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Thursday, April 28, 2005 | We bring the world to you.™ (McDonald’s slogan)

This month, McDonald’s and its Golden Arches turned 50. The occasion was cause for media attention in San Diego, because Ray Kroc – the entrepreneur who shepherded the rise of the world’s largest fast food mega chain – was a long-time San Diego resident, and former owner of the San Diego Padres.

McDonald’s typically gets props for being a uniquely American success story. Admirers pose Kroc as a genius who understood that because most Americans don’t like surprises, he could mass market a cookie cutter prototype where every eatery serves the same food, and looks the same.

A half century later, nearly 50 million consumers have virtually the same experience in more than 30,000 franchises across the globe.

But, McDonald’s does not merely bring the world to us. It deconstructs that world into a space of sameness. McDonald’s does not merely “supersize,” it super-homogenizes.

The corporate culture of fast food is anchored by mind-numbing routine. That might by OK for the inside of buildings. But on the outside, it can have devastating effects – when homogeneity metastasizes across the landscape, and reappears as strip highways, shopping malls, big box retail centers, housing subdivisions and condominium developments that look exactly the same everywhere.

Has the aversion to surprise that Ray Kroc envisioned a half century ago reinvented itself in a dizzying world of sameness that threatens to super-dull our city? From the Temecula Valley to Del Mar Highlands, from Rancho Penasquitos to Chula Vista, our urban region is swimming in a sea of visual monotony.

Although McDonald’s is not the only company to blame for igniting this outbreak of super-sameness, it can be credited with inventing the prototype that has spilled over into our larger culture.

McDonald’s is more than just a fast food franchise. It represents a cultural paradigm of our time. The Golden Arches are a symbol of rationality, assembly-line production, efficiency and homogeneity. Everything about the experience of eating in a McDonald’s is about sameness and predictability. The portions are calculated. The ingredients are uniform. The interior design is consistent – along with the experience of eating fast and more impersonal.

What’s good for consumer marketing, however, may not be good for personal hygiene or for the health of our urban environment. Fast food chains may not want to accept the blame for the bloating of America, either personal or environmental, but the question is not going away, either.

Consider a simple example south of the border. McDonald’s has nearly 300 franchises in Mexico. In 2003, it decided to build one in the heart of a sacred historic monument – the 500-year-old main plaza (zocalo) of Oaxaca, a colonial architectural zone that has been declared a World Heritage Site by the United Nations UNESCO office.

From their perch at headquarters in Oak Brook, Ill., the McDonald’s global corporate team of financial consultants, investment bankers, marketing experts, risk analysts, cost estimators and accountants figured they could start a new trend – building Golden Arches on historic sites in Mexico. They thought they had all the right politicians and business interests lined up.

Not quite. “This is nothing less than a cultural conquest,” claimed one critic. Headquarters did not calculate that some Mexicans would fight back. A coalition of artists, writers, intellectuals, environmentalists and everyday citizens came together to oppose the fast food project on the grounds that it did not fit with the slow rhythm of their historic town square.

Protests ignited on the town square, held against the backdrop of regional cuisine being served up by ubiquitous street vendors: tamales with shrimp and pumpkin seeds baked in banana leaves, chapulines (deep fried crickets), cacahuetes (peanuts) with chile and lime juice or mole sauce.

“Oaxaca’s center is part of who we are,” said one nearby museum official at the time. “It gives us a very special sense of place. McDonald’s does not correspond to that sense of place.”

The opposition brought in global support, including the former First Lady of France, Danielle Mitterand, and a well-known international cuisine expert, Diane Kennedy.

Like the earth itself, they argued, historic resources, once tainted, cannot be recovered. At stake was more than downtown Oaxaca’s historic identity, it was the larger question of how much global corporate homogenization should be permitted in urban Mexico.

For a country like Mexico, the value of its unique historic districts cannot be underestimated. After oil, the visitor industry in Mexico rivals the manufacturing sector as the second-largest source of foreign export revenue, generating between $8 billion and $10 billion per year.

Can unlimited commercial development be allowed to perforate local culture with corporate sameness, all in the name of better business? The city of Oaxaca gave its resounding answer in a vote by the municipal council at the end of 2003: No.

San Diego’s tourism economy thrives on a unique environment, too. Perhaps distant Oaxaca offers a lesson for us.

Lawrence Herzog is a writer and professor of city planning at San Diego State University. He has published six books on the subject of cities, globalization and borders; his latest book is Return to the Center: Culture, Public Space and City Building in a Global Era (University of Texas Press, 2006 in press).

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