America's pastoral heritage gets the last rites

The arrival of Wal-Mart in rural Vermont has highlighted threats to national treasures. David Usborne investigates
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The Independent US

Cross the border from New York into Vermont and an odd thing happens. Everything around you magically changes, as if you have left the rest of America behind with its characterless strip malls. The homes are prettier, the churches, with their white spires, more picturesque. The valleys seem more intimate, the roads windier.

Cross the border from New York into Vermont and an odd thing happens. Everything around you magically changes, as if you have left the rest of America behind with its characterless strip malls. The homes are prettier, the churches, with their white spires, more picturesque. The valleys seem more intimate, the roads windier.

It is the kind of transition you might expect when passing the border between two European countries of distinct culture and different language. Yet, in Vermont, they speak English like everywhere else in the United States (notwithstanding occasional smudges of French near the Quebec border). This is not a separate nation, even though some Vermonters might sometimes think so.

But nobody denies that it has its quirks. The state - when Democrat Howard Dean was Governor - was the first to legalise civil unions between homosexuals. For 20 years it has been sending a lone socialist, Bernie Sanders, as one of its representatives to the US Congress. And it is home to the ice-cream brand with the self-consciously hippy ethos, Ben & Jerry's.

But if globalisation is blurring borders between nations, surely, one day, all that makes Vermont unique will start to disappear. Indeed, in subtle ways it has been happening for years. Its special character and bucolic landscape has long been a draw to well-to-do out-of-staters - or so-called "flatlanders" - arriving in droves to flee the stress of their old lives in New York or Washington DC.

For an example of a change that is less subtle, however, you need only utter a name: Wal-Mart. Until 1993, Vermont was the only state in the union where the mega-retailing chain from Arkansas, and owner of Asda in Britain, had not made its mark. Today, it is home to four Wal-Marts and there are plans for seven more. Could this mean the beginning of the end of Vermont as we know it?

According to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, based in Washington DC, that is precisely what it augurs.

This week, the Trust did an eccentric thing. When it released its 2004 list of the 11 most endangered historic sites in the United States, it featured individual buildings, such asNo 2 Columbus Circle, an icon of Modernist design in Central Park, New York, threatened with extensive refurbishment, a hospital in Chicago and even an old steel plant in Bethlehem, Pennsylvania.

It highlighted the Gullah and Geechee Coasts, in South Carolina and Georgia, the homeland of descendents of slaves who have managed to retain a distinctive culture although their area is being overrun with development.

It warned that historic barns in southern Maryland have been abandoned or are being demolished because of a state-sponsored buyout to farmers.

It also cited Nine Mile Canyon in Utah with its collection of 10,000 ancient petroglyphs, which is in the sights of the energy industry. In addition, the trust put the entire state of Vermont on its latest list, precisely because of the threat it sees in the accelerating invasion of Wal-Mart superstores.

The Trust did the same thing back in 1993 when the first Wal-Mart was about to sprout in the Green Mountain State. Maybe it was a political stunt, but apparently the trust thought that it worked, at least in triggering debate about whether Vermont and Wal-Mart belong together. Evidently, it did not stop the invasion, which is why the alarm bells are ringing once again.

The battle over the sanctity of Vermont's soil is a handy symbol, meanwhile, for opponents of Wal-Mart everywhere, including in Europe, where it is also striving to expand fast. The arguments of its detractors are by now well known. The mega-stores - sometimes larger in floor space than two football pitches - often suck business away from downtown shopping areas and drive smaller retailers to the wall.

Critics have plenty more to say about the company. They accuse it of undermining unionisation and forcing staff to work for unreasonably low wages and sometimes in poor conditions. They harangue Wal-Mart for ignoring or getting around local environmental laws. They also argue that when a Wal-Mart springs up in the suburbs of a community, its whole downtown will start to wither - a process that is accelerated when other "big-box" stores piggy-back on to the new Wal-Marts, creating instant mini-malls. .

The consequence of allowing more Wal-Marts into Vermont, the trust argues, would be the "degradation of the Green Mountain State's unique sense of place, economic disinvestment in historic downtowns, loss of locally owned businesses, and an erosion of the sense of community that seems an inevitable by-product of big-box sprawl".

"It will totally change the character of Vermont over time, and that would be a tragedy," added Richard Moe, the president of the trust. "That will have very large consequences, not just for the communities where the Wal-Marts will be located, but for the entire state. Downtowns will be decimated by this." He went on: "It's very hard to find a sense of community or any character in strip malls."

It is the loss of character that hits a nerve when talking about Vermont, a state still mostly characterised by small, rural towns. They have their churches and village greens, complete with summer bandstands. And many have their cluttered country stores, filled with staple items such as spades and jeans, as well as items even Wal-Mart wouldn't stock. For example. this writer would drive many hours to find the lemon chocolate drops that are a speciality of the country store in Western, Vermont.

But is everyone in Vermont united against welcoming the Wal-Marts? Of course not. Wal-Mart is the world's biggest retailer for a reason - it sells things cheaply. Some economists say that Wal-Mart alone has been responsible for chipping 1 per cent off the US rate of inflation. Consumers never argue with cheap, not least in Vermont, where the decline of dairy farms and absence of big industry means not everyone is second-home-rich.

"There's a lot of poverty in Vermont," commented Linda Greider yesterday who, with her husband, bought a farm-house close to Western eight years ago to escape the summers in Washington DC where they have their primary home. "People now go to New Hampshire to shop where there are big-box stores and no sales tax. It's a little arrogant for flatlanders to want to keep Vermont picturesque for themselves."

Wal-Mart would agree. It smarts at the notion that it is responsible for allegedly taking the "quaint" out of the state. "Blaming Wal-Mart is a bit far-fetched," said Mia Masten, a community affairs spokesman for the company. She says the group was exploring ways to make the Wal-Marts in Vermont blend more into the landscape.

"We have changed much more than the look of our stores," she insisted. "They did start out as big blue boxes but we've changed the architecture and the overall look of our stores based on each particular community."

At the end of the day, there are just as many Vermonters clamouring for a Wal-Mart in their midst as trying to block their arrival. And those who are keen are not asking just for mini versions of the Wal-Marts that are everywhere else in America, which typically nowadays also include grocery and chemist sections.

"Customers have told us they like a larger store," reported Ms Masten. "It enhances their shopping experience when there's a wider selection and the aisles are larger." A Wal-Mart in town doesn't only mean low-price shopping. It can also mean new jobs, albeit low-paid ones.

Vermont may be the image of America we most like to treasure, its hills ablaze with gold and auburn in autumn and its covered bridges echoing to cow-hooves. If it was a sovereign state it would be strong enough to keep the barbarians from Arkansas at bay. But it may not want to. Most Vermonters want to buy jeans for $9 just like everyone else. And Wal-Mart is ready to provide them.

SCENES FROM A VANISHING NATION

BETHLEHEM STEEL PLANT: The Pennsylvania mill is threatened with demolition. Steel from the plant was used to build the White House, Empire State building and Golden Gate bridge.

NINE MILE CANYON: The 10,000 petroglyphs and pictographs at this Utah site are under threat from oil and gas exploration plans.

TOBACCO BARNS: Barns in Maryland have been abandoned or are being demolished because of state-sponsored buyouts.

GULLAH COAST: The coastline in South Carolina and Georgia is the homeland of descendants of slaves, who have retained a distinctive culture and language. It is being overrun by resorts, subdivisions and strip malls.

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