The vote (3200 to 2049) by the members of the Co-Op and the decision of the Co-Op Board (7-1) to shutter the store is one of the more remarkable events seen in Hyde Park in many years.
There is much to be learned from the vote and the community foment that preceded it.
What We Learned About the Co-Op and Retail in Hyde Park
I learned that there are many Hyde Parkers who hate the Co-Op with a passion. Witness the dozens of "good riddance" comments posted to the Chicago Tribune web site in response to their saccharine story about the good old times.
This deep resentment was not born overnight. Many recount stories of poor treatment and spoiled food that date from the 1980s. I can still remember a Co-Op bag person screaming at a patron in the early 1980s because this person hadn't said "please." Customers were treated with indifference at best, quality has been poor, and selection has been very limited. My mother, a member of the Co-Op from 1955 to 1967, noticed the bad smell of rotting fish and produce while visiting in the 1980s. The experience of shopping at the tawdry Co-Op is remembered by many a U of C alum of the time (including the current President). These are not pleasant memories.
This increasing discontent started a slow erosion in the Co-Op customer base. That and increased competition from Peapod and Roosevelt Road would have eventually spelt the death of the Co-Op. The demise of the Co-Op was only hastened by its own silly expansion plans.
How can an affluent and highly educated customer base in Hyde Park find itself with a malfunctioning supermarket? It was a combination of a not very savvy landlord and the decline of our neighborhood.
In the late 1990s, the Co-Op's landlord renovated the Hyde Park Shopping Center and signed the Co-Op to a new long-term lease. The plans for this renovation were singularly unimaginative and timid. U of C Vice President Hank Webber was approached by Whole Foods, which thought it could find a good home in Hyde Park. The size of the Co-Op is perfect for WF (32,000 sq ft), and Hyde Park is better suited for a niche market than a competitor for the 100,000 sq ft plus stores found elsewhere in Chicago.
Mr. Webber dismissed Whole Foods as "too expensive" for U of C students. What poppycock! There are Whole Foods in Madison, Ann Arbor, Amherst, and Cambridge. Even "poverty stricken" grad students like to hang out at expensive coffee shops and trendy food outlets (there is a whole city called Berkeley devoted to this). Many U of C undergrads have well heeled parents who would be glad to see their kids getting good quality food. We should not sell short the many professionals, not associated with the U of C, who make HP their home.
But it was not just Hank Webber's bad judgment that got us in this pickle. It was also the lack of competition. If the Co-Op were located at 18th and Michigan Avenue, it would last about five minutes. The new residents of the South Loop have many grocery shopping alternatives. In Hyde Park, we are an economic backwater where the lack of competition keeps obsolete institutions afloat. We need large scale retail development with name brand retailers and much more housing. This is possible but requires vision.
What We Have Learned About the Decision-Making Process
Most issues of importance in our community are decided at "community meetings" called by local officials (often the alderman). These meetings are attended by a tiny fraction of 1 per cent of our community residents, usually the same tired group of NIMBYs. Examples include the disgraceful meetings on Doctor's Hospital and the Point (at a Point meeting, local "activist" Jack Spicer bused in residents of Montgomery Place to pad the crowd estimates).
The game is to see if you can turn out 50+ shouting and angry people, most of whom don't have the slightest idea of what they are protesting or why.
In the case of the Co-Op, we had such a meeting at the Hyde Park Neighborhood Club. Little of substance was discussed and a great deal of mis-representation was practiced by various local NIMBYs.
Imagine that there had been no vote. The sense of the Board would certainly have been --- save the Co-Op at all costs.
Instead, there was a membership vote. It turned out that the people who showed up at the HPNC were NOT representative of Co-Op members. The vote was overwhelmingly in favor of a shutdown. Imagine if we had polled the community where there are thousands of pissed-off former members!
So we were lucky this time. A decision was made on the basis of valid information and a more or less democratic process. The opportunities for demagoguery were limited by the vote.
This model should be applied to other, even more important, issues in our community such as the Doctor's Hospital, Sale and Development of Harper Court, the proposed new development at the Village Center, and (last but not least) the Point.
The 53rd Street Vision workshop is a start in the right direction, but we should remember that many interested and reasonable people won't attend these sorts of events. Many believe that we elect government officials to fend for our interests. Over the past few years, our local officials have not exercised leadership on behalf of their constituents. If our alderman are uncertain of neighborhood opinion, some sort of survey or poll should be attempted. This is the only way to make informed decisions. Community meetings and the letters to the editor section of the Herald are a good source for amusement but not for community sentiment.