Westside Market Comes to the “East Village”

The Westside Market is opening a store on Third Avenue between 11th and 12th Streets.

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Westside Market on Third Avenue.

Local news sites and bloggers are beside themselves with giddiness, focussing on their family-owned, immigrant, rags-to-riches appeal: the usual Horatio Alger crap.

And eco-friendliness! What new store would be complete without eco-friendliness?

The Westside Market may have risen to its prominence by hard work, but it was the over-worked employees who did it. Over-worked and subjected to unsafe working conditions, such as what killed 20-year-old Raymundo Juarez-Cruz, an immigrant from Mexico, at their Broadway and 110th Street store. Police investigating the death said a safety switch on the compactor had been overridden.

    Patrick Purcell, the director of organizing for Local 1500, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said Mr. Juarez-Cruz’s accident was indicative of the working conditions endured by employees of many nonunion supermarkets.

    “These machines are something that you should be working with supervision after being properly trained,” Mr. Purcell said. He said that in stores where the union represents workers, there are clear signs and directions on the compactors. 1

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When this same Upper West Side location closed in 2004, the Columbia Spectator wrote about how workers had been treated:

    Modou Dia, who worked at Westside for 17 years, said, “I work 72 hours a week for the last 10 years. I never got no holiday, no sick pay, no overtime, no vacation. No even ‘thank you.’ He no even tell us he gonna close [today].”

    Liapat Ali, who worked in the deli section at Westside for 17 years, said, “The store made money from selling expired food. They would repackage things after they expired and resell them. … I’m 51 years old. Where am I gonna go? No pension, no severance, nothing.” 2

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Westside Market is not alone in this. The following information is based on a survey of over 100 workers in gourmet grocery stores in Chelsea and the West Village:

    Poverty wages, and no pay increases: The average reported wage was just $7.50 per hour, and cashiers started at $6.50 per hour – that’s $13,000 a year working full-time. The highest wage was $9.00 per hour. At many of the stores, workers did not receive annual pay increases.

    Few benefits, if any: Only a few stores offered health benefits. And in the few cases where health insurance was offered, the benefits were too expensive, workers had to be full-time, and had to wait 10-12 months to become eligible.

    Long hours and no over-time pay: Full-time workers often had to work up to 60 hours per week – with no overtime pay, a violation of state and federal wages laws. At the same time, many part-time workers wanted more hours but couldn’t get them.

    Discrimination: Women, undocumented immigrants, and workers with limited English proficiency earned the least and had to work the hardest.

    Little upward mobility: Most of the stores hired their managers from the outside, rather than promoting from within. As a result, entry-level workers were largely black or Latino, while most managers were white.

    Abusive working conditions: Breaks were short and infrequent. Almost no store allowed sick days. Sexual harassment, verbal abuse and threats were frequent, especially against immigrants.3

But it’s eco-friendly!

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None of this information was hard to come by. I found it in a short time using Google, while at work, no less! Local news sites and bloggers who take the time to interview the owners certainly have time to interview the workers too. Of course, as I found when interviewing workers at bodegas, they’re reluctant to speak, for fear of losing their jobs. But the bloggers could report this, and they could take the time to find out the working conditions existing in the stores they gush over.

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1Supermarket Worker Is Killed By Cardboard-Box Compactor,
accessed Oct. 3, 2014.
2Westside Market Closes its Doors After 30 Years on Broadway,
accessed Oct. 3, 2014.
3Is your Gourmet Grocery a Sweatshop? A Report on Working Conditions at Upscale Groceries in New York City, accessed on Oct. 4, 2014.

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Stealth Gentrification


 
The bar Max Fish closed yesterday. Since Max Fish was one of the first of the gentrifying establishments to open in the Lower East Side, I thought it would be fitting to note its passing by focussing on one of the techniques by which it came to be.

Lara Belkind introduces her essay Stealth Gentrification: Camouflage and Commerce on the Lower East Side, thusly:

    This article describes current adaptations of the traditional environment of New York’s Lower East Side. It examines how global factors such as expanding “content’ industries, market differentiation, and the internet have reinforced perceptions of the area as real and authentic while opening it to dramatic change. Specifically, the article considers a recent trend of commercial camouflage — hidden shops, restaurants and clubs that “re-present” tradition by meticulously preserving defunct façades, signage, and other physical traces of the neighborhood’s working-class and immigrant past. Urban camouflage, in various guises, has played a role in the transformation of the Lower East Side since the late 1970s, and has been employed by a succession of actors, from squatters to global retailers. As a cultural strategy, it has been inherent to the economic restructuring of the area, helping to overcome barriers to redevelopment that have persisted for more than five decades.

She divides the period into three stages: 1980–1994; 1995–2002; 2003–2005. I’m just focussing on the first stage:

    Max Fish quickly became a destination for consumers of the downtown scene. … And it made Ulli Rimkus one of the first of a set of successful local artist-entrepreneurs.

    Stealth aesthetics emerged almost immediately as an expression of this new bohemian movement, signifying authenticity, membership in the downtown avant-garde, and a condition of being “underground,” or beyond the realm of middle-class consumerism. This signification contained an inherent contradiction, however, because many of these new residents arrived with very middle-class objectives. In particular, they were seeking to buy property or to create small businesses — opportunities they were finding increasingly out of reach in other Manhattan neighborhoods.

    Yet, despite expressions of solidarity with the local working-class, and despite positioning themselves as activists or bohemian outsiders, the motivations of many artists who moved to the Lower East Side were essentially middle class. By contrast, the very opportunities that attracted them to the area, to own property or start a small enterprise, were beyond the reach of most of their neighbors. Indeed, the concept of “pioneering’ in a residential community, even a battered one, inherently separated new residents from existing ones.

    [M]any of the bohemians who arrived on the Lower East Side in the 1980s adopted countercultural elements as a commercial strategy. … But art that borrowed the found qualities of these spaces quickly evolved into a trademark aesthetic that was used to attract middle-class consumers.

***

There was one part of the article I found a bit disturbing:

stealth-05-clayton
 
The drug trade that existed in this area was responsible for countless deaths, family crises, homelessness, as well as burglaries and muggings. Clayton Patterson says this was a good thing. Was it a good thing for the people living there before 1980? Do you think they had the view that the drugs were a trade-off, necessary to keep the middle class away? I think this is appalling.

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1Lara Belkind, Stealth Gentrification: Camouflage and Commerce on the Lower East Side, Traditional Dwellings and Settlements Review, Vol. 21, No. 1 (FALL 2009), pp. 21-36.

Localist Moralism: The Locavore

When localists aren’t listened to, consumers change from being the solution to being the problem. Barbara Kingsolver is scathing about the food decisions of poor people: “we complain about the high price of organic meats and vegetables that might send back more than three nickels per buck to the farmers.” Meanwhile, “if many of us would view this style of eating (local food) as deprivation, that’s only because we’ve grown accustomed to the botanically outrageous condition of having everything, always.” She recognizes that consumption rises to deal with stress of working lives, but “much of it simply buys the services that make it possible for us to work those long hours.” The capitalist imperative to increase productivity turns into its opposite, a personal choice of workers themselves.

A concrete example of localist moralism is food politics. The petite bourgeoisie’s judgments on food stem directly from its habitus.

Food choices are a consequence and not a determinant of class. Thus it is possible to deduce popular tastes for the foods that are simultaneously most ‘filling’ and most economical from the necessity of reproducing labor power at the lowest cost which is forced on the proletariat as its very definition.

Ignorance of this relationship confounds the locavores. The compulsion of wage-labor makes taste “a forced choice, produced by conditions of existence which rule out all alternatives as mere daydreams and leave no choice but the taste for the necessary.” Failure to grasp this forced choice allows localists to pose a moral one.

Commodity fetishism, the basis for habitus and its choices, gets erased in favor of a nebulous and ever-present culture, morality and laziness. Food localism becomes the latest sign of “class racism” against the ‘sheeple’ who are too brainwashed to know what’s good for them. There is no difference between criticizing an unhealthy diet and criticizing one that doesn’t come from the proper, local place. In fact, local food is even further from the taste of necessity, since it’s a moral obligation to taste and the environment, not just to one’s own health.

Pierre Bourdieu suggests that the petite bourgeois get disillusioned as “they grow older and as the future which made sense of their sacrifice turns sour.” There’s no impugning the motives of the petite bourgeoisie: their personal sacrifice, creating schemes that are supposed to grow, comes at great emotional cost. The next step of looking for someone to blame seems only natural, and what better target is there than the poor and the working class, who for some strange reason continue to shop at Wal-Mart and eat at McDonald’s?

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Greg Sharzer, No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012), 113-119.

Localism and Community

[F]aced with the unpalatable conclusion that small alternatives won’t out-compete or destroy capitalism, localists cling to a fierce faith in communities to band together and do it yourself.

Localists yearn for community, freed from the uniform mediocrity of anonymous, corporate-controlled spaces. However, the petite bourgeoisie’s way of life precludes a community, since members of the class rely mainly on themselves for economic progress and emotional support. Community members are either fellow petite bourgeois competitors or customers demanding lower prices. Perhaps this is why so many localists have such a strong nostalgia for community as an ideal place where business happens and values take shape. Farmers markets aren’t just a place to shop, but a place to socialize: since “consumers have ten times as many conversations at farmers’ markets as the do at supermarkets… You go from being a mere consumer to being a participant.”

Why do localists want their shopping trips to include personal conversation? Alternately, you could appreciate the anonymity and speed of supermarket transaction if you have other ways to socialize. But it makes sense that the petite bourgeois, trying desperately to succeed in the marketplace or gain control on their own merits, would feel lonely. They try to re-forge the social connections lost in the marketplace in the same individual way they advance. Consumption is where they compete to achieve the symbols of habitus. The desire for friendly consumption is as close as the petite bourgeois get to stepping outside their daily antagonisms.

Just as ideology is a single class’s way of life generalized to all of society, community for the petite bourgeois becomes community for them alone. Wendell Berry criticizes corporations, governments and schools for concealing a “private aim (which) has been to reduce radically the number of people who, by the measure of our historical ideals, might be thought successful: the self-employed, the owners of small businesses or small usable properties, those who work at home.” This persecution of petty capitalists sets local community advocates against “Communists and capitalists (who) are alike in their contempt for country people, country life, and country places. They have exploited the countryside with equal greed and disregard.” The local community are “small farmers, ranchers, and market gardeners; worried consumers; owners and employees of small businesses; self-employed people; religious people; and conservationists.”

The inference is clear: the working class isn’t part of the community. [Emphasis mine.] The images are of the town square, the main street where everyone knows your name, the butcher, baker and small shopkeeper. These evoke market towns where residents distributed commodities made elsewhere. In contrast, industrial towns were often centers of intense class struggle between owners and workers. Not coincidentally, industrial towns created close community networks forged in that struggle. These close-knit communities of workers also demonstrated all the values of collective self-sacrifice, yet localists never mention them, preferring fuzzy invocations of consumerist fantasy.

The problem lies in how malleable the term community is, including capital, the state, and workers — groups whose interests are fundamentally at odds. By suggesting workers are at most another group making demands on the state, the designation of community hides power relations. It replaces class with innumerable differences of income, culture and other sociological categories, bounded by geography rather than a common exploitation. This blurring of conflict is fundamental to localism. By invoking community, localism attempts the political equivalent of Proudhon’s fair markets for small artisans, imposing a false social peace by eliminating the working class rhetorically.

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Greg Sharzer, No Local: Why Small-Scale Alternatives Won’t Change The World (Winchester, UK: Zero Books, 2012), 98–101.