Day 1, A Polemic

April 1, 2007

A Whole Foods store opened in my neighborhood yesterday, in downtown New York. It’s situated in a former no-man’s-land along Houston Street, between Nolita, the very up and coming Bowery, the East Village, the Lower East Side, and not far from Chinatown. It makes me feel the churning gears of change grinding away at Manhattan, more palpably than ever.

New Yorkers took the appearance of the new store in stride, either because New Yorkers can never show that something fazes them, because it’s not the first Whole Foods in New York, or, more likely, because for the new downtown demographic the coming of an eco-yuppie food Shangrila is a sine qua non. And really, it’s remarkable it’s taken this long.

I moved to New York five and half years ago from Oakland, California. But I’m really a native of Berkeley. My Berkeley upbringing was once a point of pride, but now when I look at what Berkeley has become it’s a bit of an embarrassment. I grew up there in the 1970s and 1980s. Free love, The People’s Republic, etc. It was fun. Today, Berkeley’s becoming ever more of an exclusive bourgeois suburb.

Moving to New York, I’ve come full circle, in a manner. I live blocks away from where my grandfather was born in 1905, in the Lower East Side, on Henry Street. (He never left New York during his ninety-eight years.) And I’m equally close to where my great-grandmother and her parents lived on Suffolk Street (now there’s nothing there but a parking lot).

So Whole Foods has arrived. Not in New York, but in the heart of the downtown scene. I am certainly part of the transformation of this area, even if I lay claim to roots that go pretty far back. Let me proclaim my hypocrisy up front, then, as a sort of moral cleanser. I’m part of what’s changing here, but I don’t like it.

What’s striking to me about Whole Foods, not just the new one on Houston, but in New York in general, and what makes Whole Foods a telling sign of a new New York, to come, is how utterly lacking the city was for truly modern upscale grocery markets before Whole Foods got here. This, I’ve come to realize, is a bigger question than simply one about grocery stores.

When Whole Foods first came to Berkeley years and years ago, it was like an afterthought. It was a corporatized version of what we’d already had for a long time (and I imagine a long since cleaned up and polished version of what began in Austin, Texas, in 1980). We already had great produce (go to the Berkeley Bowl someday and your mind will be transformed way beyond anything you see at Whole Foods). We also had high polish boutique style grocery shopping with a moral edge (Andronico’s). We didn’t need Whole Foods. And so old time Berkeley residents looked down their noses at its arrival.

Then I moved to New York in 2001. New York turned out to be a strange land full of small grocery stores with really outdated shelving and not very healthy (or good) food. For all the money and glamor in New York, you’d think people would have moved beyond dried pasta, canned soup, “fresh” bread, and a token Gouda. It was like returning to the most mainstream grocery stores of my childhood.

Don’t get me wrong. I actually liked New York’s atavistic grocery store status quo. But it didn’t make sense. How could New York’s moneyed elite be so far behind the bourgeois and a bit dull suburbs of the west coast?

You might object, what about Zabar’s and Fairway? I’d say, they do what New York does best, create the impression (emphasis on “impression”) that New York is a place that has everything. They don’t have what markets in Berkeley and especially these days what Whole Foods has in spades. The embodiment of a entire lifestyle. How about Dean and DeLuca then? After all, it puts glitz and attitude together in grocery shopping. But, Dean and DeLuca is more of another type of age old New York thing. Like the city’s restaurants, it caters to fine taste. None of these places embody a lifestyle. That’s a California move par excellence and Whole Foods is here to show New York what it means.

So if you wanted to you could insist that Whole Foods is just the Upper West Side coming to annex downtown or it’s just part of the eastward expansion of Soho. And that’s all true, as far as it goes. But it is much more than that.

Whole Foods is an aesthetic and ethic intertwined from the corporate structure down to the bananas. When you go to Whole Foods you are buying a way of being. It’s local. It’s global. It’s good to its employees. It’s good for the environment. It’s nice, clean, well lit, friendly, and open to everyone. At the same time, it’s sumptuous, expensive, beautiful, and only for the discerning. And above all it’s human. (Or so they want you to believe.) It raises food to a way of life and in the process it makes you a better person, just by going grocery shopping.

Berkeley has been rushing headlong into this sort of pseudo-liberal save the people and the planet through socially conscious (yet strangely luxurious) consumerism since the early 90s. That was a moment in time (when I graduated from college and came back to Berkeley) which really marks the end of the Berkeley I grew up in and the beginning of the new cleaner richer, more self-satisfied, less wacky Berkeley.

Surprisingly, more than ten years later this sort of eco-grocery consumer fashion-politics is only beginning to establish a real foothold in New York–and by extension help establish a whole host of other modes of consumption.

You can tell how conspicuously absent businesses like Whole Foods have been from New York, just by walking into the Whole Foods on Union Square. The entire front of the first floor is taken up by rows and rows of cash registers. About thirty six in all. It is like a machine for processing people and their money. As far as I know, the Whole Foods stores outside of New York are not like this. Certainly the store in Berkeley isn’t. And I’ve been to Whole Foods stores in L.A. that aren’t. They just have the standard row of ten or so registers up front. In fact, I can’t think of a single other business in New York where so many registers take up such a large portion of the store.

It all offers a naked and instructive display of how vulnerable New Yorkers are to the aesthetic/ethic of the Whole Foods affair. When it came, there was nothing else like it and New Yorkers stampeded towards it. For those used to being amongst the cultural elite, it’s peculiar novelty was irresistible. It filled a void in a city homogenizing, by imperceptible increments, due to its own wealth. And so Whole Foods had to create a bank of registers that dominates the Union Square store, the likes of which even it’s own other outlets did not know. It is a bank of registers that works so efficiently you can literally see it sucking money from people and handing them back their souls. For New York, and I’m guessing nowhere else in quite the same way, Whole Foods is an unprecedented, cataclysmic, success.

What finally makes me marvel at all this and think there’s something more to it than just a new version of yuppie wealth, is how far it’s brought me from my early (and even later) days in Berkeley. A store that in Berkeley seemed like a cheap version of what we already did so much better, in New York seems like a bright shining light.

It’s the eerie combination of New York and Whole Foods together. Like it’s all somehow fresh and new, even though it’s actually terribly familiar. It’s the combination of the things New York oddly lacks and how these lacks are coming to be filled in, with the fact that New York at once represents the cultural pinnacle of America and the heart of the mainstream (where it all begins and gets filtered–or rather sold–back to everyone else).

But now, New York seems primed, strangely enough, to be subsumed under what is ultimately a west coast aesthetic and ethic, because for once New York may have missed the boat on the cultural trends.

I’m left thinking: Is the cultural ascendancy of the west coast upon us? (Just when I thought I’d left.) Is the slow spreading of Whole Foods through New York City more of a watershed than anyone can see? Can something as cheesy as Whole Foods (California cleaned up and corporatized via Texas) really be the harbinger of what’s to come for New York? Perhaps this is one of the lasting effects of the 90s economy, when so many people (especially the young elite) moved to San Francisco to be part of the Internet start ups and then moved back. With their return, the tsunamis of the Pacific washed further east than anyone would have begun to imagine. And in the aftermath, the Internet pilgrims brought back sustainable souls.

Will the Empire City at long last be slouching towards Bethlehem?

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