January 25, 2008

Lost in a dying supermarket

Walking into the Co-op Market in its final days was an act that required some bravery and an indefatigably optimistic temperament. I would know. I tried it last week. It was a discomfiting experience, and quite frankly, it made me feel like a looter. As I roamed the barren and dusty shelves, scouring them for a few neglected treasures—hearts of palm, frozen pierogies—I couldn’t help but feel that if I cocked my head and squinted I would see a rat scurrying under the shelves, some shards of broken glass, maybe even two people coming to blows over the last gallon of milk. It was as if the world outside had collapsed and the people of Hyde Park had been forced to stockpile cans and fend for themselves. I even lingered for a few moments over a questionable looking can of pre-stuffed peppers before I remembered that there was still order and actual edible food in the world around me.

It’s not hard to lapse into such confusion—in film and literature, the empty shelves of a grocery store are a handy evocative symbol for a crumbling society. Bastions of plenty (yes, even the Co-op) and symbols of a thriving society are all the more stark when they fail. This image was crucial in José Saramago’s Blindness, in which a whole society literally goes blind and is left groping through the aisles of its needlessly well lit supermarkets. It popped up, too, after the revolution in Persepolis, as the people of Iran struggled to find their footing in a wildly unstable place. Meanwhile, in Hyde Park, the Co-op died a slow death.

It would take more rhetorical ingenuity than I can muster to compare our neighborhood to Iran in 1980, but when you go to the supermarket and find more customers than vegetables, it’s hard to escape the feeling that there’s something going wrong. How can a basic service like a grocery store fail in a functioning society?

On a basic level, it’s pretty obvious. Systemic mismanagement and the expensive dead weight of the failed East 47th Street branch are both to blame. But how did it reach that point? How did a once beloved neighborhood grocer decline to such a sordid state? And how did this bungling result in a full month without groceries for people like me?

Ultimately, this is due to the sink-or-swim aspect of the free-market system. If some entity is badly managed, that entity is doomed to fail—even if it is the only grocery store in the neighborhood. Some might say this is a good thing: Now that the Co-op has finally collapsed, a well run, well stocked grocery store will take its place. But imagine, for one moment, that the University of Chicago were not a part of this scenario. Imagine there were no students in Hyde Park, and no powerful major university to look out for community interests. Without the U of C—an economic superpower within the context of Chicago—pushing to keep its students well-fed, the neighborhood’s options are far bleaker. Perhaps an alderman would attempt to push through the bureaucratic brambles of Chicago politics to find a solution. Otherwise the neighborhood would be forced to sit out the famine and wait until a supermarket chain capitalized on the opportunity for profit. In this hypothetical scenario, a mere month without groceries is the best to be hoped for.

Once I had escaped my post-apocalyptic reverie, I gawked for a few minutes at the astonishing price of a can of tuna (even in my most sentimental moments the Co-op manages to offend me), walked to the checkout lane—past abandoned shopping carts that I think people left there for added effect—bought a bag of chips at Walgreens, and walked home.

There were a lot of problems with the Co-op while it was around, and it remains to be seen how well Treasure Island (“America’s Most European Supermarket”) will compare. But before that lies at least a month of Soviet-style scarcity. In the meanwhile, I plan on eating a lot of potatoes, and thanking god the free market works just fine for me.