I read the news that a second Pete’s Fresh Market is coming, this time to Madison Street in Oak Park, and began humming Billie Holiday’s “God Bless the Child.”
“Them that’s got shall have, them that’s not shall lose” and the “strong gets more” and the “weak ones fade” while “empty pockets don’t ever make the grade.”
Billie lyrically condensed what the sociologists have since coined the “Matthew principle,” so named after the book of the Bible where we find Jesus’ parable of the talents: “For to every one who has will more be given, and he will have abundance; but from him who has not, even what he has will be taken away.” (Matthew 25:29)
Last week, I shared the Wednesday Journal article about the new Pete’s to the Facebook page of Village Free Press, the newspaper I publish in Maywood, where I live, and home to precisely zero full-service grocery stores most residents here are comfortable shopping in (I must acknowledge places like One Stop Express and Maywood Food Center, but Google Earth those places and ask yourselves if you’d be comfortable relying on them for your groceries).
“Any news when Maywood will get a supermarket? Asking for a friend,” wrote one person in a comment that garnered the most reactions (40 ‘like’ and ‘laugh’ emoji as of Sunday night).
A few days later, I posted a short article I’d published announcing the development of a third Shark’s Fish & Chicken in Maywood (already home to a Popeye’s and a Church’s Chicken and two other Shark’s Fish & Chickens and numerous other independently owned fried chicken establishments).
“When are we getting a grocery store?” someone, predictably, wrote in the comments under that article’s Facebook posting.
What explains fresh food deserts like Maywood and Austin, and food oases like Oak Park and River Forest? And why do businesses — from grocery stores to car dealerships to liquor stores to fried chicken joints — seem magnetically attracted to their competitors?
There are a range of explanations I came across while Googling and I invite you to Google terms like “Hotelling’s Model of Spatial Competition” and “Nash Equilibrium.”
John Jennings, president and chief strategist of the St. Louis Trust Company, a wealth management firm, provides a decent summary of Hotelling’s Model on his “The Interesting Fact of the Day” blog (theifod.com).
In short, capital tends to cluster around capital, money begets money, sales beget sales.
“Businesses want to locate themselves near the center of their potential customer population to attract the greatest amount of customers,” Jennings writes.
And Big Business, in particular, intuitively understands what used to be the mantra of Big Labor (i.e., us little folk) when labor was still an organized force that Big Business had to reckon with — we’re more than the sum of our parts.
A Trader Joe’s wants to be near a Whole Foods. A Pete’s Fresh Market wants to be near a Jewel. When these stores compete within close proximity to each other, the sales volume is bigger for each competitor than if that individual competitor was competing in isolation.
We see the same dynamic with people. Talent, too, tends to cluster around talent. If I’m seriously into software, I go around other people into software. If I’m a musician, I want to be around other musicians. If I’m a comedian, I’m attracted to other comedians.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with this reality. Indeed, great cities are the results of the tendency of talent and capital to cluster around each other.
Clustering becomes problematic, however, when it becomes the only energy the market acknowledges and values. You’re either a superstar living among superstars, a winner living among winners or you’re nobody isolated with other nobodies. The gap between the haves and have-nots is widening and that’s apparent when we look at where fresh food is and where it isn’t.
In the last five years, for instance, I’ve reported on the closing of not one, not two, but three major grocery retailers in the Maywood/Melrose Park/Hillside/Bellwood/Broadview area. During the same time period (in the last two years to be more precise), I’ve reported on the opening of not one, but two Amazon distribution centers in this same geographic area.
Mind you, these are last mile distribution centers, so Amazon, I’d assume, would prefer the low-paid wage workers it exploits to live fairly close to these centers (particularly if turnover is high).
But where is the area’s first Amazon Fresh grocery store opening? Our sister paper, the Riverside-Brookfield Landmark, reports that it will be in the Berwyn/Riverside/Brookfield area, home to an ever-expanding and ever-diversifying pool of knowledge workers and/or well-paid government employees (i.e., not wage workers at Amazon distribution centers).
What’s the popular go-getter’s mantra? Stay hungry?
This is a sick setup and it comes at the expense of ignoring people and places as they are and not what they aspire to be in order to compete in an economy that’s rigged against them anyway.
What happens to those people who don’t move to New York City or Silicon Valley? Who don’t have college degrees or white-collar jobs? What if I live in Maywood or Austin and don’t have a car to drive into Oak Park or River Forest to shop? What if I’m a bus driver or a grocery store clerk or a painter and can’t afford to live in a food oasis? What if (gasp) I can afford to move somewhere else, but I actually prefer to live in Maywood or Austin or Nowhere, USA?
Winner-take-all economies, such as the one we’re living in now, not only tend to ignore those who don’t “win” in the market, but they also tend to frame winning the wrong way. How many more Jeff Bezoses and Peter Thiels and Mark Zuckerbergs and R-Kellys and Jeffrey Epsteins and Harvey Weinsteins and Donald Trumps and Bill Cosbys do we need to endure to understand that, to a not insignificant degree, to be really successful in our society is to be deeply f— up?
And I’m not saying that the average middle-class or upper-middle-class professional is as f— up as your typical mega-millionaire or billionaire. But I can say with confidence that your average middle-class or upper-middle-class professional administers and facilitates the world that these f— up men make.
What does it say about our society that our proximity to, and ability to purchase, fresh food depends, in large part, on our marketability, our success in navigating our way through a world that is layered with social pathologies atop social pathologies, like an M.C. Escher fantasy?
Much has been made of the Matthew principle. Actually, I learned about the principle from reading Malcolm Gladwell; however, I tend to gravitate toward a different principle, premised on the scripture in Matthew 25:40.
“Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”
Unfortunately, if Jesus were alive nowadays, he’d starve.