On a recent visit to Seattle, I had the chance to visit many of the city's neighborhoods. Coming from a place much less Pacific-Northwestern, what struck me the most, aside from the maritime-influenced Boston-meets-Minnesota-meets-Northern-California architecture, was the relative lack of chain stores in the commercial districts (with the exception of native son Starbucks) and dearth of big-boxes in close-in areas.
Seattle--green, friendly, vibrant--is the kind of city in which many of us certainly wouldn't mind living. It seems to me that there is a correlation between city sustainability, livability (and I mean the kind of livability we planners like--community, public space, transit--and not the bullplop of soccer-mom and retiree magazines that award bonus points for golf courses and shopping malls), and thriving independent business. In this list of places I have visited, notice how the places that encourage local commerce seem to be the ones which we ourselves most enjoy.
Phoenix, AZ (the worst of the worst. Phoenix has no real neighborhoods.)
Memphis, TN (The power centers begin two miles from downtown, and much of the eastern two-thirds of the city's commercial areas feel like overgrown Interstate service roads.)
San Diego, CA (it's a shame considering the weather.)
Arlington, VA (the infrastructure is there for a modern re-imagination of the streetcar suburb, but Barnes & Noble, Crate & Barrel, and Whole Foods have infiltrated)
Cities with a mix of chains and independents:
Tucson, AZ (The outer neighborhoods are, sadly, beginning to look like Scottsdale, but areas near the University, like 4th Ave, still have a bit of weird to them.)
Chicago, IL (A wide variety, from the ubiquitous Walgreens and McDonald's and the big-boxes on North Avenue to boutique-y Wicker Park and Andersonville, a neighborhood almost entirely free of chains and fighting hard to stay that way. Plus, as we've seen from the Marshall Field's controversy and the fight to save Harper Court, we Chicagoans are fiercely loyal to our local businesses.)
New York, NY (Hipster boutiques, independent hardware stores, and businesses catering to every immigrant group on the planet line some streets in the outer boroughs. But back in Manhattan, SoHo has become a shopping mall for Eurotrash, Union Square is a vertical power center, and a Whole Foods Market now holds court in Columbus Circle.)
Minneapolis, MN (Target and Best Buy are a big presence, don't get me wrong, but they largely stay out of the urban neighborhoods. In addition, Minneapolitans almost universally shop at locally-owned supermarkets (none of the major grocery chains has a presence here) and the independent record stores are some of the best in the country.)
Syracuse, NY (Sprawl without growth, but the inner-city neighborhoods, like Westcott, are still pretty unchained)
Washington, DC (On the one hand, Dupont Circle and Adams-Morgan. On the other hand, Georgetown. Need I say more?)
Los Angeles, CA (Stereotypes notwithstanding, inner LA is a mixed bag, from the Grove and the Beverly Center to the midcentury-modern storefronts of Ventura Boulevard in Studio City and North Hollywood, and the neighborhood shops of Los Feliz)
Toronto, ON (You can't escape the Pizza Pizza and Tim Hortons signs, but most Toronto neighborhoods are still predominated by local shops.)
Relatively "unchained" cities:
Seattle, WA (see above)
San Francisco, CA (Shopping local is a way of life here. Many neighborhoods have chain-store ordinances. Fast-food restaurant openings are often accompanied by visible protest. All the big-boxes are relegated to former industrial areas in SoMa.)
Madison, WI (again, big-boxes are shunted away from neighborhoods while inner-city commercial districts thrive. Another city where local players have a vast majority of the grocery market. Go Badgers.)
Montreal, QC (Fun fact: this is the only city in North America where a higher percentage of purchases are made in independents than in chains. The language difference helps--a lot. Chains don't want to be here because they don't want to operate in two languages; this is the only market where Starbucks--almost invisible--has had to rename itself "Café Starbucks Coffee.")
Vancouver, BC (Robson is the typical commercial main drag, but, like in Québec, we see predominantly locals in the neighborhoods.)
How about your city? Chained, unchained, or somewhere in the middle?