Unchain America

WHEN my neighborhood fish store run by friendly Japanese features Boston scrod, I am in there. Recently, the employee laid a single long slab on the scale, and I requested a whack of some five inches. The weight was now precisely a pound, and a brief colloquy followed. ``Take it,'' he said. ``We give it to you for free.'' I thanked him warmly, accepted the gift, and walked out with a pleasant, warm feeling.

When I buy a sturgeon from a local store, I am always given a sample. It easily costs 50 cents. In addition, I am greeted with hearty smiles and ribbing.

The above experiences cannot be had in supermarkets or chain stores. Supermarket aisles resemble superhighways leading out of urban centers at rush hour! And as for ``economy,'' I would rather pay a dollar or two more per week for familiar human contact.

To millions of Americans like me, it is increasingly evident that something is amiss. The richness, variety, and individuality of American life are being threatened increasingly by homogenization, vulgarity, and sheer ugliness. The issue is hard to address because of its manifold and complex nature. It is, for instance, fairly simple to define water pollution or destruction of the redwoods. But how does one organize a campaign to preserve the vitality of a nation?

In New York City much good work has been wrought by planning: Civic organizations such as the Friends of the Upper East Side Historic District, Civitas, the City Club, the Municipal Art Society, and the Landmarks Commission have saved valuable buildings and whole neighborhoods from destruction.

It is in the shopping mall and the loss of neighborhood culture that our nation is losing its hold as a world power. Anger against Japan is scapegoating. Tomorrow the ``enemy'' may be Singapore or Korea.

In hard times, thousands of families in New York were kept alive by credit in mom-and-pop grocery stores. In another major recession, would their supermarket successors similarly help out?

As a modest beginning, I propose a 10-year moratorium on the expansion of chains and shopping malls. Throughout the land there is under way a movement to restore town cores. Let the movement flourish!

Sidney Shanker is an English professor at City University of New York.

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