New York's Cooperative and Condominium Community
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What effect does a grocery store have on a neighborhood?
The ups and downs of gentrification, through the lens of a neighborhood grocery store.
Decades ago, when Tribeca was known as Washington Market, locals had to travel north to Greenwich Village to grocery shop. That changed when Tribeca’s first supermarket – more of a grocery store by today’s superstore standards – arrived in 1983. Despite the convenience, complaints about the store’s selection (too meager), prices (too high), and staff (too surly) were already ingrained in the community conversation when I moved there in 1986. For the next three decades, during the transition from low-key to chic, griping about the local supermarket was one issue on which everyone – old-timers and newcomers – could find common ground.
When I griped, however, it was only good-naturedly. For me, the smallish supermarket was always close enough to be good enough. When it ran out of chicken, I would buy turkey or beef or just make pasta. When the vegetables I wanted were unavailable or unattractive, I would sometimes buy them frozen or even canned. I could be flexible. Or so I always told myself. I live in a 24-unit co-op in the neighborhood. I figured out once that I share 13 percent of an acre with more than 50 other people. We have no lawn to waste water on, no garden to spray with insect repellents. Our heat comes from old radiators, limiting temperature regulation to putting on or taking off a sweater. Our trash is carefully separated and recycled. I hang most of my laundry on a clothing rack because, in my landmarked building, I am forbidden to punch a hole in an outer wall to vent a dryer. That’s my provincial life.
It was in 2008 that I felt change blowing into my daily routine. One of Tribeca’s swank new residential high-rises became the local outpost for a massive store that dwarfed any market we had seen before. Hawking “natural” and organic foods seemed, on the face of it, quite wonderful. At last, the community had a big, clean – and gloriously stocked – supermarket that really was super: overflowing with baskets of fruits and vegetables and cases full of meat, poultry, and fish, and tables of attractively displayed prepared foods.
I entered in awe – but eventually left empty-handed. I did not return. Why? The store bothered me. Not as a store, but as a reflection of what I saw happening to the neighborhood. Many smaller stores – which I somehow, irrationally, imagined would always be there – closed their doors for the final time. Now when we snubbed our latest food store, we saw Range Rovers gassing up for shopping trips to Hunts Point (for fresh fish), Chelsea (for frozen appetizers), Queens (for bulk staples), and the Union Square farmers’ market (for products even more varied, more local, and more organic). Idling delivery trucks lined the streets for those who did their shopping online.
I continued to forage at my old supermarket, however. It seemed smaller somehow, and I no longer criticized it for its meager selection, its high prices, or its surly staff. Instead, my visits had become a kind of sport, as I challenged myself to cook more creatively with dwindling options. Pushing my cart through the narrow aisles, I would occasionally spot a neighbor sneaking in for fluffy toilet paper or absorbent paper towels. But the pattern of my life seemed again to be on the cusp of change. Late in 2015, the inevitable happened: a “Going Out Of Business” sign appeared in the old supermarket’s window. Predictably, it was accompanied throughout the neighborhood by strains of the Joni Mitchell axiom: “You don’t know what you’ve got ‘til it’s gone.” Shoppers at the old store came out of the closet, bemoaning their loss of quick access to sugary breakfast cereals and toxic cleaning products. Many worried about more tangible things, like the fate of the store’s longtime and soon-to-be-unemployed staff.
And me? My reaction was to double down in my efforts to avoid the magnificent megastore. For most consumables, I shopped at local delis, including one inexplicably named for a Pennsylvania religious sect that was surprisingly well stocked with attractive fruits, vegetables, and herbs, free-range poultry and eggs, and organic dairy products. For household supplies, the deep shelves of Tribeca’s small-chain pharmacy had what I needed.
But there is an unexpected, happy twist to this tale of neighborhood change that surprised me as much as the megastore had depressed me. Following the death knell of the old supermarket, word began to spread throughout the neighborhood that the old supermarket was being replaced by a new – but “old-fashioned” – supermarket. Not another bewitching but bewildering superstore – a regular supermarket.
It was exhilarating! Here I was, ready to shop – and complain – with everyone else about the prices, the selection, and the staff! They say you can’t go home again. But I don’t see it that way. At least for now, I’m back where I started, living the “supermarket love/hate cycle” all over again. It’s not deja vu. It’s simply what we do.
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