On Sundays, Gothamist runs opinion pieces on issues relevant to life in New York. The views expressed below are solely those of the author.
Living, as I do, in what Craigslist deems "in or around Park Slope," it is taboo to insult the Park Slope Food Co-op. Even if you are not a member, you are supposed to understand that joining is both a good deal and—more importantly—a progressive act. I happen to believe it is neither, and have already made this semi-public by writing about it on my semi-read blog. If revealing this to a larger audience means I will be banished to, say, a townhouse in the West Village, so be it.
Some of my best friends shop at the Co-op. I don't blame them—one recently let me in as her guest, and the atmosphere was laid-back and social, the selection of imported beer impressive, and many of the members were good-looking in that shabby, recent-grad-living-in-Brooklyn way. A shabby recent-grad living in Brooklyn myself, I, too, considered joining upon moving to the area, having heard that it was the best way to get great produce at low prices. But as a non-member visiting on my own, I was not permitted to even look inside, so, not knowing what I was missing, I sought out greener (if less organic) pastures.
The Co-op presents itself as progressive in every possible sense. They sell organic food not because that's what Gwyneth's been eating these days, but because it's kind to farmers, the earth, or some combination. They only let members—who must pay a $25 fee—shop, but only because that's the best way to ensure that only those with progressive values bump into you in the cereal section.
The Co-op's mission statement includes the following: "We are committed to diversity and equality. We oppose discrimination in any form" That's comforting language for open-minded types, but think about this for a minute: it's a members-only supermarket. "We welcome all who respect these values," concludes the statement. Who needs a supermarket that concerns itself with the values of its customers? Why not just say, if you voted for Bush, oppose gay marriage, or are pro-life, go to Union Market, Whole Foods, or some other bastion of right-wing consumption. The Co-op's progressive mission depends upon its exclusivity—the purity of the shopping experience is that you will not once encounter a fellow shopper who does not believe in The Cause.
But the main problem with the Co-op's identity as a progressive entity lies not in its exclusivity but in its most basic claim to economic leftiness:
The Park Slope Food Coop is a member-owned and operated food store–an alternative to commercial profit-oriented business. As members, we contribute our labor: working together builds trust through cooperation and teamwork and enables us to keep prices as low as possible within the context of our values and principles. Only members may shop, and we share responsibilities and benefits equally. We strive to be a responsible and ethical employer and neighbor. We are a buying agent for our members and not a selling agent for any industry. We are a part of and support the cooperative movement.
In other words, everyone who shops at the Co-op also works there. Rather than having your groceries bagged by an impoverished, possibly illegal immigrant while you yap on your hands-free cellphone in one ear and blare your iPod in the other, you exchange a meaningful, not-for-profit exchange of money for food with someone you consider to be an equal. The caste system of service-sector vs. yuppie is thus eliminated. You can rest easy from now on.
Or can you? Until all of the United States—or, for that matter, all of Brooklyn—decides to follow the true path and embrace communism, certain people will need jobs at supermarkets while others will not. This need not mean a caste system, as often those working at such a job are teenagers who will move on to other things. By refusing to provide jobs to those who actually need them, reserving work instead for those well-off enough to be shopping for organic food in Park Slope in the first place, the Co-op is not fixing any of the admittedly legitimate social problems revealed by the breakdown of just who does end up working in upscale NYC markets.
Perhaps the Co-op believes it makes up for the injustice of not providing jobs to those who need them in other ways, such as by providing only the fairest of fair-trade products. Yet the problem remains of just why so many well-meaning, progressive New Yorkers feel the need to cut themselves off from the truly urban experience of going to the local deli or supermarket and interacting with whichever fellow shoppers and store workers happen to come their way, choosing instead not just to buy organic but to buy organic in an ideologically homogeneous environment.
—Phoebe Maltz recently returned to her native city after doing educational time in far-off Chicago. Though she grew up in Manhattan she has fully embraced her new life in Brooklyn.