Thursday, November 29, 2007

Herald's Chicken: Insanity Spirals; Editors Pitch Another Daft Rescue Plan

posted by chicago pop

Co-Op Board Member Gloriously Rallies Die-Hards


[Newsflash: As reported on the Co-Op's website (which, sadly but not surprisingly, gets the date wrong!) the National Cooperative Bank has refused to loan money to the Co-Op. "Other financing is being sought," the website states.]

Somewhere in the last week or so the Co-Op crisis has passed over from neighborhood politics into divine comedy, though we're not sure yet which circle of hell we're in: with ever more lunatic rescue plans from the Herald editors, in which the cost of saving the store seems to drop by the week, and the first of what I can only hope will be an ongoing series of political infomercials from Co-Op Board Secretary, James Withrow.

What do you do with this stuff? Even I am virtually at a loss this week. Call Hollywood? Pitch the Co-Op crisis as a reality show? Or maybe a cable teledrama? It's got nearly everything a scriptwriter would ask for -- except sex and humor, but those tend to be scarce around here anyway -- but it certainly has intrigue, betrayal, greed, lust (for produce), passion (for produce) and suspense (about produce).

The greatest challenge in pulling together Herald's Chicken this week, beyond making sense out of the ever-spiraling insanity, was forcing myself to read Mr. Withrow's dissertation prospectus -- without recourse to alcohol -- on crisis management in retail food cooperatives. I'm sure I can now number myself among a small elite for having done so.

After putting down Mr. Withrow's "quick" article reviewing "the main points made during my Town Hall speech," the glory of which I was happily able to relive, one thing is certain: there's not enough (free) space for James Withrow. Or at least his verbiage. It seems to keep expanding to fill whatever nooks aren't already occupied. At some point, this may cause a local media bottleneck -- say, if Hans Morsbach starts feeling talkative again.

What's interesting about the latest installment of Withrow verbiage, or, as fellow blogger Elizabeth Fama dubbed it, The 95 Theses, is that Mr. Withrow paid for it, and then got some key facts wrong, which he later corrected on his website.

Now, as any professorial type, or aspiring professorial type will tell you, before anyone goes into print, especially in such a high-profile and prestigious forum as the Hyde Park Herald, one would assume an author would take great pains to get the facts right. Especially if one is paying out of one's own pocket for the privilege of being read; and even more especially if the central fact in question (which I will pass over here, out of simple boredom) is rather central to one's argument.

Well, it turns out those assumptions would here be confounded, and Mr. Withrow got his plot wrong. Which doesn't really bother us, since he was paying for it anyway, and it probably attracted as many readers as the Journal of Late Etruscan Numismatics.

But when we think about how this kind of gaffe applies to community management of a retail food establishment, and not just one's own bank account, it does give us some pause. As does the entire recent theatrical turn of events, replete with fiery oratory, a rallying of old-timers, and the truly vintage, McCarthy-esque call among die-hards to "name names."

All very entertaining, but can we translate this into financially stable and reliable groceries? Look at what a time the Board is having just deciding what to do; figuring out who can vote; determining who should speak for them; and who takes the liberty to speak for them; and how to control whoever takes out a full-page ad in the Herald. It seems to me that when anyone suggests "we start acting more like a cooperative," that this is in fact exactly what's already going on, and it's not encouraging.

It all seems a bit chaotic on top. Would this kind of drama fade out if these folks were left alone to manage a grocery store? Or would the theater continue? Is this the French Revolution, with pamphlets from Robespierre and Danton, and the tumult of factions in the National Assembly, the call for purges, and cries of conspiracy?

Should running a grocery store really entail so much drama?

I, for one, am ready for a little competent banality.

18 comments:

Famac said...

C-Pop wrote: "Look at what a time the Board is having just deciding what to do; figuring out who can vote; determining who should speak for them; and who takes the liberty to speak for them; and how to control whoever takes out a full-page ad in the Herald. It seems to me that when anyone suggests "we start acting more like a cooperative," that this is in fact exactly what's already going on, and it's not encouraging."

Really, C-Pop, I think you should take out an ad in the Herald and print this paragraph that makes it all so clear:

Oh, and in case I forgot: I would guess James didn't pay for that ad in the Herald - it will be paid for as a debt of the Co-Op once Plan A is adopted.

chicago pop said...

I think there may be a way to make some money off this: we find a way to film all this nonsense, dub it into Spanish, throw in some girls, and sell it to Telemundo.

Otto said...

Ah, well. It is, as I think most would admit, difficult to posit an "external" drama without somehow participating in it. The question then becomes the nature of the script and the reading of the lines.

It was midnight on the sea
And the band played "Nearer My God to Thee"
Fare thee Titanic, oh fare thee well

Jack Johnson went to get on board
And the captain said, "We don't haul no coal!"
Fare thee Titanic, oh fare thee well

Titanic went around a curve
And she run into a big iceberg (didn't see it)
Fare thee Titanic, oh fare thee well

There were lifeboats all around
Save the women and the children, but the
 men go down
Fare thee Titanic, oh fare thee well

Jack Johnson, when he heard the news
He started shakin' them blues

Jack Johnson, when he got the shock
Should've seen him dance the Eagle Rock

Fare thee Titanic, oh fare thee well

And it's midnight on the sea
And the band played "Nearer My God to Thee"
Fare thee Titanic, oh fare thee well

And it's fare thee Titanic, oh fare thee well


Simple enough stuff. Who gets to play Quint?

ssnow said...

Option A.1
I'm pretty new around here and this is great stuff. If CO-OP advocates really want to save their tradition, why not let the University buy them out/clean up their debts/open a new store. The CO-OP loyalists could then start over and return to their routes. They could call upon their supporters to raise capital and start a new true food co-op at a much smaller location.(Didn't they begin life in someone's apartment?) Heck the University as I see it has been so generous this far they would probably co-sign the note to start this type of venture.

Famac said...

ssnow - Welcome! This could easily be done by moving to the 47th Street location and abandoning 55th Street. I'm sure the University would be much more willing to break its lease than Certified has been.

The only problem is funding - one of the great things about the Hyde Park radicals are most of their grand schemes only make sense when someone else pays for them.

James "think-this-through" Withrow makes it seem like there is huge community support for the Co-Op, but if you ask people to dig into their pockets and back up the platitudes, a different picture emerges.

James used to post here as a Co-Op insider. When this topic was first debated, he claimed there were no options on the table to replace the Co-Op -- all the while knowing that a generous white knight offer was in play.

Much like the Save The Point crowd; the basic principle of the Withrow types is that no ideas except their own are legitimate and worthy of debate.

And even when compromises are reached, they are quickly voided. Because what it’s really about is a bunch of guys using the neighborhood to get their 15 minutes of fame that was so allusive in conventional pursuits.

Its Jesse Jackson style activism -- as long as I'm in the papers, mission accomplished.

ScottM said...

I tried and failed with this strategy a few board elections ago, (when we were clearly past the bankruptcy stage.)

The real farce is that there are only about 5 people in Hyde Park who actually care about the Co-Op (sans employees who know that they've been "cushioned" from real world employment.)

I'm sure there would be some interest in opening up a "true" Co-Operative, but with the exception of a few I can't see many people volunteering to put the time / money into its formation (& certainly significantly less spending the 3-4 hours a month helping at the store like we were required to do at the Park Slope Coop.)

If I'm wrong about this (& part of me hopes I am) then I'd certainly be one of the first few to sign-up.

chicago pop said...

James "think-this-through" Withrow makes it seem like there is huge community support for the Co-Op, but if you ask people to dig into their pockets and back up the platitudes, a different picture emerges.

A few posts back, deep throat calculated that if members really wanted to bail out the Co-Op, including the lease on 47th St., they would have to shell out about $900 - $1,000 each. That's just to get out of debt.

OK, open up your wallets, Co-Op supporters!

James used to post here as a Co-Op insider. When this topic was first debated, he claimed there were no options on the table to replace the Co-Op -- all the while knowing that a generous white knight offer was in play.

I used to think Jimmy-Think-This-Thru-Withrow was a pretty good PR dude for the Co-Op, until he botched his own paid advertisement and had to issue a correction on his personal (free) website. Maybe another paid full-page ad noting the correction is in order? There's certainly very little competition from any real news in the Herald...

chicago pop said...

Another aspect of the current drama is that anti-University sentiment is clearly being used to mobilize die-hards (that's what Withrow's infomercial is all about) -- as if some underhanded ploy were afoot to screw the Co-Op. And this, coming from the folks who can't pay their rent and are still alive thanks to the forebearance of their landlord? None of the zealots appear to have "thought things thru" re: Certified, the Grocery Store Death Star.

All of which highlights to me the strange resemblance between old-line Hyde Park liberals and Western US Republicans: dependent on Uncle Sam for everything, blame him for everything.

LPB said...

ssnow raises a good point about letting the Co-Op diehards open up a new cooperative. Actually, something like this has already happened in the neighborhood. The Woodlawn Buying Club started up in 1999 (and I believe artist Dan Peterman was involved somehow) and it offers an alternative to the Co-Op.

http://www.experimentalstation.org/food-culture/woodlawn-buying-club

Elizabeth Fama said...

Yea-ah! Way to work in those Star Wars references, C-Pop.

Famac said...

Back in the day, when grocery stores were largely mom and pop affairs, or small chains -- you could see how a Co-Op would make sense provided you had enough stores as members.

But as the grocery business and farming became larger mega businesses, this same principle was applied a thousand fold. Prices and margins are now incredibly thin.

Without access to large buying power, mom and pop grocers and small chains have struggled to compete.

It was the Co-Op's inability to compete that drove it into trying to lock competition out of Hyde Park. It either didn't enjoy the same economies of scale, or didn't want to pass them along to members.

So rather than bow out gracefully, it chose a foolish and aggresive tactic that's cost a lot of people a lot of money and quality of life -- including shoppers, members and ultimately Hyde Park.

Its a great example of organizational corruption; You have a mission to provide cheaper groceries, yet somehow you end up trying to protect higher prices.

Its pathetic, really.

nate said...

The high prices at the Co-op are one of the biggest sticking points for me (and I think others), so it's a little unsettling to see the profitability of the 55th store trumpeted as part of the solution. (Although I don't know if $1 million / year is a lot or a little in this business.)

The "good" thing here is that if we go along with the bankruptcy solution, and get floated a loan, we can count ourselves lucky enough to pay high prices for our daily groceries in order to pay off the horrendous mistakes of yesteryear? Sounds like a community-oriented plan to me!

Shane said...

I am relatively new to the neighborhood...can someone provide me with some insight as to where all of the anti-university sentiment came from? It seems crazy to me. Everywhere else I’ve ever lived has been thrilled to death with all that a university brings to the neighborhood; in particular security and a huge cash / population infusion not to mention community outreach programs, etc. I’ve seen countless examples of good things that they’ve done and not a single example of a bad thing they’ve done and yet everybody seems to hate them. What am I missing?

Richard Gill said...

Shane - The strong anti-University of Chicago sentiment among some people is a puzzlement, isn't it? I'm not new to the neighborhood, and I'm still amazed by it.

I don't think the anti-University attitude is actually all that widespread. In this neighborhood, probably five percent of the people make 95 percent of the noise, and the neighborhood newspaper, the Herald, acts as an amplifier.

I think most of those who complain loudest about the U of C do so because it's a big, convenient target. The U of C is what makes Hyde Park tick, or at least it's a big part of it. People, even the complainers, like the University's cultural opportunities, employment opportunities, contributions, police protection and investments in the community.

But times have changed; the world has changed. Nobody is saying the U of C is without fault, but the University has changed with the times. The so-called Hyde Park Establishment (ie the loudest complainers) refuse to acknowledge the change. They seem to want Hyde Park to be an island, where development, newcomers, and anything to do with money and the profit motive are forever banished. The Establishment can't stand it when the University (or anybody else, for that matter) doesn't do exactly what they want it to do. The Establishment say they are all for rational discussion and debate, but they've been known to shout down the opposition. Too bad for the Establishment that more and more Hyde Parkers don't agree with them and are speaking up.

Hyde park is a worldly, sophisticated community, but the Hyde Park Establishment makes it look rather provincial.

chicago pop said...

They seem to want Hyde Park to be an island, where development, newcomers, and anything to do with money and the profit motive are forever banished.

Sometimes the comments on the blog make me want to weep with joy. The one just above from Richard Gill is one of these. I may frame it.

Peter Rossi said...

three cheers for Richard Gill's eloquest remarks!!!

couldn't have said it better.

this community would not exist without the university. The university has been far too tolerant of those who are against progress. We need a much more aggressive and pro-development stance.

Ptah said...

There, Mr Rossi is where I think I disagree (and please forgive me if I'm attempting too fine a distinction).

Leaving aside, the straw-man that the community would not exist without the University, I think we need less of *any* stance by the University with regard to community development.

In fact, to respond to the earlier question about the antipathy felt toward the University, I submit that it is precisely those attempts to direct community developments that have alienated the University from its neighbors. Mr. Gill is correct to say the University is a convenient target, as well as he is correct to point out that some would like to put their own conceptions of Hyde Park ahead of all others'. However, as he also suggests, the University is not without faults.

The University allows itself to be cast in a bad light by its own real estate mismanagement and development ineptitude. Rather than allow the market to go where it may, it employs all manner of market contorting vehicles to achieve what someone in the University thinks ought to be achieved. Typically, the end result is suboptimal at best and at the very least contributes to the vague resentment that seems to pervasive in the neighborhood.

If the University is the property owner, than of course it should have free reign to tear down buildings that have been boarded up for decades as well as new dormitories. It should probably involve the community to some limited extent (and it must, given the realities of alderman politics in Chicago).

But those development activities ought to be precise and focused to the matter at hand. Running a shopping center and acting as the largest landlord in the neighborhood is bad strategy and contrary to the well reasoned thinking that *should be* what the University of Chicago is known for (in Hyde Park as well as the rest of the world).

Famac said...

Got to agree with ptah, though I think Gill's comments have been generalized beyond their original intent.

The University has a poor record developing the area's business district.

But that's not why there's hostility against the University --because the same crowd is just as hostile to the City.

Hyde Park's redical left can't let go of that fight-the-man mentality.

The same people want to save the Point, the Co-Op, Doctors Hospital and the Babtist Church can't be bothered to shovel their sidewalks.