Dynamist Blog

"Every Place Is the Same"--and That's Good

The LAT's John O'Dell reports that Nissan workers are staying in droves as the company moves operations to Nashville. O'Dell's report naturally highlights the downsides of California life--including hugely expensive housing--but it also spotlights the advantage of the much-decried "homogenization of America."

Whatever workers' reasons for going, Nissan's 42% employee retention rate sends a message to businesses in California: The Golden State's charms aren't what they used to be....

"There is a bit of that attitude, especially at the state level, that California is just so great that no one would ever want to leave — that its natural features, creative services and the quality of its higher education system are so good they're enough to get the job done," said Greg Whitney, vice president of business development for the Los Angeles County Economic Development Corp.

Nissan's experience argues against that conceit, he said. Typically, a company moving its headquarters 2,000 miles, especially from a major urban center to a smaller, more rural region, is fortunate to hang on to 25% to 30% of its workforce.

These days, though, California's schools are no longer among the nation's best, its infrastructure is deteriorating from a lack of funds for upkeep, and an ever-increasing population is crowding its cities and jamming its highways.

Companies usually decide to move for one reason — to save money — whereas employees have individual, often complex reasons, Whitney said.

"But the world is becoming more homogenized," he said, "and the fact that Starbucks are everywhere helps make moving a lot easier these days." ...

California employees who chose to make the move are relocating to an area that has an international airport and 19 colleges, including Vanderbilt University. It is within 700 miles of 60% of the U.S. population and is closer to Nissan operations in Canada and Mexico than is the Gardena site. ...

For single mother Johnston and her three daughters, ages 11 to 17, the move was a chance to start a new life in vastly improved surroundings.

In Torrance, her family was squeezed into a 1,064-square-foot home she rented from her mother, who has moved to Tennessee as well.

In Franklin, the family was able to trade up to a 4,000-square-foot, two-story, all-brick home with five bedrooms, four bathrooms and a quarter-acre lot. Instead of power lines and neighbors' fences, the views are of tree-covered hillsides.

And at $449,000, Johnston said, the house cost $217,000 less than what her mom received for selling the Torrance place. ...

What made the case for Hedrick, the product manager, was turning off Interstate 65 and onto the Cool Springs offramp "and realizing that you could really be anywhere USA."

"There's a great, big regional shopping mall, and most of the stores and restaurants are the same ones we see in California," he said. "Yet a few miles away you're in downtown and there's lots of local color too."

Hedrick said several visits during the winter also helped him and life partner Kevin Rogers make the decision to move to Franklin--as it turns out, to the same development as Johnston--from the Fairfax Avenue area of Los Angeles.

"We're giving up dim sum and first-run independent films, 24-hour grocery stores. There'll be no more morning coffee at the Newsroom with Robert Downey Jr. sitting at the next table, and we'll miss sunset walks along the strand in Manhattan Beach," Hedrick said.

"But we're going to a place with spectacular scenery, rivers that don't have concrete banks, much more affordable housing, a lot less traffic and pretty close proximity to a lot of major cities, like Atlanta and Chicago, that are just a few hours away by car or an hour by plane."

As I wrote in chapter two of The Future and Its Enemies:

Urban intellectuals, accustomed to an environment full of boutiques and family-owned ethnic restaurants, frequently and reflexively denounce the spread of chain restaurants and stores. While the chains may seem trivial in and of themselves, in much public discussion they have come to represent the evils of commercial evolution and, by implication, of dynamism in general. "America's the most boring country to tour already because everywhere looks like everywhere else," says New York Times columnist Thomas Friedman on the PBS Charlie Rose Show. "And what's sad to me, Charlie, is that the world is starting to look that way, you know, in the big cities now and even outside them, you know, with the Pizza Hut and the McDonald's and the Burger King on every corner." "

But for the people in less-developed areas, whether in the developing nations today or most of America until recently, the coming of chains has increased rather than decreased both the variety and quality of restaurant food. "When I was growing up" in 1950s Little Rock, recalls the economist Michael Cox, "whenever we went out to eat, we'd eat at a place called Franke's Cafeteria. You'd get your tray, go down the line, and get your food. It wasn't much different from the food at home, and there was certainly no atmosphere. But Mom didn't have to cook." A progression of burger joints, then steakhouses, then fried chicken and pizza, then Chinese food gradually increased the choices. "If you look in the [Dallas] phone book," marvels Cox, "in 1970 there wasn't even any pizza delivery.: It is this sense of history--of what actually existed before the "homogeneous" chains arrived--that is missing from the snide stasist dismissal of what the political scientist Benjamin Barber calls "McWorld."

When big cities no longer have a monopoly on amenities and niche retailing, whether because of chains or the Internet, they have to worry about quality of life issues they've previously ignored. Los Angeles discourages new housing and road construction, while the rest of the Sunbelt generally encourages both. People will move. The weather is great in L.A., but Nashville and Dallas aren't Buffalo.

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