Welcome to Maoist Orange Cake. Each week one of our Divas posts a thoughtful (but not necessarily serious) essay on whatever calls forth her Voice or strikes her Fancy. We invite you to join us wherever the discussion leads.
Motto of the MOC: Sincere, yes. Serious? Never!

"I would also like to add that ‘Maoist Orange Cake is possibly the best name for a blog ever. Just my twopence." -- The Sixth Carnival of Radical Feminists, 1 October 2007


The Twelfth Carnival of Radical Feminists is up at The Burning Times blog and mentions one of our posts, Helen 'Wheels' Keller, for recommendation. Orangeists spreading our zest!

Monday, December 3, 2007

NEIGHBORHOODS: A RANT ABOUT THE MEANING OF "LOCAL" -- by Kat


I've been thinking a lot recently about my neighborhood. Stuart may be on a local food only kick, but I'm on a more general local business kick. And when I say "my" neighborhood, I do mean mine. I'm very possessive about Berkeley, because in a way, I've inherited it. My mom's family has lived here since the early 1940's, which makes me unusual in the transplant-heavy Bay Area. I live 5 minutes from where my mother grew up. The pharmacy lunch counter where she would stop for Cherry Cokes after school is still there, across from my apartment. Up until a couple of months ago, it was still open. The drugstore is there, but they aren't running the soda fountain at the moment.

Anyway, it wasn't the only old family business to survive on the street. In fact, up until recently, the closest thing to a chain in the 2 block stretch surrounding my house was "House of Curries," which has a couple of branches around Berkeley. The heart of the neighborhood is really that, a 2 block stretch that contained just about everything one could need in life.

I love my neighborhood. It sounds kind of strange, but I really love where I live. Because I think of this neighborhood (the Elmwood) as my own, I'm very protective. It's as if I'm 5 and I've lent you my toys. You can play with them, but you have to be nice and gentle or I'll get mad.


Herein lies the problem. My glorious little cocoon of little independent shops, all with classic architecture and fun and useful things, is under attack. Not a big, obvious attack, or anything, but something much more dangerous and subtle. Little by little, the family run businesses that have given the Elmwood its charm are being pushed out.

Originally, when the neighborhood was developed, in the early part of the century, it was designed to be completely self-sustaining. You had a post office, a hardware store, a pharmacy/soda fountain, an ice-cream shop, a laundry, a 5 and dime, a bank. A little later, there came the theater, the donut shop, a toy store, some small shops, a couple of restaurants, a bakery. Around the corner, my godparents opened the Star Grocery in 1922. With the exception of the bank (orginally the Mercantile Trust Co, then Wells Fargo) these were all independent, family owned businesses. The scene has changed some, but the character of the neighborhood is more or less intact.

That said, I'm terrified that in a few short years, the street will be taken over by developers. The unique shops and services will disappear and homogenous, horrible annonymity will take over. Then I get all morose and hope that my grandparents don't live to see it....

Some of the family businesses have left because there were no younger relatives able or willing to take over. That is sad, but is an understandable end to a business. Recently, though, it has been more due to rising rent for the store fronts. Can an ice cream shop make enough money in the cold season to pay the ridiculously high prices?

The other issue is that of zoning. This leads us into the treacherous waters of the Berkeley City Council. I'd be really curious to know whether all towns have to deal with such a circus. Despite claiming to support local business, the city council and zoning board seem hell bent on destroying all that makes a neighborhood sustainable and functional. For example: the owners of Bolfing's Elmwood Hardware,

which has been at the intersection of College and Ashby avenues since 1923, recently put in a bid for a permit to renovate. The building had the original plumbing, wiring, and warehouse space. They want to update all of these, obviously, as well as add some storage and office space. Oh, and handicapped accessible bathrooms. I know, shocking....

In order to help finance this, they proposed adding an upper floor with 3 apartments. This would alter the roofscape, but not in an obtrusive way. They were denied the variance. They can renovate and update the structural issues, but cannot add a couple of residences that would allow them to make the rent and pay the contractors. All of this while City Hall is touting "multi-use" buildings downtown, with retail space on the ground floor and condos on top.

But those are shiny, new, developer approved buildings, so they're special. Or something.

The hardware store is closed for at least 6 months while they work, but it is unclear whether they'll reopen at all, or if it will end up as another expensive clothing boutique. I loved not having to get in the car every time I needed light bulbs or hinges or something for the kitchen. I loved that the owners' kids worked there and that the older daughter was the most knowledgeable employee.

Anyway, while this long-standing, independent business is floundering, across the street lies the newest addition to the retail atmosphere. Lulu Lemon. If you've never heard of this store, it is because not only is it a chain, it's a foreign chain. It began in Vancouver, BC, and they sell yoga clothes. Incredibly expensive yoga clothes. Like, $60 for a teeny stretchy shirt, and things like that. Yoga clothes that you'd better stock up on if you find something you like, because in a couple of weeks it will be out of style and you'll never find it again.

Now, this shouldn't bug me, right? I don't do yoga and I don't buy expensive clothes, so why should I care? Well, a) they're a gigantic foreign chain in a neighborhood of family businesses and b) because their window displays are quite possibly the most offensive things you've ever seen. Seriously. One of the first after they opened a few months ago had some happy yoga mannequins celebrating on one side, and mannequins in work-clothes (the kind of stuff worn by retail folks and teachers and office flunkies) with bags flouting dollar signs covering the heads. Uh, right, because you can afford $60 yoga shirts if you don't work. Or, the way I that I interpreted it: working is for chumps. It's better to be an ultra yuppie yoga mommy and spend your incredible amount of free time (because you have a nanny even though you don't work) working on your "inner self."

I'm sorry, was that snarky? I'm a diva, after all, what else would you expect?

The other Very Bad Sign is that a developer has been granted a conditional permit to turn what used to be a small car-repair place and tow truck depot just below College Ave into a 5,000 square foot bar. They claim that it will not impact the traffic or parking at all. Yeah Right.

So Stuart may be torturing Clarice with local food and no heat, the latter of which I'm into, inasmuch as my limited budget will allow. I'm sure he knows all about local business and how when you buy from a chain, at least 80% of the money leaves the community immediately, never to return. I knew this before, of course, but it's hitting home a lot lately.

I'm finding myself very angry and unable to figure out what to do about it. Go to a city council meeting? They are routinely useless shouting matches that go into the wee hours of the morning. Write a petition? No one signs them, and no one likes getting hassled while walking down the street. I don't know how to make a difference, and that feeling of helplessness sucks.

9 comments:

Maggie Jochild said...

Some thoughts I woke up with:

The problem with "real estate" in our culture is that it's not just housing and businesses, it's a capitalistic venture all on its own: It's supposed to make money for the owner. The belief is that if it did not, nobody would benefit from ownership. But the value of a home is in the shelter it provides for a generation or more. People would still buy houses even if when it came time to sell them, they were only worth what they had paid for them originally: they'd have gotten their "money's worth" and much more over time.

Ditto businesses. And ditto rental property.

I look at "real estate" investment as a Ponzi scheme. It simply cannot go on increasing in value forever. Not unless you also believe the population can continue increasing forever and economic "growth" (i.e., expansion) is the only viable model.

One of the chief draws for European immigrants to this country was the dream of owning land and homes, because in Europe that equaled wealth and, let's be honest, an approximation of gentility. For centuries, only royalty owned land and buildings. It's a morally bankrupt view of land that left us unable to view the citizens of this continent as human beings (they didn't claim to "own" the land we invaded, so we discounted their ability to think as a result) and expanded our hunger for ownership into a particular version of slavery that is, in most respects, radically different from slavery as it was practiced in antiquity. Different as in WORSE.

The same people who cannot understand the systematic and institutional nature of sexism and racism (see DTWOF thread for examples), instead relying on anecdotal examples as "proof" that "it goes both ways" and "given a chance, most men/white people will do the right thing most of the time", as if that addresses the issue -- those people believe capitalism will adjust its excesses, that a "free market" will even out over time. So the destruction of neighborhoods and family businesses and community-based, environmentally-sane clusters of living arrangements by corporate greed will eventually be set right by the "market" as Starbucks reaches saturation.

There's simply no evidence in this belief. The only things which have stopped "market driven" gobbling like child labor, slavery, slumlords, etc. is legislation and limits demanded by da people.

I heard recently on a PBS mini-documentary that a district in South L.A. has passed a law forbidding the construction of any more fast food restaurants or convenience stores. The footage showed entire blocks consumed by competing franchises. The rationale for the law was to stop obesity. Permits will only be issues for actual supermarkets that sell real, whole food, and for community gardens.

When I was in college, I had no money from home (in fact, I was spending part of my scholarship money on my family) and I qualified for residence in the projects one year. My budget that year, after books, tuition, and rent, included $7 a week for food. Even in 1974, I couldn't get by on that. So on Tuesdays and Thursdays, I didn't eat. I lived on block cheese, beans, rice, bologna, the cheapest of generics from the grocery store -- plus, on Wednesdays, the day between hunger days, I would go to Jack in the Crack and buy their two (junior) cheeseburgers for 29 cents deal. Just to keep from going crazy from deprivation.

I put on weight that year. A LOT of weight. I don't think it was the fast food. If I'd had access to community gardens in that urban setting, and community based meals, I'd have been full AND well-fed. But that means local control of land, doesn't it?

shadocat said...

Kat, I hate the loss of the "local flavor" in our neighborhoods. I guess it's so difficult now for someone to start or maintain their own busines now---the chains make things much easier in a way. "Here, all you have to do is trade your identity and sense of individuality, and we'll do all the work for you!"

Years ago, I used to spend every summer at my Grandma's house in Madison, South Dakota. Across the street and catty-corner from her house was a small neighborhood grocery, where I would trade in pop bottles for comic books and gum. Occasionally, she would send me there on an errand to buy "real" food, like milk or butter, sometimes ice cream for dessert. That store was an experience I looked forward to every summer; I was by then a suburban child---growing up in a sea of "little pink houses", miles from any other place of business.

I grew up; Grandma went to a nursing home in Sioux Falls. She died, and I went back to Madison for her funeral. You can't even imagine how bad it felt to drive by her house, looking for the little store---and see a Hardees in its place.

silvio soprani said...

Kat,
I think a lot of us relate to what you describe in Berkeley. (When I visit my friends in Oakland, I always wake up 3 hours too early because i am still on Eastern Standard Time. I go walking through the hills of Berkeley and often find myself in the "Claremont" neighborhood, which, if I am not mistaken also has a Star Market on a little block with a bakery, a comic book store, and an art gallery. I don't think it is the same neighborhood as yours, right?)

Anyway, in my Baltimore neighborhood, the old folks from 10 years back when I first lived here are mostly gone, replaced by the New Money, and a lot of new building has occurred. But strangely, in my part of the neighborhood, a lot of Spanish speakers have "taken over;" they are primarily Mexicans, Peruvians, and perhaps Salvadoreans. They work construction (on all those new buildings). Virtually all the corner stores cater to Spanish speakers. Some are run by Mexican families. The cans and packages on the shelves are all products you use to make Mexican food.

The little corner store on my block is run by a family from Sri Lanka. One liquor store is owned by a Korean man. Another liquor store is run by a fellow from Nepal! (The idea of Buddhist from Nepal selling beer and wine in a smoky liquor store/bar/pool hall has taken me some time to figure out.)

My point is that as the old stuff disappears, new stuff takes its place, and it is not always chains of starbucks and mcdonalds; sometimes it is new mom-and-pop paradigms. That's how I try to look at it.

Unfortunately, just a few more blocks down the street, old warehouses have been replaced by pricy condos and seafood restaurants with prices through the roof.

I honestly don't know what will happen to me. The utility bills keep getting higher, my rent is too high to begin with, and my salary does not increase. But I am hanging on. I don't think about "retirement." (less than 10 years away.) what's the point? Better to just keep my eye on the now.

kat said...

Yes, Sylvio, it's the same neighborhood. "The Claremont" usually refers to the residential areas that encompass everything from the southern edge of UC Berkeley to the Oakland border.

The phenomenon that you're referring to, where the character changes while still maintaining the local/family owned benefits, seems to happen more in England and Europe than it does here. I've seen it, too, a little bit. If I noticed that happening in Elmwood, I don't think I'd be distressed.

Things change, obviously, and no business can last forever, but the sneaky developers coming in and making hard or impossible for independent folks to continue is really wrong. Berkeley is pretty good about keeping the giant chains out, but there's a serupticious (i don't know how to spell that) thing that's happening. A giant developer will somehow manage to masquerade and convince zoning that they're local, or something.

What I forgot to mention in my post was that the evil yoga clothes store had a window display a couple of weeks ago that said "choose local"....um, yeah, you're an international chain, dumb-asses!!!! That's not local!!!

I caught a little bit of the NPR presidential debate a couple of hours ago. I wish I could have listened more, but I was meeting my mom, so I had to turn it off. Anyway, John Edwards had some great things to say about buying local, and supporting local independent business. Not only because so much more of the money stays in the community, but also because it reduces carbon footprints and all kinds of other good things. Good for him. I was cheering.

Thanks for your thoughts, Divas. There are always such interesting perspectives and things to consider.

If England and Europe have fewer problems with this, it's because their governments make sure that the "free market" doesn't reign. It's ridiculous to think that corporations will do what is right if left to their own devices....not bloody likely!

silvio soprani said...

Your topic has got me thinking, Kat.
I have been re-learning to knit (after a 20-year hiatus.)
The impulse happened in an non-paycheck week, so went to the cheapest place to buy some yarn--Walmart, of course, because the little 5 & dime stores that used to be here in Fells Point even 3 years ago are no more.

HOWEVER, then I remembered a tiny very local yarn store that gives knitting lessons and has Saturday morning coffee circles (2 hours/$5) where you get coffee, pastries, and conversation all included. (That's cheaper than STarbucks, for sure)

I went there right after a payday. They had beautiful, beautiful yarn and nice owners who treated me like family. I picked out two skeins of yarn and some knitting needles--enough to make 2 pairs of socks--and the bill was $50!

I know yarn is expensive and overhead is pretty high for a small store, but geez! Walmart only charged me $4 a skein. (Not as good quality, no ambience, had to drive 3 miles, not family.)
Definitely there were tradeoffs.

I tried to look at it this way: at the little neighborhood store, the extras are things you might pay a lot of money for if you had to take private lessons or something.

Still, I am sure I will not be buying much yarn there. Maybe once a year, as my contribution to local culture. And of course, if I do attend the Saturday morning sessions, I would consider the $50 as priming the pump, so to speak, of the health of the local economy.

But it is hard.

kat said...

you're absolutely right, Sylvio. In some cases, it's significantly more expensive to go to the indie places. Boyfriend went to the pharmacy in my post for contact lens solution a few weeks ago and paid literally triple what he would have at Walgreen's. However, that's one of few places where you can be sure that all of the shampoos and cosmetics and stuff are cruelty free (not tested on animals) and that you don't have all of your personal info recorded when you buy Sudafed. That's a big one for me. I really resent having to fork over my driver's license when all I've got is a stuffy nose. At this little place, they just ask you to sign for the pseudoeffedrine.

It's not as though I've removed chain stores from my life completely, because that would be almost impossible. Well, Stuart has found a way, I'm sure. I try to get as much from local places as possible, but a lot of the time, cost is a huge consideration for me, since my budget is so tight. I could buy bread at any number of local bakeries, but with a 6'4'', constantly hungry guy in the house, we almost always end up doing bread from Trader Joes, cuz it's soooo much cheaper.

(I buy little treats and pastries at the indie bakeries)

crap, must get ready for work....

silvio soprani said...

Kat,

Thanks for posting your picture! As much as I enjoy imagining what my online friends look like, I also like to compare that vision with the reality! (Well, as real as you can get with pictures, which tend project their own reality sometimes!)

It is snowing here for the first time this season. (Just an inch or so. nothing dramatic. But sweet!)

kat said...

ooh, snow! That's such a novelty for me....
I look a little different from that pic, at the moment, and a friend says that I look younger now than I did with the super short hair....As Myra says in Ginny Bates, maintaining a short, stylish haircut takes a lot of effort and money....I got lazy, so it's all shaggy now....

My heart is racing....I think I'm letting the stress get to me...

cybercita said...

kat,

is nabolom still there? if it is, please have a cherry danish for me!