got Mail, their third and to this date final film as co-stars (though they are set to appear together in the 2015 film Ithaca). Despite only having appeared in three films together, also including 1990’s Joe and the Volcano and 1993’s Sleepless in Seattle, the pair is cemented as a staple of 1990s romantic comedies, often panned as lacking substance in favor of simplistic plots and romantic clichés. From a planner’s perspective; however, the film provides an all-too-real application of a topical planning issue.
Adapted from the 1940 film Shop around the Corner, which was in turn adapted from Miklos Laszlo’s play Parfumerie, the film follows the struggles of Kathleen Kelly (Meg Ryan), who owns a small book store which faces closure due to the opening of a Fox Books megastore, a big box book retailer owned by Joe Fox (Tom Hanks).
The film parallels the professional struggles of Kathleen Kelly with her developing romantic relationship with Joe Fox. In their private lives, Kathleen and Joe have become romantically entangled as anonymous pen-pals who met through the internet. Even as Fox Books puts her out of business, Kathleen finds herself learning to love Joe Fox, and by proxy his company, both as the man she met online as well as the man who ruined her career.
From a planner’s outlook, the film offers an individual perspective on the big box debate. Modern day planners are readily familiar with the plight of the big box stores. With the popularity and success of big box retailers, how do planners deal with the expansion of these companies? How will a big box affect a specific municipality & do the benefits outweigh the disadvantages?
Within You’ve Got Mail Kathleen Kelly’s struggle clearly mimics one effect of mega-retailers, stealing small business consumers while providing low wages and limited benefits to employees. To Kathleen, Fox Books is a threat with no easy solution. Giving in means giving up.
Yet In an uncanny way, Kathleen Kelly’s struggles embody that of modern American cities. On one hand, big box retailers are a threat to local economies and small business while requiring massive parcels and huge parking lots. However, Kathleen falls in love with Joe Fox, just as cities fall in love with big box retailers. At the end of the day, very rarely are cities able or willing to regulate big box developments. These new stores provide affordable options for lower class residents, provide new jobs for the region, and act as catalyst for further redevelopment.
As planners, it is important to understand the love/hate relationship cities have with big box retailers. To say they are necessarily bad or good is rarely easy, but this is the dispute planners must direct. Despite rarely having the final say in the development of a big box chain, planners must learn to navigate this issues, providing solutions to help mitigate these new investments. Making decisions based on all the facts and how they may affect future conditions, a planner can alleviate tensions surrounding the big box retailer. Just as Kathleen Kelly learns to move beyond, and even love, Fox Books and the man behind it, cities must learn to work with and even strive off of big box developments and the benefits they can bring.
While big box developments may be a difficult reality, some communities have found ways to deter large department stores and chain retailers. Houseal Lavigne is currently working with a city that used strict regulations in their downtown to block big box developments and preserve locally owned businesses, in particular, a small local bookstore. Utilizing design regulations and zoning designations cities can control the type of development allowed in certain areas, helping to protect and grow small businesses. Through community wide support, cities are able to directly shape their identity.