Boom Town: How Wal-Mart Transformed an All-American Town into an International Community by Marjorie Rosen
Article first published online: 12 OCT 2011
© 2011 The Author Antipode © 2011 Editorial Board of Antipode.
Special Issue: Bio(necro)polis: Marx, Surplus Populations, and the Spatial Dialectics of Reproduction and ‘Race’
Volume 43, Issue 5, pages 1949–1951, November 2011
How to Cite
LARSON, S. (2011), Boom Town: How Wal-Mart Transformed an All-American Town into an International Community by Marjorie Rosen. Antipode, 43: 1949–1951. doi: 10.1111/j.1467-8330.2011.00933_4.x
- Issue published online: 12 OCT 2011
- Article first published online: 12 OCT 2011
Boom Town: How Wal-Mart Transformed an All-American Town into an International Community . Chicago : Chicago Review Press , 2009 . ISBN 9781556529481,
In many ways, journalist Marjorie Rosen's book, Boom Town: How Wal-Mart Transformed an All-American Town into an International Community, is a prescient and timely read. It centers on Bentonville, Arkansas, a “happy-go-lucky” (148), one-time “Mayberry” (147) of a place that has been made into a cosmopolitan corporate enclave by the explosive growth of Wal-Mart, the international retailer founded in 1962 by hometown son, Sam Walton. As Wal-Mart grew, so did Bentonville, expanding from just over 11,000 residents in 1990 to 33,700 by 2007 as “a variety of well-educated, urban types of all ethnicities and religions, often with MBAs or advanced engineering degrees, began migrating to the area” (4). This, Rosen points out, is in stark contrast to the nearby towns of Springdale and Rogers, where a far different form of corporate patronage—Tyson Foods’ chicken processing plants and the trucking empire of J.B. Hunt—has translated into a “a huge appetite for unskilled labor” and a massive influx of Hispanics—“both legal and undocumented” (168). What ensues, Rosen informs us, “is the story of cultures clashing and cultures embracing, enriching each other” (2).
Indeed, in October 2007—two and a half years before Arizona enacted controversial legislation requiring state and local police to investigate the status of anyone they suspect of being in the United States illegally—law enforcement agencies in Springdale, Rogers and Benton County adopted their own controversial weapon in a localized war against illegal immigration. As with Arizona's SB1070, the federal Immigration and Customs Enforcement initiative 287(g) empowered trained local police to perform duties previously reserved for federal immigration agents, including detaining anyone without proper documentation.
As a result, Boom Town proves trenchant, tapping into the roiling debates over immigration and cultural change that passage of Arizona's SB1070 would bring to international attention. Told through a series of chapter-length vignettes, Boom Town captures daily life for a range of individuals bound up in the transformation of a region that Rosen situates as a “microcosm for social and cultural change in the United States” (ix). She writes evocatively of how Wal-Mart's growth into the world's largest retailer fosters a seemingly color-blind environment of opportunity for a remarkable mix of peoples—from a Marshalese security guard and “Wal-Mart Jews” (67), to highly educated Hindus who are successful yet separate as they struggle to “retain … old values” even as they “make a Modern American life” (95). At points these anecdotal snapshots provide unvarnished stories of searching for a foothold in a shifting cultural and economic landscape; at others powerful, heart-rending tales of lives lived at the margins. Along the way, Rosen's astute powers of observation and storytelling skills capture unsettling processes of urbanization as they sweep across the region, re-shaping it from a sleepy slice of the rural Ozark Mountains—a place where the Ku Klux Klan once rallied and apple orchards provided solid working class lifestyles—into a sprawling multi-cultural company town for the world's largest retailer and the vendors, service providers and peripheral suppliers that support it.
Boom Town, Rosen informs us early on, is a “journalistic study” (x), a methodological point of departure that aspires to objectivity and even-handedness. In one sense, this approach allows the book to engage with the theme of cultural change in a narrative, almost unfiltered manner. The resulting stories, faithfully recounted through Rosen's journalistic talents, give testimony. But in another sense, it encourages Boom Town to maintain an awkward critical distance. By emphasizing culture and focusing exclusively on what the author sees and hears in a small corner of northwest Arkansas, Boom Town never quite explores the degree to which local ethnic diversity and relative economic wellbeing are the products of problematic global processes. Boom Town's Wal-Mart world is demarcated by the narrow bounds of greater Bentonville, an enclave awash in office and ancillary services jobs and the “benefits of growth” (ie infrastructure improvements, cultural centers and museums) spun off by the retailer's $408 billion dollar enterprise. One wonders, what about conditions for the nearly 2 million employees in Wal-Mart's more than 6600 stores around the world, for instance, or the impact of trend-setting innovations such as just-in-time efficiencies, off-shoring of manufacturing and rapacious expansion-oriented growth on individuals, communities and local economies elsewhere across the planet?
This narrative approach also conveys an image of the retailer as an exemplar of a set of quintessentially American values—thrifty, hard working, clean living and loyal—forged in the crucible of the Depression and twentieth century wars against fascism and communism. In this world, far more important than a person's skin color or religion is their willingness to adhere to the ethics and embrace the values that corporate Wal-Mart embodies and its neighboring communities defend.
Yet after reading Boom Town one could argue that in northwest Arkansas the line that divides immigrants who succeed from those who struggle is class. Ethnic “others” in what Rosen describes as a harmonious and accepting Bentonville, while often brown and of different religions, are middle-class managers and vendors whose values hew closely to those of their corporate patron. Meanwhile, Hispanics in Rogers and Springdale eviscerate chickens and paint houses. They are remotely tolerated because they are willing to take unskilled jobs at unlivable wages but forever demonized for not fully conforming to the American ideal. Never mind, of course, that a propensity to pack into small apartments and park cars on lawns says more about their economic circumstances than any meaningful cultural characteristics. As Gary Compton, Bentonville's superintendent of schools, tells Rosen, “When all your white people are rich and all your Hispanics are poor, you are going to have some issues” (208).
Rosen, to her credit, acknowledges these contradictions. Still, Boom Town never fully engages with the dilemmas posed by a growth-first, competitive approach to local economic development that, like Wal-Mart's retail formula, creates and subsequently preys upon class disparities and is anchored by the privileging of select social constructs at the expense of others.
In the end, Rosen reports, the Wal-Mart way suggests a “celebration of individual cultures in harmonious concert with the values of American life that strengthens and enriches not just our communities but the entire fabric of our nation” (284). Of course there is another way of viewing the landscape that Boom Town describes, one in which strange bedfellows—Islamic architects building Jewish temples, for instance—are not happy side effects of the retailer's ubiquitous presence. This view would see them as the essential byproducts of a system that destroys differentiation even as it pays lip service to ethnic diversity, flattening space and experience by reducing the human endeavor to the banal imperatives of capitalist logic and pitting individuals and communities against each other in the process. By this read the multicultural change washing over Bentonville, in contrast to Springdale and Rogers, is not some fortuitous moment of cosmopolitanism. It is rather the inevitable fallout of a system whose survival is built on class divisions and an endless though at some point unsustainable search for growth. As such it is a system that offers few pathways to a more harmonious world.