By Claire Thompson, Grist
Because any positive economic activity that happens in Detroit is apparently national news, the opening of a Whole Foods Wednesday in the city’s Midtown neighborhood has caused more fanfare than possibly any grocery-store debut in history. Hundreds reportedly waited in line to enter the store, and Whole Foods Co-CEO Walter Robb was present for the occasion, accompanied by “a marching band, speeches by civic leaders, specialty food vendors handing out samples of pickles, granola and other products, and a festive air of celebration,” according to the Detroit Free Press.
Why all the hoopla? After all, as Aaron Foley at Jalopnik Detroit points out in a level-headed post, the city, despite being labeled a “food desert,” already has its share of real grocery stores, including independent chains like Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe, not to mention its famous Eastern Market, the largest permanent farmers market in the U.S. So it’s not like Whole Foods is suddenly swooping in to deliver fresh vegetables where only Twinkies and Top Ramen existed before.
Much has been made of Whole Foods’ potential to attract further economic development, “a magnet for retail, in particular, and for development more generally,” as Free Press editor Stephen Henderson puts it. “A grocery store as a creator of density.” But would a concentration of high-end retail and condos in one neighborhood do anything to address this troubled city’s structural problems? Local investors and government officials seem to be betting so; the store was financed with the help of $5.8 million in state and local grants and tax credits.
But really, what seems to be causing the freakout over Whole Foods’ unlikely new location is just that: its unlikeliness, and the racist and classist assumptions underlying that assessment. Just listen to Kai Ryssdal of public radio’s Marketplace question CEO Robb at the opening. Ryssdal calls Whole Foods “a place that does not have the reputation of perhaps being a place where people would shop in Detroit,” and even asks, “Did you have to teach people how to shop here?”—as if navigating a Whole Foods requires some special sixth sense not innate to black and low-income people. Ryssdal, assuming Detroit doesn’t have the kind of customer base that could support a Whole Foods, goes on to ask Robb what the company plans to do if the store starts losing money. Robb responded that they’ve made a 25-year commitment to the location. “People perceive Whole Foods as only serving particular communities, and I don’t like that,” he said.
We’re all for Whole Paycheck making an effort to be more accessible. But Robb went so far as to say that Whole Foods, with its Detroit store, is “going after elitism, we’re going after racism.” The notion that a bourgie grocery store could meaningfully address racial inequality is ridiculous. If it has any effect at all, it could just as easily set in motion the kind of unchecked gentrification that deepens racial divisions.
Foley, for his part, sees the new Whole Foods neither as a vehicle for economic rebirth nor as a harbinger of hipster domination:
“I was paying more attention to what people were wearing rather than the color of their skin. Lots of people—black, white, whatever—were there representing food co-ops, urban farms and other local initiatives proudly on T-shirts.”
“What I realized [Wednesday] is that Detroit’s healthy-eating, locavore crowd is much bigger than I realized. Yes, I know—Whole Foods is a corporation, they have a bottom line, all corporations have dirty secrets, got all that. Still, if it’ll serve a market here in Detroit, then it’s still a nice option. Whole Foods’ biggest challenge is not the potential “Whole Foods effect” but how this community will respond and adapt to its presence.”
And if the community response surprises both the skeptics and the cheerleaders, that may be the best outcome. Foley continues:
“Detroit’s not saved, but it looks a little bit better. My only hope after this? That reporters won’t use Whole Foods as a constant reference point when giving progress reports about the city’s comeback.”
This article was written by Claire Thompson and originally published in Grist on June 7, 2013.