Whole Prudes: Why Is High-End Retail So Scarce in Park Slope?

kensinger whole foods nyobserver dsc 2305 Whole Prudes: Why Is High End Retail So Scarce in Park Slope?On Saturday afternoon, a security guard sat in the back seat of an idling white jeep, watching over a 2.1-acre patch of dirt near the Gowanus Canal in Brooklyn. There was an overflowing can of garbage next to the car’s front bumper and a puddle of groundwater nearby. Just across the canal, against the backdrop of cement silos, elevated tracks and the Kentile Floor sign over an old asbestos tile factory, a backhoe clawed through piles of rusty metal and tin-can recycling. Brooklyn is finally getting a Whole Foods, and it is going here.

After more than five years of owning the brownfield, discovering different biohazards and revising construction plans, the Austin, Texas-based company announced last week that construction will begin in 2011, as soon as the city approves its plans. A scaled-back 52,000-square-foot version of the store will open late in 2012 (the company originally broke ground in 2006). The canal, which has approximately 10 feet of black sediment the consistency of mayonnaise festering at the bottom, likely won’t be clean for another 10 years.

It was only a matter of time before big-box brown rice capitalism landed in Brooklyn, which in the last four years has welcomed Fairway, Ikea and Trader Joe’s. Whole Foods has opened six stores in New York since 2001, all in Manhattan. But proximity to Park Slope, the epicenter of purpose-driven, pseudo-suburban family life in Brooklyn, opens a whole new can of worms. Residents have so far staved off high-end retail, other than the odd boutique, despite being a branch office of Manhattan economically. One cannot even find a Gap in its increasingly lily-white environs.

This is Park Slope Food Coop territory, after all.

“I have concerns about the politics of the Whole Foods founder,” said Mary Crowley on Saturday morning, walking through the Grand Army Plaza farmers’ market with her husband. John Mackey, the company’s co-founder and CEO, is a self-taught businessman who believes in small government, and he once compared working with unions to living with herpes–“It stops a lot of people from loving you.” In August of last year, he wrote an editorial for The Wall Street Journal arguing that the government should not interfere in the health-care business. “He’s very conservative,” Ms. Crowley continued. “And we have good stores here already, so I don’t know if we need another one.”

Ms. Crowley’s husband, John Denatale, walked over with their tall, long-haired dog. “I think people in the Slope get over things quickly,” he said, their dog pushing his snout between his legs.

“I think they’ll be upset. I disagree,” said Ms. Crowley.

There was a strong wind blowing down Eastern Parkway. “People in Park Slope don’t like change,” explained Mark Germann, a young attorney standing over his son in a stroller while his wife, Beth Aala, a filmmaker, looked at yogurt drinks in the Ronnybrook Farm Dairy stall.

“Chains or change?” she asked, coming over to secure an extra blanket over their son.

“Change,” he said.

“Maybe both,” she added.

Whole Foods is more of an ideological challenge to the Park Slope Food Coop, the headquarters of arch-Park Slope living, than it is a threat to business. The cooperative, which is 15,000 members strong, was, foot by foot, more than three times as profitable as a Whole Foods in 2010, according to Fortune. Member attrition increased with the arrival of Fairway in Red Hook in 2006, but long checkout lines continue.

“I’m not a member of the co-op,” Mr. Germann continued. “It’s a little bit like a right-wing regime. They force you to do things, right? … It’s not a democracy; it’s a totalitarian regime.” He talked about friends getting “blacklisted” for missing shifts.

How will the Whole Foods stack up to the venerable Park Slope Food Coop? The Observer did some comparison shopping! >>

The arrival of Whole Foods is also a benchmark of the gentrification that newer Park Slope residents have wrought: It’s now creeping across Fourth Avenue into Gowanus. Two women waiting in line for organic meat on the other side of the farmers’ market, both with babies bundled against the cold strapped to their chests, said they would definitely not be going to the new Whole Foods. It was too expensive and too far out of the way. They don’t own cars, and besides, they were members of the co-op. They declined to give their names. “Are you a member of the co-op?” one of the mothers asked, glinting at The Observer with a taut smile. “Just wondering.”

“Oh, you’re talking about Brooklyn! When you said Third Avenue and Third Street, I thought Manhattan,” said writer Gary Shteyngart, who rented an apartment on Seventh Avenue and First Street, in the traditional heart of Park Slope retail, in the mid-1990s. “Third Avenue and Third Street, holy crap. Wow,” he said. He had just returned from Santa Fe, where he was promoting his latest novel, Super Sad True Love Story, and was talking over the phone on Monday afternoon from his apartment in Manhattan. He said he moved back to the city to be closer to his shrink.

Mr. Shteyngart moved to Park Slope when he was working on his first book, and he expected it to be “edgy.” There was a Connecticut Muffin on Seventh Avenue then. “Well, you know, there’s an Ikea in Red Hook. Nothing is sacred anymore,” he said, adding that in 25 years, no part of Brooklyn will remain untouched. “This elite group of people must be served one way or another,” Mr. Shteyngart continued. “These kids need to be fed! Two-point-four kids per person there, so they need organic foods.”

Mr. Shteyngart was proud to report that he never joined the co-op, “and I went to Oberlin, where working in a co-op was the cool thing to do.”

Mr. Mackey of Whole Foods told Reason magazine this year that the most important variable in selecting a new site for stores is the number of college-educated people living within a 16-minute drive. Hello, Park Slope!

Novelist Amy Sohn, a co-op member and Brown alumna who grew up in Brooklyn Heights, compared Gowanus to downtown Providence before it was cleaned up. “It was dirty video stores,” she said, “and now they have this whole festival of candles on the waterfront. I feel like Gowanus is heading in that direction. It’s a little bit frightening. I love the gritty feel.” She now lives in Park Slope, and her latest book, Prospect Park West, satirizes the neighborhood.

She said she would not shop at Whole Foods but hoped some of the riffraff at the co-op–the type of people who don’t have their hearts in the movement, the type who wind up on the blacklist–might.

“They probably come from another part of the country where Whole Foods is very fetishized, and they have been waiting,” Ms. Sohn said. “They want to replicate their sort of Mall of America experience in New York City, so they love that you can have a Whole Foods in Brooklyn.”

On the other end of the spectrum was a “crazy fringe” of Park Slopers who may object to the presence of the store, she said. “They’re just not going to like that it’s this massive chain experience, even with progressive values. They’re not going to buy into that.”

“I guess I put myself in the ‘sure, but I won’t shop there’ category,'” Ms. Sohn said when we asked if she would allow Whole Foods to build on the site if it was entirely up to her. “I mean, they’re creating 350 jobs. There’s gonna be the greenhouse. It’s very ecologically conscious. There’s gonna be stations for electric cars.

“They’re the devil,” she said. “They’ve made it too good to turn down.”

There will also be bike parking and a waterfront esplanade, in the model of Ikea and Fairway in Red Hook. According to a letter sent by Mark Mobley, an executive who oversees construction for Whole Foods, the rooftop garden “will grow fresh, organic produce right on-site!” Michael Sinatra, a spokesman for the company, added that produce grown on the roof will be sold in the store. “The stores that are built in Connecticut use reclaimed wood from torn-down farms in Connecticut,” Mr. Sinatra said, “and hopefully this one will feature brick from old torn-down Brooklyn buildings.”

No bricks, however, will come from the landmarked Coignet Stone Company, constructed in 1873, on the corner of the Whole Foods lot. The structure will sit just behind the new store.

“I don’t know. I just don’t want them to tear it down. Do you? Maybe they should. What do you think?” asked artist Dustin Yellin on Sunday afternoon, after a flight back from Art Basel, talking about the Stone Company building. “They should donate it to artists to have a small museum there! I want to build a museum.”

He was eating dark chocolate and sitting cross-legged in his office, off the studio, living space and gallery he opened in Red Hook. There were photographs tacked to the wall above his desk, including reproductions of Pieter Bruegel winter-scene paintings, studies for a 24-by-36-foot glass piece he is working on. Mr. Yellin and his close friend, Charlotte Kidd, bought the building on an isolated street in 2007 after his work became too heavy for the floors in his Manhattan studio. Now he finds himself down the street from Fairway, and neighbors with the new cruise ship dock and Christie’s new warehouse in the New York Dock Company building. It’s a short walk to Ikea.

Mr. Yellin described Whole Foods as a “weird art installation, a postmodern clusterfuck of like 55 kinds of the same kind of granola and 55 kinds of the same kind of chocolate.” He doesn’t like grocery shopping very much.

“If it’s not going to be a museum, and it’s not going to be a park–’cause those are two things that I think enhance communities–then I say to myself, ‘Well, a Whole Foods isn’t terrible because a strip mall would suck. And Whole Foods isn’t terrible, because don’t they have good stuff?’ I could definitely shop there to cook dinner for my friends. It’s not Wal-Mart.”

Outside the co-op on Monday morning, the attitude was live-and-let-live. Doug Ashford, who teaches sculpture at Cooper Union and has belonged to the co-op since 1983, was waiting with his groceries for a ride home. He reached into his cart and tore off a piece of olive bread.

“The practices that are involved with the co-op have more to do with overall lifestyle choices that we all make,” he said. “The only problem is that if that creates an economic shift in the neighborhood, where people get replaced. But we’ve been through so many waves of gentrification–I’ve been here since the ’70s–that I’m not that worried about that, either.”

“I doubt I’ll shop there. It’s too expensive. All of their products have way too much sugar,” said Hilda Cohen, another co-op member, as she bungee-corded a cardboard box of groceries to the back of her bicycle. She comes over from Fort Greene to shop.

Ms. Cohen had heard all about Whole Foods’ green roof and said she thought the company was doing a good job listening to the neighborhood’s concerns. “They’re wanting to do the right thing. And for how many times Atlantic Yards doesn’t want to do the right thing …” she said. “So, you know, it feels like they’re trying.”

Erin Jones, who commutes from Chinatown to the American Can Factory across the street from the Whole Foods site, was conflicted about the new store. She likes the view from her office the way it is. “I like the signage, the big open lot. That’s something that I enjoy on my walk to work,” she said over the phone on Monday afternoon.

Ms. Jones and her coworkers at Lite Brite Neon make custom neon signage in rented studio space. They keep bees on the roof, but they haven’t been able to harvest any honey yet. The office normally orders in lunch together, or everyone brings from home, because there just isn’t that much nearby in Gowanus. She wondered whether their bees would like the Whole Foods roof garden better than what’s there now. “There’s sort of an outlaw nature to it,” she said. “It’s a great open expanse. I feel like it’s sort of a Texas of Brooklyn.”

How will the Whole Foods stack up to the venerable Park Slope Food Co-op? The Observer did some comparison shopping! >>

zturner@observer.com / @zekeft

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