Letter From Paris: Beware of Culture Vultures

Les Deux Magots on the Left Bank seems as good a place as any to make observations about the Chesapeake Bay.

This is, after all, the cafe where Hemingway studied in the '20s and '30s and where know-too-much French intellectuals fueled themselves on red wine, dense coffee and Gauloises cigarettes. The thinkers are dead but the cafe remains much as it was, across the street from a church, St. Germain des Pres, that has been around for 1,456 years.

Here, deep thinkers and less supple brains like ours have pondered attacks on culture through turbulent years. Which is, in a different place and a different time, what is happening in the United States and along the Chesapeake Bay.

We're speaking here of changes, some subtle and some not, by the march of the mall-stores, the franchise restaurants and the entire Wal-Mart syndrome that is sapping the identity of our American towns.

These companies make identical marks in every town, taking our money back to banks and boardrooms in Dallas, Arkansas or wherever. Sure, they create jobs, usually at minimum wage. But our communities pay a price.

The fast-food shops and the rest of the cookie-cutter establishments that look the same in Annapolis, Albuquerque and Alabama smother our home-grown restaurants and would-be entrepreneurs. They make it next to impossible to start businesses that make goods to compete with the Chinese and Malaysian-made wares they stack to their ceilings.

And unlike our local businesses, they return little or nothing to our little leagues and charities and churches.

Perhaps worse, they breed sameness across the land that saps the distinctions that render special our separate plots on the earth. In Main Street, Sinclair Lewis warned us three quarters of a century ago now that one day everyone would dress the same and think the same because we bought from the same stores and had the very same influences.

You may think that this sort of change in our culture is fine and that besides, there's nothing we can do about it. Then again, you may see the value in recognizing what is happening and doing our best to hold on to what sets us apart. One small way is to buy every day from our local restaurants and shop-keepers and home-grown businesses.

It's easy to write about change alongside church pillars from 542ad. But now the red wine is drained and the Gauloises snubbed. And we don't even smoke.

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VolumeVI Number 25
June 25 - July 1, 1998
New Bay Times

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