Not long after I roughed out the first draft of Trouble in a Big Box, a Walmart store tried to move into an adjacent neighborhood, take an existing church property and use it for one of their stores. The neighborhood erupted in fury, sending loud protests to the City Council and the Zoning Commission. It wasn’t so much that residents objected to Walmart, but they wanted it to conform to an urban village plan, which calls for old-style buildings that front on the street and have lots of windows to highlight activity inside and draw pedestrians in, something the residents felt was essential to the revitalization of the area.
Reality follows fiction. In Trouble in a Big Box, Kelly O’Connell organizes a neighborhood effort to keep a big-box store from moving into Fairmount, her beloved, older, inner city neighborhood. She organizes the neighborhood association protest and works with volunteer lawyers and real estate experts on zoning laws; the case goes to the Zoning Commission and, because it would involve demolishing structures in a local historic district (not to mention the National Register of Historic Places), to the Landmark Commission.
It’s a battle being fought on many fronts across the country. Opponents of big-box stores, be they Walmart, Best Buy or a grocery chain, argue that they edge out the mom-and-pop stores and destroy the sense of community and neighborliness. Small towns were particularly affected by the early appearance of big-box stores: they were often built out on the highway, and Main Street suffered a real decline in business when customers opted for one-stop shopping with a huge selection of merchandise at cheaper prices. When big-box stores moved into established urban areas, they often resulted in the demolition of well-established businesses and homes. Kelly argues that big-box stores belong in urban shopping centers, and neighbors fear that they cause traffic problems and are a magnet for petty criminals, such as pickpockets and purse snatchers.
In Fort Worth, the Zoning Commission refused the rezoning request. Walmart then applied to the City Council for a waiver. After initial rejection and much negotiation, a divided council approved the plan but would not sanction a fuel sales at the Walmart Neighborhood Market.
What happens in Trouble in a Big Box? Of course you’ll have to read it to find out but suffice to say there is murder and mayhem involved. This is after all a mystery. But both the fictional case and the real one provide a classic example of the power of neighborhoods working together to maintain their integrity and the atmosphere characteristic of the neighborhood.
Kelly O’Connell Mysteries are all about neighborhood, Fairmount to be specific. Fairmount is an older inner city neighborhood with houses built mostly in the teens and twenties, many of them in the Craftsman architectural style now treasured today for its historical significance and the unique characteristics of each individual structure, from extensive use of natural materials such as wood and stone to the leaded windows and built-in cabinets, arched doorways, and use of open space throughout the house. Commercial streets feature individual buildings of the same vintage as the homes. Stores front right up on the sidewalk, with windows that invited passersby in. They were built in the days when people walked rather than drove every place, and today their charm is well preserved.
For a while in the sixties and seventies, Fairmount began to deteriorate into rental property and many structures suffered from deferred maintenance. But around the turn of the twenty-first century, young professionals discovered the beauty of these old houses and the neighborhood’s proximity to downtown and the city’s major hospital district. Thanks to a strong neighborhood association and the dedication of a handful of dedicated residents, renovation of the neighborhood began in an orderly and controlled fashion. New did not replace old. A big-box store would stand out like a sore thumb. I for one am a huge fan of old neighborhoods and old houses, and I only wish we still had the corner grocery, the shoe store run by the man who used to x-ray your feet (what did we know about radiation back then?), the independent bookstore.
What about you? Do you shop at Walmart?
A note to this story: my editor for Trouble in a Big Box lives in Wales, and she didn’t understand the title at all. She thought Kelly was going to come home and find a big box on her doorstep. It took some explaining and reassurance that readers in the States would get it.