“Progress” Lexington and the CVS Fiasco
“Progress” has always been a slippery concept. For one thing, it’s hard to critique a collective desire for “progress,” just like it’s difficult to poke holes in a community that wants to valorize its own creativity. It’s also difficult to draw sensible boundaries around what counts as progressive, especially when what’s at stake with the progress debate is actually the well-being of the entire community in question.
Recently, a group of well-intentioned public activists have formed ProgressLex, a group dedicated to social justice and “smart and sustainable economic development” in downtown Lexington. Thus far, the group’s bailiwicks have proved to be upholding the architectural aesthetics of certain downtown buildings, eradicating one way streets in Lexington’s downtown, and branding Lexington as an epicenter of brainpower and social industry.
If anything, ProgressLex is a testament to the fact that if you rally enough well-connected people who are proficient with Web 2.0 media, you can elevate any personal pet-peeve to the level of community crisis. During the last few days, ProgressLex has demanded that the chain drug retailer CVS, which is currently building a drugstore at the nexus of Main Street and Vine Street, reconsider its decision to construct a suburban-appearing unit that is would “be a blight” on Lexington’s downtown. Here’s a blurb from the call to protest:
In fact, the design reflects a far greater effort to stamp the building with the CVS brand than to respect and respond to the downtown context. The synthetic stucco arches, for example, have no architectural integrity, make no reference to any architectural idea or form, yet they are dominant elements. Simply put, the arches are CVS signage, without the letters. This may be acceptable in the more vulgar environment of a strip mall, but not in a downtown environment where a higher degree of dignity is expected.
Since when has suburbia been coded as “vulgar” while downtown maintains a “higher degree of dignity?” I guess this distinction depends on which part of downtown one is talking about. The complaint here seems to be that CVS, which will pour lots of its own money into this project, wants its building to reflect the experience CVS customers have come to expect. In other words, Lexington’s downtown, not the private corporations that do business there, should be allowed to fashion a single brand image. And that image must conjure an aura of Southern gentility, equine fantasy, and quaint hospitality, not drab suburban predictibility. No other private interest should impinge upon this dreamscape without first aligning its business model or design plans with the aesthetic sensibilities of a select few citizens. If only Lexington had previously proven itself as a town that refuses to let corporate interest hold sway, this argument might hold some water. But Lexington has always allowed the interests of a wealthy minority to dictate how its space is used.
I just don’t get the complaint raised by Rowland and ProgressLex. We daily and freely subject ourselves to corporate advertising and branding by watching television shows, listening to radio programs (yes, even NPR), and attending (or teaching) university classes that could not take place without the revenue generated by advertising. Advertising isn’t ideal, but it’s currently the de facto system, a series of quid pro quo agreements, in which we participate every day to be informed, entertained, or invigorated. But when a company decides to build a building and advertise itself on that building, ProgressLex speaks up with pious outrage? There are much bigger fish to fry in Lexington, such as the fact that we currently don’t have a downtown drug store that can serve the people who live here. From what I can tell from reading this massive document, CVS isn’t in violation of Lexington’s retail design zoning laws.
Don’t get me wrong. I’m not arguing that Lexington should let corporations run roughshod over its citizens (indeed, I’ve spoken up before when I see this happening). But if corporate-financed infrastructure can improve the quality of life in our community, we might want to consider seriously the place of the buildings they produce in our eclectic, stable downtown landscape that serves many interests and increases the functionality of many peoples’ lives. An example is the gaudy, bright red bench behind the Thomas and King downtown offices (off Short Street). The bench says “Wow,” which reflects the company promise to “wow” its customers. It looks like something you’d see at an amusement park, but it’s clear that the bench serves a dual purpose. It’s shameless advertising for Lexington’s most annoying restaurant company, but it’s also intended for public beneficence; the bench gives people a place to sit and enjoy downtown where no place had existed before.
A better, and more obvious example is the newly-minted Fifth Third Pavilion that occupies the street adjacent to Cheapside. There is no structure in downtown that comes close to resembling the cold, industrial steel buttresses that uphold the pavilion. I’d be cruous to hear ProgressLex’s interpretation of this architectural wonder. The Fifth Third logo that has been placed prominently at the head of the pavilion also might seem to be gratuitous advertising, but I think over time we’ll realize that this structure will make the Farmer’s Market better. It will allow for festivals, fairs, concerts, and other events that otherwise wouldn’t have been possible, or at least wouldn’t have been as enjoyable for everyone. And the pavilion certainly wouldn’t have been built without the $750,000 donation from Fifth Third Bank. At the least, I’d like to see a consistent attitude toward branding from Lexington’s power elite.
One of the reasons why ProgressLex thinks we “deserve better” than what CVS has pitched (see their website for design drawings) is because the nexus of Vine and Main Street has been a particularly contested space for at least 25 years in Lexington. As this WKYT news story suggests, what gets built on this corner is important because it visually sets the tone for people as they drive into downtown Lexington. It’s a prime space to inflect Lexington’s brand.
The folks at ProgressLex might already know that the space across the street has already been branded. Twenty years ago, the Triangle Foundation, a private group of wealthy philanthropists (yesterday’s rendition of ProgressLex) permanently linked Lexington to horse racing. Ignoring public sentiment, the Triangle foundation designed and privately funded Thoroughbred Park, a striking paean to the equine industry and Kentucky’s rolling bluegrass hills. Rich Schein, a Professor of Geography at the University of Kentucky has argued that while Thoroughbred Park is a deliberate attempt to beautify Lexington, it advances a brand that depicts a highly selective picture of downtown Lexington’s past and future. The park is a racialized landscape because it promotes an idealized civic image that has been built upon Lexington’s racial inequalities. The racing horses and artificial bluegrass hills sequester the poor, historically black East End neighborhood, hiding it from view as people move down the Main Street corridor.
What people don’t see when they drive into downtown, thanks to Thoroughbred Park, is a neighborhood that needs access to a drug store. The heart of ProgressLex’s complaint here boils down to the same questions of image, aesthetics, and branding that produced Thoroughbred Park. As someone who lives 0.4 miles away from the new CVS, I’ll have no problem walking or biking there to pick up supplies. And I know that many other people who live near me, behind Thoroughbred park, will also walk or bike there as well. They deserve a drug store.