“The place-makers no one ever talks about”: an ode to the corner shop

A corner shop in Hornchurch, east London. Image: Getty.

When I think of all the different places I’ve lived, the first things I remember are my local newsagents. When I was younger and living with a somewhat chaotic life at home, I spent as much time out of the house as possible, usually hanging around outside a local row of shops with my friends under the watchful eyes of the shopkeepers at the paper shop and the convenience shop next door.

This paper shop gave me my first taste of independence when they gave me a paper round: my own money for sweets and Smash Hits which I’d spend before Saturday even came around. After a bad day at school I’d stop into the same shop and console myself with a big bag of crisps and a can of coke before facing going home.

When I was a bit older and unemployed, the only contact I had with the outside world for days on end was the newsagents over the road, where i bought packets of pasta for lunch or a snack to break up the day. These types of shops have provided me with samosas on my way home from work late at night, and Lucozade and chocolate bars that provided a respite from essay writing at uni, not to mention electricity and gas on my token to keep me warm in winter.     

There are tens of thousands of newsagents and similar small shops up and down the UK, all with similar, familiar characteristics, but all of them unique in their own way. They are a welcome break from the monotony of small supermarkets where you’ll find pretty much the same offerings no matter which city you’re in and which remain unchanged with the passage of time.

Newsagents and similar smaller shops are different. You go in never knowing which new flavour of drinks or crisps you might find in there. And they’re better able to respond directly to the needs of the local community making them completely of the place they are based. I’ve just got back from the Scottish island of Islay where their newsagent at first looked like any other on the mainland – until, that is, I saw the range of fishing hooks nestled alongside their unusually large selection of fancy soft drinks. 


Their customers tend to be diverse too. There aren’t enough places left in our cities that can be and are used by a wide range of people, but newsagents are one of those places. The shop across the road from the Civic Centre in Southampton has residents buying their daily newspapers, local government officers and councillors grabbing a sandwich or coffee before a meeting, and visitors to the city often asking for directions to the train station. My boss once told me a story about how he ended up behind Harold Wilson in a queue to buy a newspaper on the Isles of Scilly. 

Why have I been motivated to write this niche ode to newsagents? Because newsagents are the place- makers that no one ever really talks about when they talk about placemaking. They are part of what makes our urban spaces liveable, part of the delicate balance of how we use cities day in day out. But they are unfortunately dying out – and many that remain are struggling to survive. 

Part of the problem is the decline in print media, which will of course be having an effect on shops that were originally set up to provide people with their daily news. But the problem also lies in how we are regenerating, rebuilding and planning our cities today. Regeneration happens through bigger scale developments that are carefully planned out with chains in mind. Lip service is paid to the idea of “mixed use”, as every development provides retail units under blocks of flats and near housing – but these units are on a scale only suited to bigger businesses. We are getting rid of the types of low rent spaces that newsagents pop up in. 

I’m not someone who thinks chains have no place at all in our towns and cities. They often provide food, either to cook at home or to eat in a restaurant, at a price that makes eating well a lot cheaper. But they aren’t going to let you off with 20p if you’ve not got enough for milk that day. Mix is important. We need these small spaces that encourage conversation, where someone would notice if you stopped coming in for a while. Places where the person running the shop lives nearby and understands the nuances of a community. These are the places that are being planned out of our cities and towns – and that’s not good for healthy urban living.

 
 
 
 

What does the fate of Detroit tell us about the future of Silicon Valley?

Detroit, 2008. Image: Getty.

There was a time when California’s Santa Clara Valley, bucolic home to orchards and vineyards, was known as “the valley of heart’s delight”. The same area was later dubbed “Silicon Valley,” shorthand for the high-tech combination of creativity, capital and California cool. However, a backlash is now well underway – even from the loyal gadget-reviewing press. Silicon Valley increasingly conjures something very different: exploitation, excess, and elitist detachment.

Today there are 23 active Superfund toxic waste cleanup sites in Santa Clara County, California. Its culture is equally unhealthy: Think of the Gamergate misogynist harassment campaigns, the entitled “tech bros” and rampant sexism and racism in Silicon Valley firms. These same companies demean the online public with privacy breaches and unauthorised sharing of users’ data. Thanks to the companies’ influences, it’s extremely expensive to live in the area. And transportation is so clogged that there are special buses bringing tech-sector workers to and from their jobs. Some critics even perceive threats to democracy itself.

In a word, Silicon Valley has become toxic.

Silicon Valley’s rise is well documented, but the backlash against its distinctive culture and unscrupulous corporations hints at an imminent twist in its fate. As historians of technology and industry, we find it helpful to step back from the breathless champions and critics of Silicon Valley and think about the long term. The rise and fall of another American economic powerhouse – Detroit – can help explain how regional reputations change over time.

The rise and fall of Detroit

The city of Detroit became a famous node of industrial capitalism thanks to the pioneers of the automotive age. Men such as Henry Ford, Horace and John Dodge, and William Durant cultivated Detroit’s image as a centre of technical novelty in the early 20th century.

The very name “Detroit” soon became a metonym for the industrial might of the American automotive industry and the source of American military power. General Motors president Charles E. Wilson’s remark that, “For years I thought what was good for our country was good for General Motors, and vice versa,” was an arrogant but accurate account of Detroit’s place at the heart of American prosperity and global leadership.

The public’s view changed after the 1950s. The auto industry’s leading firms slid into bloated bureaucratic rigidity and lost ground to foreign competitors. By the 1980s, Detroit was the image of blown-out, depopulated post-industrialism.

In retrospect – and perhaps as a cautionary tale for Silicon Valley – the moral decline of Detroit’s elite was evident long before its economic decline. Henry Ford became famous in the pre-war era for the cars and trucks that carried his name, but he was also an anti-Semite, proto-fascist and notorious enemy of organised labor. Detroit also was the source of defective and deadly products that Ralph Nader criticized in 1965 as “unsafe at any speed”. Residents of the region now bear the costs of its amoral industrial past, beset with high unemployment and poisonous drinking water.


A new chapter for Silicon Valley

If the story of Detroit can be simplified as industrial prowess and national prestige, followed by moral and economic decay, what does that say about Silicon Valley? The term “Silicon Valley” first appeared in print in the early 1970s and gained widespread use throughout the decade. It combined both place and activity. The Santa Clara Valley, a relatively small area south of the San Francisco Bay, home to San Jose and a few other small cities, was the base for a computing revolution based on silicon chips. Companies and workers flocked to the Bay Area, seeking a pleasant climate, beautiful surroundings and affordable land.

By the 1980s, venture capitalists and companies in the Valley had mastered the silicon arts and were getting filthy, stinking rich. This was when “Silicon Valley” became shorthand for an industrial cluster where universities, entrepreneurs and capital markets fuelled technology-based economic development. Journalists fawned over successful companies like Intel, Cisco and Google, and analysts filled shelves with books and reports about how other regions could become the “next Silicon Valley”.

Many concluded that its culture set it apart. Boosters and publications like Wired magazine celebrated the combination of the Bay Area hippie legacy with the libertarian individualism embodied by the late Grateful Dead lyricist John Perry Barlow. The libertarian myth masked some crucial elements of Silicon Valley’s success – especially public funds dispersed through the U.S. Defense Department and Stanford University.

The ConversationIn retrospect, perhaps that ever-expanding gap between Californian dreams and American realities led to the undoing of Silicon Valley. Its detachment from the lives and concerns of ordinary Americans can be seen today in the unhinged Twitter rants of automaker Elon Musk, the extreme politics of PayPal co-founder Peter Thiel, and the fatuous dreams of immortality of Google’s vitamin-popping director of engineering, Ray Kurzweil. Silicon Valley’s moral decline has never been clearer, and it now struggles to survive the toxic mess it has created.

Andrew L. Russell, Dean, College of Arts & Sciences; Professor of History, SUNY Polytechnic Institute and Lee Vinsel, Assistant Professor of Science and Technology Studies, Virginia Tech.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.