I remember when the first natural-foods
supermarket opened near my childhood home. It was called Fresh
Fields and within a few years would be acquired by Austin-based
Whole Foods Market, Inc. For us square East Coasters, this was a
strange trip. Goodbye Wonder Bread and Ovaltine. Hello focaccia
with caramelized onions and Ghirardelli hot chocolate.

Zac Peskowitz

On a lark, I recently went to Ann Arbor’s mega-Whole Foods
on Washtenaw Avenue. The genre has upgraded itself in the interim.
At the neighborhood store back home, the magazine racks overflowed
with ditzy magazines promising valuable fashion tips. How gauche.
Ann Arbor’s Whole Foods sports Mother Jones and Utne
magazine. Behind the marble customer service counter you not only
find beaming associates who are happy to help you navigate through
the massive store, you also have Whole Foods’s latest stock
quote, with NASDAQ ticker symbol WFMI, which closed at 73.98 for
modest gains on Friday.

These strange juxtapositions aren’t the secret to Whole
Foods’s success, the aesthetics are. The store is a marvel of
lighting, with an intricate array of fixtures beating down their
light to accentuate the warm displays. The produce section
effortlessly spills out toward the floral section, obligating
customers to stroll about the store aimlessly. Whole Foods’s
design team has engineered the environment so that you actually
feel guilty if you refrain from buying, as if you are neglecting
your civic responsibility. That organic, granola, hippy-dippy
supermarket of my youth was nothing more than a grocery store
souped up with a vitamin aisle. At the Ann Arbor Whole Foods there
is no mere vitamin aisle — there is a vitamin honey comb,
swarming with innumerable patented medicines promising a life free
of stress and filled with vitality. These are some of the most
powerful advances in consumer psychology since Gustavus Swift
realized he could get Americans to buy all sorts of horrid cow
parts if he packaged them in appealing shapes and invitingly
displayed them at the front of a butcher shop. Whole Foods has not
only built a buying machine, it has built a way of life. The
contented shoppers noshing on kalamata loafs and Yemeni mocha in
the café area, the macrobiotic cooking lessons and the
lectures on living a healthy lifestyle give the sprawling store the
look and feel of a self-contained polis. Jane Jacobs comes to the
strip mall.

In fact, the lessons of Whole Foods and the other companies that
have made a killing by selling design as the centerpiece of a
holistic consumption experience are being applied to cities. Gov.
Jennifer Granholm has turned to the ideas of Richard Florida, a
public policy professor at Carnegie Mellon University, to restore
Michigan to long-term economic vibrancy. Florida’s popular
2002 book “The Rise of the Creative Class” has a broad
scope; everything from regional industrial organization to the
cultural repercussions of the 1960s is grounds for discussion. One
aspect of the book in particular has caught Granholm’s fancy:
urban economic revitalization. Florida is an enthusiastic supporter
of government-private sector cooperation to improve the local music
scene and create “third places” where people can
congregate between work and home. At its best, this is a promising
model for constructive civic participation and innovation. At its
worst, it is recipe for the worship of celebrity, buzz and physical
beauty where the more pedestrian concerns of the poor and the
unemployed are forgotten. This seems to be the pattern in New York,
where a high-flying financial sector has initiated a revival of
eating out, catered parties and the high-end housing market. The
Washington Post’s Michael Powell had a fascinating dispatch
from New York in yesterday’s paper that chronicles the plight
of Gotham’s working poor during this supposedly buoyant time.
Gauging economic health by the concentration of the young, the rich
and the fabulously educated and supporting the creative
class’s tendency toward narcissistic self-importance in the
process can only exacerbate this trend.

Florida, to his credit, recognizes these nettlesome
contradictions. “Affluent Creative Class people who move into
racially, ethnically or economically diverse neighborhoods cannot
simply assume that their presence automatically
‘revitalizes’ these places. For many Working Class and
Service Class residents, it doesn’t. Instead, all it usually
does is raise their rents and perhaps create more low-end service
jobs for waiters, housecleaners and the like.” Florida offers
a few half-baked solutions, but, on the whole, his book offers a
grim picture. Mickey Kaus writes in his wonderful book “The
End of Equality,” “What was striking about the American
1980s … was not that people with money affected superiority.
People with money will eventually make that attempt. The question
is whether these affectations are rejected or affirmed by the
larger society.” There is no need to reaffirm those pretenses
of greatness.

Peskowitz can be reached at

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