“We said a couple of New York things, and then we let it go.”
November 21, 2019 3:51 PM   Subscribe

"A cloud of notoriety and Schadenfreude surrounds the [Park Slope Food ]Co-op in a way that does not seem entirely fitting for a grocery store. When non-Co-op people think of the Co-op, they picture snobs and brats, self-righteous foodies, hypocritical hippies, bougie mothers who have their nannies do their shifts, adult professionals who melt down like tetchy toddlers when kale is out of stock. [...] Members’ own views on the place vary. 'It’s a user-friendly way of experiencing the pitfalls of communism,' a friend and former member told me." A colorful history and profile of the Brooklyn institution. (SLNew Yorker)
posted by lunasol (35 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
 
I have never been to the Park Slope Co-op. Or to Park Slope. Or to Brooklyn. And yet I can't resist an article about the co-op. They're all the same, but they're all fascinating to me.
posted by jacquilynne at 4:16 PM on November 21, 2019 [2 favorites]


This needs to be a Christopher Guest movie. Like, yesterday.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 4:22 PM on November 21, 2019 [13 favorites]


With the exception of the "we're left-leaning except when our workers want a union" bit this sounds fine. That it is framed as goofy "drawbacks of communism" stuff when it seems to be mainly "put up with some quirks and inconveniences in order to eat more cheaply than you have dreamed possible" says a lot more about the New Yorker audience than it does about the co-op.

Also, the whole "OMG how inconvenient you have to work one 2.5 hour shift every five weeks, it's just like communism" thing is such bullshit. For pete's sake, people. And the whole "wearing a headscarf while working with food is just like being in the USSR"? Come the fuck on.

When I was a member-owner at a co-op, you were expected to work one shift a week, and you didn't get a particularly good discount either. This was not the fault of the co-op; Minneapolis isn't as dense as New York and we're never going to be able to sustain a big enough membership to be like the Park Slope one.

~~
Years ago, someone posted an article about a couple in New York who ate luxuriously on a very tiny budget and had all this "you too can eat very cheaply, just buy your prosciutto for a dollar" uptalk in it. I felt bad for quite a while because I couldn't get my grocery bill as low as theirs even shopping at the Cub. Now I remember that they were co-op members and in this article I learned about the amazing discount, and I wish they'd pointed out that most people don't have access to this kind of co-op rather than pretending to some unique virtue.
posted by Frowner at 4:25 PM on November 21, 2019 [28 favorites]


Sometimes I wonder how the New Yorker decides to run a story like this. Like, this is a story that probably gets pitched at every New York publication and (and journalism school) an average of once a month. How did they decide it's ready now for the New Yorker treatment?
posted by smelendez at 4:37 PM on November 21, 2019 [5 favorites]


It’s a user-friendly way of experiencing the pitfalls of communism,' a friend and former member told me."

That it is framed as goofy "drawbacks of communism" stuff when it seems to be mainly


Oh hello have you ever been a member of the Park Slope Food Coop? No? I have! My mother brought me along when I was a kid all the damn time (even my 3rd grade teacher was one of the founders!), and then I joined again as an adult.

It is often ABSOLUTELY about the ideological bullshit. There aren’t always enough jobs for members, because there are a shit ton of members now, so they’ll be like, ok, clean all the buttons on the phones, and then yell at you when you try to clean the entire phone because that is someone else’s job. (Actual true story.) The meetings are... holy shit the meetings. So much tankie grandstanding weirdness and then just general drama. Which are definitely features of the commie bullshit, and are also often toxic as fuck! For me it’s like literal poison; I just can’t. Navigating that shit without being neurotypical is just...ugh. Also not super accommodating, in my experience, to certain disabilities.

Anyway. On the whole Im mostly amazed it functions at all, even though it’s not really something I can be involved in for Reasons, but the problems you encounter do seem pretty directly related to the culture of the place.

And like...you have to be aware that there are actual people on MF with actual experience of an institution like that, right?
posted by schadenfrau at 4:42 PM on November 21, 2019 [36 favorites]


I've been an owner-member (and occasional employee and volunteer) of the local food co-op for nearly 25 years and I have to say that Park Slope discount is bonkers. I would put up with a lot of weird tankie bullshit for that, not gonna lie.
posted by soren_lorensen at 4:48 PM on November 21, 2019 [9 favorites]


I didn’t find it to be that awesome in practice, tbh — like meat was WAY more expensive, to the point where it offset whatever cool produce you could find, although maybe that’s changed. I haven’t been a member in good standing in at least three? years, and I have no idea how many shifts I’d have to pull to get out of the gulag.
posted by schadenfrau at 4:51 PM on November 21, 2019 [2 favorites]


See I would have thought the discount was basically the wages for working, given that you and everyone you live with has to work at the co-op. Based on how much I spend at the supermarket and how much my time is normally worth, it's not really worth it for me. I don't buy that much cheese.
posted by Merus at 4:56 PM on November 21, 2019


I grew up in Alberta, with retail co-ops all around - including some of the biggest - but I don't think any of them used member labour. This sounds like a whole different experience.
posted by clawsoon at 5:06 PM on November 21, 2019 [2 favorites]


violation. (The settlement agreement obliged the Co-op to distribute a notice to employees informing them of their rights.) In the way of such matters, each side has taken the results as a vindication of its position

I don’t know if the writer just doesn’t usually work a labor beat or she’s trying not to get banned from the co-op or what, but this means that the regional NLRB thought rights had been violated. If the co op is pitching this as a win, they are lying.
posted by corb at 5:09 PM on November 21, 2019 [4 favorites]


“At the height of the whole thing, I thought, This is a lot of angst over bananas.”

Yeah. If I had to pick one word to describe the Co-op, it would be “exhausting.”

I laughed all the way through the description of the meeting at the end, but in that way you laugh when you’re slightly triggered.
posted by schadenfrau at 5:16 PM on November 21, 2019 [11 favorites]


I lived in the Slope back in the early nineties for a bit over a year, and have had regrets ever since about all the cool stuff that I didn't do in NYC when I was there, but as of this moment, after reading that article, never even going to the Co-op, let alone becoming a member and working there, just shot to #1. I mean, especially for a midwestern transplant, barely still in his twenties, that would have been the shiznit, even with all the politics and whatnot. “Greta Thunberg took a sailboat across the ocean for this." Stone the crows.
posted by Halloween Jack at 5:31 PM on November 21, 2019 [2 favorites]


And like...you have to be aware that there are actual people on MF with actual experience of an institution like that, right?

Yes, like me - the long-time veteran of various co-ops, anarchist centers and volunteer-staffed spaces. I've had a lot, a lot of experience of contentious meetings over small disagreements, ideology, etc etc over the years and firmly expect to have a lot more. It's just that I don't believe that life is normally friction-free and it's only because we have our heads wrong that there are stupid, time-consuming meetings.

Shopping is friction-free for affluent consumers who don't have to see the work that supports the shopping. Co-ops spread the friction around a little. People have this bizarre fantasy that the world should really be experienced like you're a super-rich consumer, that you should never have to deal with weird crap, etc, like the people who complain about "union rules" at my job because they aren't allowed to hang their own pictures on the office walls. Yes, it's a nuisance to wait for the union guy, but the rule exists because a lot of people fuck up the walls when they hang their own stuff, so we have the trained professionals do it.

I stand by the ludicrousness of "on my once-every-five-weeks-two-hour-shift I sometimes do make-work, it's just like the gulag" stuff, too.
posted by Frowner at 6:03 PM on November 21, 2019 [25 favorites]


I was a member of the park slope food coop for a year or so, and I loved working there (cutting giant blocks of cheese into small blocks of cheese! measuring herbs into little bags and printing stickers!) but I quit because it was so crowded that actual shopping there was difficult. That was before they added late evening hours - it's probably better now. I never attended meetings or read the newsletter.
posted by moonmilk at 6:08 PM on November 21, 2019 [4 favorites]


Co-ops are an interesting study in human behavior. I lived in an artist owned/run co-op building for close to twenty years. Financially it’s fascinating stuff. You also learn that 5% or the people do 95% of the work. I was one of the 5% and the burnout is real. Also, living with a bunch of artists is exhausting.

We have lots of grocery co-ops here and why you can volunteer you don’t have to. Of course it isn’t as cheap as Park Slope.
posted by misterpatrick at 6:20 PM on November 21, 2019 [4 favorites]


Yeah IME, and in the article, the shifts aren’t the chief complaint. You could maybe read it again?
posted by schadenfrau at 6:22 PM on November 21, 2019 [3 favorites]


And it’s not “weird crap” that people complain about, it’s the social dysfunction that, frankly, frequently becomes abusive. It’s not nothing to have to deal with a bunch of opaque unofficial power structures built on relationships with the petty tyrants who are inevitably the people who devote the most time and energy.
posted by schadenfrau at 6:25 PM on November 21, 2019 [9 favorites]


One final thing: you very clearly don’t have experience with the actual institution you’re arguing about. One of the points in the article is that things changed as it grew. I don’t know about that - Joe has had a reputation since I was a kid - but I think it’s not crazy to suppose some of this doesn’t scale. And I think it’s not great to dismiss the complaints of how the place operates as bourgeois whining, or whatever you were doing. This kind of social dysfunction is actually prohibitive to a lot of people. It is another kind of cost. Just because you can pay it doesn’t mean everyone can.

I mean, the irony.
posted by schadenfrau at 6:29 PM on November 21, 2019 [5 favorites]


The article mentions that "Members can fulfill their shift requirement by hauling loads of compost to community gardens, or by preparing and serving food at CHiPS, a nearby soup kitchen." I'm curious whether there have been any efforts to expand those types of programs as membership has grown, the paid staff has expanded, and the set of conceivable jobs within the bounds of a grocery store remain finite.

There are surely inevitable political problems with expanding the boundaries of crediting community service toward shifts though, just practically around setting the boundaries of what kind of work counts to fulfill the requirement (I can already see the scandal as parents try to double-dip by counting volunteer hours at their kids' school toward co-op eligibility), and more generally around an, ahem, "service guarantees citizenship" policy which can be inherently exclusionary.

Looking up something about the unionization fight, I came across a recent edition of the newsletter (management's not-really-satisfactory explanation of the NLRB settlement is on page 6) where the headline is about changes to the retirement policy:
The maximum age would be extended from 65 years of age to 70 years of age. A 65-year-old will be able to retire if they’ve been a member for 20 years; 66 years old, 18 years; 67 years old, 16 years; 68 years old, 14 years; 69 years old, 12 years; and 70 years old, 10 years.
[...]
Another member asked, “If somebody wants to join the Coop at the age of 65 or 70, they are still going to have to work shifts well into their 80s. How are they going to do shifts?” Ruth responded that everybody should work and that the work doesn’t have to entail physical labor—there are opportunities to work in the office, at cash registers or in other needed areas.
I mean, ok, and there are separate somewhat-vague policies around members with disabilities (I'd be curious whether those are applied fairly in practice), but "everybody should work" rolls off the tongue in a way that sounds pretty exclusionary. Which of course isn't to say that capitalism in 2019 isn't exclusionary in slightly different ways too.
posted by zachlipton at 6:45 PM on November 21, 2019 [2 favorites]


This kind of social dysfunction is actually prohibitive to a lot of people. It is another kind of cost. Just because you can pay it doesn’t mean everyone can.

Social dysfunction is also endemic to the human race. There is a social dysfunction involved in shopping at Whole Foods--it's just that much of the pain is distributed to other people. Everyone likes to point and laugh at the Trotskyites whenever people try to work out alternatives to coercive capitalist structures, but the point is, the alternative is worse.

Our church's food co-op helped keep me fed as a kid, even though they sold us carob instead of chocolate. I grew up in a no-equity co-op run by the tenants, where every month you had to take a turn cleaning all the common space on your floor. My mom could tell you stories of committee meetings that would curl your hair. Still better than a landlord.
posted by praemunire at 6:50 PM on November 21, 2019 [10 favorites]


And like...you have to be aware that there are actual people on MF with actual experience of an institution like that, right?

Coops in general, okay. Though coops in general don't necessarily have the social dynamics you describe. Park Slope in particular? While it's a big coop, the world of the internet is far, far bigger. It's entirely plausible that no mefites reading the front page regularly enough to catch this post would be members. (I mean, not given that we now know that you are; but mathematically speaking.) Plus, in general, nobody has to know anything. I'm sorry that your experience has been so negative and frustrating, however.
posted by eviemath at 6:56 PM on November 21, 2019 [3 favorites]


Social dysfunction is also endemic to the human race.

Nah. I've lived a lot of different places and been involved with a lot of different voluntary or coerced (school, work, etc.) groupings of people. Conflict is endemic, but conflict can be managed productively (or at least not destructively). Dysfunction is a result of structural problems within the organization and/or poor leadership, given broader structural problems within society as a whole (racism, sexism, ableism, etc.).
posted by eviemath at 7:02 PM on November 21, 2019 [8 favorites]


Or did you mean endemic merely as widespread, not as native to/characteristic of (as in, an inherent property of)?
posted by eviemath at 7:04 PM on November 21, 2019


And it’s not “weird crap” that people complain about, it’s the social dysfunction that, frankly, frequently becomes abusive. It’s not nothing to have to deal with a bunch of opaque unofficial power structures built on relationships with the petty tyrants who are inevitably the people who devote the most time and energy.

And yet we invisibilize and naturalize this when it's at our jobs because accepting it is about being a good worker, or when we're dealing it out in conventional affluent-person ways by making life harder for service workers, stiffing people on tips, expecting bullshit high-end experiences at Target, etc. Only when dysfunction accompanies some kind of social justice project does it get foregrounded and criticized, usually with a strong element of "see, silly hippies, democracy doesn't work". And then especially in a magazine aimed at wealthy people who will, for the most part, have no familiarity with any kind of large group process.

I am enchanted by the idea that as with bagels, you only get really authentic toxic activist spaces in New York.
posted by Frowner at 7:24 PM on November 21, 2019 [35 favorites]


Everyone likes to point and laugh at the Trotskyites whenever people try to work out alternatives to coercive capitalist structures, but the point is, the alternative is worse.

That's a matter of faith, not fact. Here, worker control led to union-busting and labor violations. Those are supposed to be core labor issues.

I don't think this one case is definitive proof that co-ops are garbage, but maybe we shouldn't look upon some imaginary alternative to capitalism with rose colored glasses.
posted by factory123 at 7:55 PM on November 21, 2019 [4 favorites]


Only when dysfunction accompanies some kind of social justice project does it get foregrounded and criticized, usually with a strong element of "see, silly hippies, democracy doesn't work". And then especially in a magazine aimed at wealthy people who will, for the most part, have no familiarity with any kind of large group process.

Fair in this context, I suppose, but shouldn't social justice/left-leaning/communist spaces strive to be better? I think there's space to sideeye the publication without saying those who've experienced toxic spaces especially when it specifically refers to their experiences as overdramatising or being naive to the pitfalls of communal projects....
posted by cendawanita at 7:57 PM on November 21, 2019 [4 favorites]


Only when dysfunction accompanies some kind of social justice project does it get foregrounded and criticized, usually with a strong element of "see, silly hippies, democracy doesn't work".

Wait...dysfunction doesn't get foregrounded and criticized when it occurs in those for-profit endeavors? Seems to me one of the most common reasons to ever cover a traditional for-profit venture is to highlight dysfunction.

Furthermore, if you think a social justice project is more worthwhile than the alternative, isn't that even more reason dysfunction be foregrounded and criticized? Should it be swept under the rug or waved away because the cause is more noble or some such thing?

IME, coops are indeed an alternative. But one thing never changes: you always pay in one way or another.
posted by 2N2222 at 8:43 PM on November 21, 2019 [2 favorites]


I was a member of the Park Slope Food Coop for around 18 months in 2007-2009, after which I ended my short stay in New York. At the time, my food budget was $60 a week, including 2 meals out. I was an unusual calorie counter, as I had to eat about 3500-4000 calories a day to not lose weight. Getting enough healthy food was stressful.

Prior to shopping at the Coop I mostly bought groceries from wholesalers in Sunset Park/Army Terminal area and markets in Brooklyn Chinatown. The Park Slope Food Coop was cheaper than these already cheap options-- drastically so. Instead of fretting over a $40 shopping basket I was impulse-buying the best produce I've ever seen, fruits and vegetables of absolutely incomparable quality.

The Park Slope Food Coop effectively doubled the value of my food dollars, and the freshness meant food didn't go bad in my fridge. Working at the Coop was worth almost $40/hour, paid in melt-in-your-mouth local peaches, spicey greens, and grains and legumes that redefined simple dishes. Working the member hours make direct financial sense even for professionals.

The Park Slope Food Coop only achieves these savings because everyone has to work. The surplus of member labor is what has allowed the coop to pursue direct producer relationships and break down bulk purchases for individual consumption. By NOT financializing labor, everyone saves a boatload, making the Coop a functioning critique of the wage system.

Most coops try to blackmail me with my own values to sell marked-up food from the same distributors the chains use. These coops offer volunteer spots which price out at below minimum wage for a normal grocery budget, maybe $12/hour is you're shopping for a family. They financialize their member contributions, financialize our values, and fail to deliver on all fronts.

Now, as moonmilk says, it gets way too crowded. If you aren't able-bodied enough to swing a hand basket of groceries over the heads of children you can't shop there on weekends and weeknights.

Co-op/collective existence is my normal, so I was already smart enough to know you never attend a meeting unless you absolutely have to. Its unfortunate how mad people get at the organization that taught them this crucial life lesson.
posted by head full of air at 11:51 PM on November 21, 2019 [19 favorites]


Only when dysfunction accompanies some kind of social justice project does it get foregrounded and criticized, usually with a strong element of "see, silly hippies, democracy doesn't work".

I clearly see the element of "see silly hippies" in the linked piece, but I don't think the piece as a whole is foregrounding and criticizing dysfunction. I would say the piece is affectionate, at worst patronizing.

I'm also not sure that reporting in general highlights dysfunctional aspects about social justice projects in particular. I suppose it's in the eye of the beholder. In so far as it's true, the question is why. I'm sure the answer involves class strife on some level. I also think part of the answer is that social justice projects invite a deeply personal (and therefore irrefutable) engagement that can rapidly devolve into dysfunction.
posted by dmh at 3:20 AM on November 22, 2019 [1 favorite]


I was a member for years, until I moved too far away for it to be worth my time anymore. And god I miss it. Every time I read one of these articles, I get super nostalgic and have to remind myself that it just doesn't make logistical sense for me anymore.
posted by 168 at 3:57 AM on November 22, 2019 [4 favorites]


And yet we invisibilize and naturalize this when it's at our jobs

I fucking don’t. You might. Switching to the royal we or whatever is a weird rhetorical trick in this particular conversation, but whatever.

If you accept that emotional labor is labor, these models are incredibly rigid. Collectivist structures with no other option other than emotional labor and engagement are actually really shitty for a lot of marginalized people when the majority is included in them. I feel like lots of people form their ideas about these things when they experience them in a relatively homogenous and like-minded groups, and only then when they got relatively lucky about who was in those groups. The rigidity of these models is incredibly oppressive if you’re in a minority, or if you just aren’t able to perform vast amounts of emotional labor.

Money provides an abstraction layer that allows for flexibility for people who are differently abled and people who need to get the fuck out. It’s not about not wanting to deal with unwashed masses, and framing it that way is manipulative and disingenuous. It’s about being able to get away from abusive situations or people. I have literally never seen anyone actually address that when promoting models like this. Instead they fall back on ideological bullshit.
posted by schadenfrau at 4:45 AM on November 22, 2019 [11 favorites]


Man, I was planning to save this article till I read it in the print magazine, but I want to be able to chime in here.

I moved to NYC earlier this year and live right by the coop and love, love it. I’ve been every night this week so far! I like how meditative working there feels, the produce is as good as everyone says, there’s an app that shows what produce is in stock and charts the price history, and I love that I recognize so many people in the neighborhood. Don’t know them, but they’ve rung me up at the checkout.

If anyone reading wants to visit the coop, memail me!
posted by estlin at 6:52 AM on November 22, 2019 [7 favorites]


I am just amazed the New Yorker let the piece run without subjecting the Co-op to a diaresis.
posted by ferret branca at 8:43 AM on November 23, 2019 [5 favorites]


As a veteran of a very dysfunctional now-defunct anarchist infoshop I loved this. It is great to see stories about cooperative spaces - warts and all - that don’t flame out after just a few years because so many do.

Serious question - anyone know how to find a copy of the report referenced in this paragraph? I’m not turning up much:
The mighty Berkeley Co-op went under in 1988. A hundred-plus-page study on its failure by a California body called the Center for Coöperatives is subtitled “A Collection of Opinions”; even in failure, every voice must be heard.

posted by mostly vowels at 1:20 PM on November 24, 2019


mostly vowels: It is great to see stories about cooperative spaces - warts and all - that don’t flame out after just a few years because so many do.

I wonder how the cooperative failure rate compares to the (quite high, as I understand it) small business failure rate.
posted by clawsoon at 3:52 PM on November 24, 2019 [1 favorite]


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