A missive from the Prophet of Hamtramck on the Detroit Whole Foods and the future of mankind

My friend Steve Cherry made the following proclamation last night from his bunker in Hamtramck, and, as I agree with it, I thought that I’d post it here, for your consideration.

Having spent much of the big east coast blackout of 2003 in Hamtramck, I can say with some degree of confidence that, when the shit finally hits the fan in a big way, Detroit’s probably the place you want to be. When everything requiring power ground to a halt, and people everywhere else worried that we were under attack, things in Hamtramck just kept right on going. Businesses stayed open. And no one freaked out. There wasn’t even a hint of “Oh my God, what will we eat?” panic. Maybe it’s because the Eastern European and Bangladeshi immigrants had seen so much worse, or maybe it’s that Detroit just infuses people with a power to keep moving forward when others would give give up, but, for whatever reason, I just got a sense that they’d find a way to keep society going, no matter what happened.

By way of context, Steve’s original post, which started the thread that eventually brought about his comment above, had to do with the new Whole Foods that just opened in Detroit. Here it is:

Detroiters, while you were celebrating Whole Foods opening in midtown, the California big ag just put 10 more family farms out of business through water diversions. California’s corporate-organic farms are unsustainable in every sense of the word.

So, I put this question to you… Is the Detroit Whole Foods hurting the long term viability of Detroit? Is it derailing the path toward self-suffitiency that the City was on? And, while we’re at it, is Whole Foods bad for agriculture?

And, I should add, I’m not suggesting that Whole Foods opening in Detroit isn’t a net-positive for the community. Given all the pro-Whole Foods coverage yesterday, though, I thought that it might be worth discussing the other side.

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  1. Edward
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 8:21 am | Permalink

    I think the good outweighs the bad. At this point I’m just happy when anyone is investing in Detroit and creating jobs. Yes, having a Whole Foods in the neighborhood will lead to more gentrification, and it may hurt the local markets, which, you could argue are more “sustainable”, but I can’t see protesting the Whole Foods based on that.

  2. Elliott
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 9:26 am | Permalink

    I’d put my money on a town in the pacific northwest with good soil and a very low population. In this area, though, yes, Detroit has the edge. People are scrappy, and they’ve been trained, though years of neglect, to persevere. They wouldn’t bat an eye at a zombie attack.

  3. Knox
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 9:46 am | Permalink

    I agree with both of you whole heartedly.

  4. double anonymous
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 10:26 am | Permalink

    I disagree but it’s an interesting thought, and I like the fact that there’s a counterpoint to all the Whole Foods “rah rah rah”

  5. rex
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 10:41 am | Permalink

    my evidence is completely circumstantial, but if we’re just talking about produce, I tend to see more michigan produce at whole foods than I do at plum market. while plum is a michigan company, I feel like there is less focus on producers closer to home.

    while I don’t think it directly relates to detroit, I think steve makes a good point.

  6. Maria
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 11:26 am | Permalink

    This Whole Foods doesn’t really change anything at this point. It’s an expensive store. Where will people go for inexpensive local food? Because it just looks like everything is getting more expensive by the week, especially gas.
    I allow myself the indulgence of the idea of a city with backyard chicken coops, fruit trees growing throughout yards and neighborhoods and of people learning how to garden smartly, in their back yards or perhaps communally and yes, all in Detroit, and elsewhere, too and nobody smirks and dismisses it as “too lefty”

  7. josh
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 11:52 am | Permalink

    I hate Whole Foods but find immense joy in their samples. I like to stare down all the smug granola-yuppies as I make them pay for my lunch of expensive cheeses and produce. With a little organizing, the Detroit Whole Foods could be the front lines of the class war.

  8. Meta
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 12:22 pm | Permalink

    I can’t find the link now, but I posted something this morning about the Seattle food forest, and I’m wondering if anyone’s given the idea any serious thought in Detroit. God knows there’s space, and I love the idea of free organic apples and chestnuts right down the street from WF.

  9. Meta
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 12:23 pm | Permalink

    Beacon Food Forest:


  10. K2
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 1:22 pm | Permalink

    I’m to the point where I just want to give up. Nothing is clear. I just want something to be black and white, but it never is. A new grocery store in Detroit should be a good thing, but it’s not. It’s too expensive. Average Detroiters can’t shop there. It’ll raise property values. “Big Organic” is crushing its competition. The list goes on. I hate being an adult and dealing with complexity.

  11. Meta
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 2:15 pm | Permalink

    Aaron Foley on why the Whole Foods in Detroit is kind of a big deal.

    From a local standpoint, I was impressed that Whole Foods stuck to its much-ballyhooed promise of stocking Michigan-made products like Garden Fresh salsa, tortillas from the Ann Arbor Tortilla Factory, McClure’s pickles and Kenzoil dressing. (If you haven’t made pasta with Kenzoil dressing, please do so!)

    The beer selection also skews local. There are offerings from Motor City Brewing Works, Short’s Brewing Company, New Holland Brewing Company and Bell’s Brewery. That said, the overall beer selection is lacking and I’d wager that Ye Olde Butcher Shoppe down the street or hell, that one liquor store next to Bronx Bar has a better variety.

    What struck me most about Whole Foods – and this has been a sticking point in local news comment sections for the past two years – is who’s shopping there.

    Everybody’s been all like, “ooh, black people can’t afford to shop there” and Whole Foods CEO Walter Robb responded to that by saying that opening in Detroit would combat “elitism and racism.” Both of those sentiments are completely ridiculous, especially Robb’s statement.

    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.

    Last year as part of my high school reunion weekend, we volunteered at an urban farm on the city’s west side. It was a large one spanning acres, and not one of those pop-up farms on an abandoned city lot. The farmers there spoke at length of eating local, organic growth methods and whatnot. At the time, I asked about their thoughts about Whole Foods coming and they said they were concerned, but optimistic.

    What I realized yesterday 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.

    I agree that the grand opening and everything that led up to it was over the top. And yes, the Ye Olde Butcher Shoppes and Honey Bee Markets deserve the same level of attention. But don’t people in general like shiny, new things, whether it’s a chain or an indie? I remember when I was a kid when the (now-closed, sadly) Farmer Jack opened in Highland Park next to the old Model T plant, and even though it was just like every other Farmer Jack around, people were just excited it was there because it was new and different.

    The same thing with Great Lakes Crossing, Somerset Mall Collection, H&M in Fairlane and IKEA in Canton. Even Ann Arbor, which has everything, is excited about a Nordstrom Rack going in Arborland. Open something new, people go flocking to it and can’t stop talking about it. That’s life.

    So yeah, Whole Foods in Detroit is just a little bit of a big deal. Like I said, 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.

    I will always maintain that until the big issues like crime and schools are solved, then we can say that Detroit is on a comeback trail. Until then, it’s nice to know I don’t have to drive out to West Bloomfield if I want some New Zealand cheddar.

    Read more:

  12. Posted June 6, 2013 at 3:05 pm | Permalink

    Hell yeah, Josh! I won’t eat all day* and then go and graze at Whole Foods!

    *I’m just kidding. Except for the random Yom Kippurs, I rarely go more than a few hours between meals. Trust me on this one.

  13. Mr. X
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 3:51 pm | Permalink

    The people of Hamtramck will be fine, until the Juggalos, having exhausted all the resources elsewhere, move in for the kill. They’ll write epic poems about it.

  14. Posted June 6, 2013 at 5:21 pm | Permalink

    Detroit’s a big place. One store is neither going to save it, nor bring it down. The Jalopnik post is spot on: it’s another option–and there are a lot of options for buying groceries for people who don’t like, or can’t afford that option. (See Rob Linn’s post on the “the food grasslands of detroit” for more on this.)

    What Whole Foods is is one more datum in the trend of people and businesses that have a choice moving into–rather than out of–downtown and midtown Detroit. In general terms, I think this trend is a Very Good thing, though when we look at details like much of the rest of Detroit continuing to lose people and businesses that have a choice, and the un-managed displacement occurring in the Cass Corridor as a result of downtown’s new popularity, it’s clear that much much more remains to be done.

    Which makes this statement very odd:

    Is the Detroit Whole Foods hurting the long term viability of Detroit? Is it derailing the path toward self-suffitiency that the City was on?

    Did Detroit have long-term viability before Whole Foods opened? Was it on a path to self-sufficiency last week? As far as I can tell, the overall trajectory of the city was so steeply downwards that an emergency manager was considering selling off the art museum’s collections to patch the massive holes in the budget, 10,000 people a year were moving out, and a sizable portion of the city was in tax foreclosure.

    I doubt all that was happening because people just wanted to get out before Whole Foods opened — but it’s apparently been determined that I’m the sock puppet of the establishment on this site, so clearly I’m just trying to downplay the nefarious plans of our Austin-based overlords.

  15. Posted June 6, 2013 at 6:52 pm | Permalink

    It wasn’t a statement, Murph. It was a question. I was just wondering if others felt, as Steve does, that it’s a step away from self-sufientcy and small farms to support Whole Foods. Personally, as I said, I think it’s likely a net-positive, for the very reasons you outlined. I do, however, find Steve’s perspective interesting, and not without merit. My own hope is that Whole FOods acts like a gateway drug, leading people to Easter Market, CSAs and elsewhere. And I love the idea of a Motor City food forest. There’s no reason why the people of Detroit should wait for Hantz Farm to bring big agriculture to the City. Maybe now that they hipster elite have their Robocop, they can focus on such things.

  16. Posted June 6, 2013 at 7:26 pm | Permalink

    How could raising property values in Detroit possibly be a bad thing?

    Not that I think that one store is going to save the city, but still, it’s pretty silly to have conversations about gentrification on Detroit.

    Detroit should welcome any business that moves in and employs people there and, yeah, it’s expensive, but no more expensive than buying food at a convenience store.

  17. chess punt
    Posted June 6, 2013 at 11:49 pm | Permalink

    It wasn’t that long ago we were discussing the lack of merit of a Family Dollar in Ypsi: http://markmaynard.com/2013/05/playing-chess-on-water-street-ypsi-food-co-op-takes-family-dollar-in-three-moves/#comments

    If I recall, I made reference to the very same Cherry who had touted the value of (chain) dollar stores: http://markmaynard.com/2006/05/the-battle-for-the-hearts-and-minds-of-ypsilanti/ some years earlier.

    Whole Foods chain … too upscale for Detroit?

    Family Dollar chain … too lowbrow for Ypsi?

    What would the reaction be if Whole Foods was opening in Ypsi and another dollar store opened in Detroit? Would that bring about the “collapse of western civilization?”

    When I was a Detroit homeowner, there was not a single, actual grocery store in the city limits. Take out a map. Look at the size of Detroit (then, still more than a million residents) and digest that there were no grocery stores.

    They were north of 8 mile. West of Southfield. When University Foods (Spartan store, just off WSU) opened, I was amazed. The nation’s largest food desert had a tiny oasis.

    (For those new to this discussion, the food desert monuments still remain. Fun day trip. Get a map, and drive the Detroit city border. Count the number of grocery stores on the west/north/east and count the number on the city side.)

    If people living in Detroit having access to the same foods people in Ann Arbor have access to spells the end of western civilization … well, that’s a civilization that should come to an end.

    IMHO … Cherry, like Paw Ingalls, is mostly upset that civilization is keeps invading his territory.

  18. chess punt
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 12:19 am | Permalink

    Comment from Hillary:

    Posted May 29, 2006 at 9:21 pm | Permalink
    Mark: I buy our cleaning products, office supplies, toothpaste, yarn, canning jars and lids, kitchen utensils and other housewares, and hundreds of other things at dollar stores. Dollar stores are the modern equivalent of the old five-and-dime. They are locally owned, owner-operated, and maintain a number of historic buildings in Hamtramck. Without them, I would have to drive someplace to get the things I need.
    (BTW… there is a 2800 sq ft building on Caniff just west of Small’s w/ a storefront and 2 apartments listed at $164,900.)

    Response from Mark:

    Posted May 30, 2006 at 10:28 pm | Permalink
    Dale – You’re right about imigrants.
    Dirtgrain – You’re right about Cherry Hill.
    Hillary – You’re right about dollar stores.
    You’re all getting “A”s!

  19. wobblie
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 4:10 am | Permalink

    Rex, Plum market is based in Chicago not Michigan

  20. Posted June 7, 2013 at 8:52 am | Permalink

    Maybe now that they hipster elite have their Robocop, they can focus on such things.

    Hear, hear!

    Deadline Detroit offers a quick price comparison between the new Whole Foods and several other grocery stores in the area, as well as some commentary on the “meaning” of Whole Foods opening. Some quick snips:

    the Whole Foods in Detroit wasn’t that much more expensive than Honeybee or University. … The store does serve a legitimate commercial need. That is, people like shopping there and working there and it means one less vacant lot off Mack. However, I’m dubious that it’s filling a social need. We found that you can get meat, fresh produce, packaged food and prepared foods in stores within reach of anyone shopping in Midtown. … The low-income aspect of the food desert paradigm is interesting because part of the problem, poverty, can’t be solved with more grocery stores. But people see that term and think get more grocers in Detroit is the answer. That’s really only part of the answer.

  21. site admin
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 9:15 am | Permalink

    FYI, Chess Punt, the Mark you’re quoting above isn’t the Mark that runs this site.

    Here’s a link to the whole thread:

  22. BrianB
    Posted June 7, 2013 at 9:39 am | Permalink

    We were trying to buy a house in Detroit in the late 90s and ultimately decided on ferndale precisely because we would’ve had to drive out there buy groceries anyway. Any grocery store opening in Detroit that is not primarily a liquor store/check cashing center is great, great news for the city. The processed, mini-packaged food found in liquor stores is not generally cheaper than the healthy fresh food at whole foods. And even if there is a downside to the trendy organic supply & demand fallout, whole foods does a better job of supporting local products than most major chains. I don’t think eastern market will suffer much from this. He olde butcher shop will, but their success for the past 4-5 years in this neighborhood is what drew whole foods here anyway. There are many people in Detroit who want real food options but don’t want to raise chickens & grow veggies in their own backyard or to drive out to the burbs to buy food.

  23. lees
    Posted June 8, 2013 at 11:42 pm | Permalink

    So by “bunker” you mean Facebook page?


  24. Hillary
    Posted June 10, 2013 at 4:50 pm | Permalink

    We don’t shop at chain dollar stores. I thought I was pretty clear about that. Maybe I’m sheltered, but I don’t know anyone who intentionally does their grocery shopping at a liquor store. There are grocery stores all over the city; Detroiters love to eat.

    My pantry is so full of local, sustainable food that I have no need for the products sold at Whole Foods, and I never leave Detroit for groceries. We don’t go to Eastern Market on Saturdays like we used to because it’s too crowded, but we pick up our herd-shares there on Tuesdays. I buy all of my eggs, chicken and duck, through Spirit Farm, as well as CSA shares. Sustainable, Detroit-grown vegetables are available at 6 farm markets, the roadside stand at Rising Pheasant, and Earthworks, and that’s just the East side. There are several orchards in Detroit and a paw-paw farm in Hamtramck.

    Plenty of businesses are creating jobs here without the subsidies that the Whole Foods deal received. It is located in the top neighborhood in Detroit for residential growth, particularly for health conscious medical students and professionals, and within the Wayne State police service area. They are just tagging on to the existing food movement in an area that is already successful.

  25. Mr. X
    Posted June 10, 2013 at 5:29 pm | Permalink

    No, by bunker, he meant bunker. If you knew Mr. Cherry, you’d understand.

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