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Friday, April 20

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There is an accompanying photo essay which you may jump to here.

At this funeral, you can buy four boxes of Dream Whip powdered dessert topping, eight canisters of powdered scrambled eggs, five boxes of organic tapioca starch, seven bottles of sulfur plant fungicide and a dozen jars of jellied mint sauce.

Half an hour before the Hyde Park Co-op's farewell ceremony, orphaned products remain on the shelves, jumbled together without category in aisles eight and nine. A few shoppers still walk up and down these two aisles squinting at labels, picking things up and setting them down, as if they stopped in to purchase marshmallow-flavored popcorn or marinated mushrooms to complete a recipe. Two University of Chicago graduate students openly mock the selection, which they joke was not much better when the Co-op was actually open. "They didn't stock the shelves often," says Matt Friedman, 27. "I once came here looking for Cheerios. There were no Cheerios."

Today Friedman and his friend are here for the festivities, a community-organized event billed as a "New Orleans-style jazz funeral," and they have their own theories about why the Co-op was forced to close --maybe the university wanted a better store to serve its students and faculty, or maybe the store's distributor was looking to turn a bigger profit.

Everyone has opinions about what led to the demise of the Co-op, which is located on 55th Street and Lake Park Avenue and will be replaced by a Treasure Island grocery store. But everyone agrees how it began: the ideal of pure community ownership. The Co-op was formed during the Great Depression as a buyers' co-op, so that its members could save money by buying food in bulk. An economist from the University of Chicago advised the Co-op to open a retail store or shut down because their profit margin was barely covering their overhead. So in 1942, their first store opened with 100 items and three cash registers. With a strong general manager, the store rapidly expanded. It was considered a cutting-edge supermarket by the 1960s, and it had more than 25,000 members when its doors closed on Sunday.

The pieces of its failure fall together in new patterns depending on who you ask, forming a kaleidoscope of poor management, bad board decisions, the politics of its landlord -- the University of Chicago -- and a 75-year history in a diverse community.

In the late 1980s, Bill Gerstein, now a high school principal on the West Side, was running Mr. G's, a successful, family-owned grocery store in Hyde Park. In a phone call the day before the funeral, Gerstein says that the history of the Co-op's downfall is complex, as is his relationship with it, but he chalks up most of the Co-op's failure to the management chosen by the board.

Gerstein says that he was nearly appointed the successor to the retiring general manager in the late '80s, but that the deal fell through after that manager died and no contract had been solidified. In the early '90s, Gerstein pitched the idea of a store on 47th Street, in the rapidly gentrifying Kenwood neighborhood, to the Co-op's board. He thought that the Co-op could buy the store and then he could work for them and develop it. But Gerstein says that as an employee of the Co-op, he disagreed with the way the store was being run. He left his post just two years later. "The store on 47th Street never turned a profit because it was badly mismanaged," Gerstein says. After a short stint on the board, Gerstein says, "I stepped away from it and haven't set foot in it since."

On the Co-op's last day of life, shoppers repeatedly cite the store on 47th Street as a major drain on the Co-op's finances. The current general manager, Bruce Brandfon, has only been in the position for the past six months and categorizes the losses from the 47th Street store as "non-operating losses." Brandfon says, "We did what we could within these four walls. But we could not control what was beyond that."

At three o'clock, the sound of brass instruments and drums floats over the bare shelves, drawing everyone to the produce department. More than a hundred diverse shoppers -- black, white, elderly, twenty-something -- form a semi-circle around the musicians playing "Just a Closer Walk with Thee," listening and chatting, hugging and catching up, whispering opinions about the way it all went down. Then the music stops, and over the hum of the empty refrigerator cases, former board members take the floor and give the Co-op its eulogy.

"No chain store can provide for us what we did for ourselves at the Co-op." says Leon Despres, 99, a founding member and former Chicago alderman who speaks from a wheelchair. The oldest living Co-op member, he joined in December 1932. He tells the crowd about how the Co-op was the first grocery store where employees "took their thumb off the scale" -- not adding extra pennies to a customer's produce with unfair weighing practices. He describes how the store sold meat by grade, adopted fair hiring policies and became a center for community renewal. To him, the Co-op didn't deserve to die. "I don't like to call it assassination," he says. "I call it murder."

Others compared the Co-op's death to a long illness. "This thing was sick," says Nick Russo, 30, a longtime member listening to the speeches. "It got sicker and sicker, and it couldn't recover." Russo says he lives behind the Co-op, so close that he hears the refrigerator units when his windows are open in the summer.

Jessica Allender, 37, says she had to come the funeral today: "I'm here on its last day of life because I was here in my first days of life." When asked where she's from, she says she's a "Hyde Parker, not just 'originally from Hyde Park,'" and her family has been in the neighborhood for 120 years. "It was a pain in the ass," she says of the Co-op, "but it was my store."

Facets of the Hyde Park community are very close-knit, and the Co-op was, for many, not just a grocery store but a gathering place -- a concept which may seem hard to imagine in a city where most grocery stores are a get-in-and-get-out affair. But at one time, the Co-op offered a library of published play scripts, a cafe, an in-store baby-sitting service, knitting circles, book sales and cooking classes.

Geraldine Martin, 78, went to school in Hyde Park and remembers all the extras that made the Co-op unique. Even after the quality of the store started to decline in the late '80s, she says she still came every week because "these people were so unfailingly nice to me." Gwen Jones, 55, agrees -- she came to the Co-op today for mouthwash and stayed for the beginning of the funeral. "It was more like a family than a normal grocery store," she says.

And then the processional begins: starting in aisle three where the spaghetti sauce and Kosher foods used to be and ambling up and down the aisles, the musicians and mourners take a final, unified stroll. The parade continues past the organic tapioca starch and powdered scrambled eggs and Dream Whip. And when it's all done, there are tears and hugs.

Near the sliding glass exit doors stands Virginia Tatum, 71, a lifelong Hyde Parker. She listens to a man playing a slow, sad song on the fiddle and then tells him how she taught herself to play ten chords on the electric guitar she got this past Christmas. When she reminisces about the Co-op, she makes it sound like a friend who never quite got his life together but was always great to have around. "Oh, it was pretty bad," she says. "There was poor management, bad service, and the prices were way out of line. But I still came here. In spite of its shortcomings, it was a wonderful experience." She pauses and listens for a moment to the fiddle's simple Irish tune. "I guess times have to change, don't they?"

Click here to view the photo essay and hear the march begin »

 

About the Author(s)

Lindsay Muscato is a Gapers Block staffer who escaped from a toaster fire in Buffalo, NY at the age of four. She now lives in a slanty shanty in Andersonville, has written and performed with Around the Coyote and 2nd Story, and she's the managing director of The Neo-Futurists. Read her scribblings at lindsayliveshere.org.

David Schalliol is Managing Editor of Gapers Block and a graduate student in sociology at the University of Chicago. Visit his website, metroblossom, and that flickr place for more information about his projects or to inquire about purchasing prints.

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