Moving Forward, Looking Back / Eroding Fairfield's special sense of place
Tucson, Ariz., a city I know well, is about as far away as you can get from Fairfield and still be in the continental U.S., and the differences don't stop there. Fairfield is a New England town with Puritan roots, while Tucson sprawled out from a lonely Spanish mission in the Southwestern desert. But there are also uncanny similarities, making it a little weird for me to pull into the Kings Crossing shopping center on Grasmere Avenue.
Kings Crossing is home to a Whole Foods Market, the anchor store for a CVS Pharmacy, a Chipotle Mexican Grill, a Five Guys Burger & Fries, a Petco and a Chase Bank. It sparkles with newness and order, right down to the neatly-painted parking spots on the unblemished asphalt of its huge parking lot, connected to the equally huge parking lot of the Home Depot next door.
OK, so what's so weird about that? Nothing at all, except that when I get out of my car, I feel like I've stepped through a space warp into a shopping center in Tucson.
Faithful replicas of the six establishments in Kings Crossing are common in shopping centers scattered all over Tucson. Essentially the same goods and services, in the same stores, are all available 2,500 miles away in the Arizona desert. Put another way, there is nothing local, or even regional, about the Kings Crossing shopping experience. You could drop the Kings Crossing shopping center onto a vacant lot in Tucson, change the name to El Camino del Rey, and Tucsonans would never guess it came from Connecticut.
Of course, Kings Crossing is by no means Fairfield's first shopping center, and it should come as no surprise to anyone who has traveled in the U.S. that national consumer chains and real estate developers have teamed up to create and propagate the American Generic shopping center (or mall).
My personal impression is that shopping centers used to make more of an effort to cloak their stores in a local look, like clapboard siding and peaked rooflines in the Northeast, adobe siding and terra-cotta roofs in the Southwest. The characterless Kings Crossing/Home Depot complex, in making no such attempt, is Fairfield's newest and most unapologetic example of the American Generic movement.
One might view the arrival of Kings Crossing with a shrug. Maybe you've been waiting to pick up some organic pancake mix at Whole Foods, or your favorite brand of gourmet cat food at Petco. Or maybe not. Maybe, by some miracle, there are no banks, drug stores, or fast-food joints between you and Kings Crossing, maybe so. If people want to shop there, then the people have spoken. Anyway, it's all the way at the edge of town, practically in Bridgeport, for Pete's sake, so what it looks like doesn't seem that important.
On the other hand, it's possible to take a darker view, one in which Kings Crossing represents an American Generic sneak attack on the idyllic character of our little New England town. Kings Crossing may be "way over there" to some of us, but is "right over here" to the hilltop neighborhood increasingly boxed in by the shopping center, the Post Road, the new Fairfield Metro station, and whatever will spring up from the adjacent vacant lot. Someday, the Exide site on the Post Road, much harder to avoid, will be declared sufficiently free of lead and chromium to be released for commercial development. You won't need Tarot cards to divine the intentions of the current owners, a company that specializes in putting up big-box stores.
Both of these views, legitimate on their own merits, lead us to larger questions about Fairfield's future as an American community: Does Fairfield have a unique character? If so, is it worth protecting? If it's worth protecting, how do we go about that?
None of what follows will be particularly original. After all, Fairfield has institutionalized its approach to these questions through its Planning and Zoning and Conservation commissions. But every so often, citizens need to step back from their daily lives and consider how architecture and commerce shape the personality and culture of a community -- its "quality of life," its "sense of place."
Fairfield's long and unique legacy has left us special gifts -- rare and historic places not found in most of America. It gives me pleasure and pride to see them on a daily basis and to understand where they fit in the history of our town, let alone our country. We can't let them be replaced, marginalized or forgotten.
We also live in the 21st century. The American Generic trend is relentless, probably irreversible, and not all bad by any means. Even the most hardened traditionalists have likely taken advantage of large-scale, standardized consumer enterprise. Bring it on, but let's be clear about where to draw the line.
I'll sum it up this way: Five Guys makes a really good burger in Fairfield or Tucson, but there's only one place in the country to get a Cristophe's crêpe, and that's out of his food truck parked in front of the main library downtown. Vive la difference!
Ron Blumenfeld is a Fairfield writer and retired pediatrician. His "Moving Forward, Looking Back" appears every other Wednesday. He can be reached at email@example.com.