Thursday, March 12, 2009

Aldi Syndrome: The Mixed-Income Conundrum

It's not often that one gets to comment on mixed-income neighborhoods and the future of journalism in the same breath, but this is one of those days so I'm taking advantage of it.

One of the final editions of the News-Star newspaper came through my Rogers Park mail slot today and I got a big kick out of the story about the Aldi grocery chain trying to "sneak one of its stores" into a new development in Edgewater. It seems that some neighbors and 49th Ward Ald. Joe Moore would prefer something more upscale.

I laughed out loud because the same scenario has played out in West Haven, where the Near West Side Community Development Corp. has taken heat for trying to bring Aldi into the planned shopping center at Madison and Western. Some vocal neighbors there would prefer a Whole Foods, but even in well-off neighborhoods that store is known as "Whole Paycheck" because of its high prices. In Edgewater, the preferred alternative was Trader Joes, but the developer just couldn't swing that deal.

News-Star knows a good editorial topic when it falls into its lap.

In an editorial titled "Give Aldi's a chance," the editors wrote that "Our lakefront neighborhoods are changing, and with these changes come a delicate balancing act. Residents often cite racial and socioeconomic diversity as what they love most about living in Rogers Park, Edgewater and Uptown. . . . So let's stop being snobs and paying lip service to economic diversity, and give Aldi's a chance to thrive in Edgewater."

Now that's good journalism: first the story, which provided well-reported, timely information about the community; then the editorial, which offered a reasoned analysis about the tradeoffs that come with diversity.

The pity of it is that the News-Star won't be the same after March 19. Its most recent owner, Chicago Journal, is laying off its staff and selling the name to Inside Publications, which will fold it into its free paper serving Lincoln Square. That means the already-meager flow of news about neighborhoods will be reduced even further.

The only bright side is that there's plenty of room for new approaches to collecting and distributing news, and we'll keep doing our share with this blog and tools like the Chicago Neighborhood News Bureau.


Hugh said...

Great post - I know I'll miss the News-Star reporting on Uptown. Sadly the bloggers covering the neighborhood most closely do so with a nasty tone towards lower income people.

I posted this story on - more people should be having sensible conversations about issues like this in their neighborhood.

Aaron said...

I love that the News Star called it "Aldi's". Obviously they have real Chicagoans writing for them!

Most of the snobs who diss Aldi have never shopped there. Where can you get lean ground turkey breast and dill havarti for 40% less than anywhere else?

yo said...

From my experience, that nasty tone is not directed at lower income people. In fact, much of the antagonism I have seen is directed at how the lower income people are constantly being taken advantage of for political purposes; and the frustration resulting from that.

While I am sure there are some who detest the poor, I'm equally assured that sentiment is reversible, to include "elected" officials who consistently ignore the wants and needs of the folks who are paying most of the taxes, and simply want to reduce crime and work towards a collectively livable environment.

IE - the Aldi's on Broadway was supposed to have a street facing entrance, not the back of the alley entryway that was eventually built.

Aldi's hasn't been attacked, but the difference in what was promised to what was delivered has been, on the grounds of safety.

While I hear a lot of "evil condo owners" being described as "bad apples" I have yet to see a neighborhood blog on the north side equate the poor to evil.

So, either I'm way off base, or you need to back up your statement.

Hugh said...

I never said condo owners are evil. Many are engaged and caring people, I'm sure.

I do agree that our Alderman exploits low-income people politically and is not responsive to the changing community. I don't agree with the Wicked Witch of the West way people talk about her - as if she is the source of all woe in the area and if we just got rid of her, everything would be cool. There are larger systemic forces at work that should be discussed in a rational way.

I value Uptown Update's reporting, as you can't get updates about the neighborhood anywhere else. But the rigid positions they take on issues like the Labor Ready saga, the sometimes flippant attitude taken reporting on murders or homeless situations in the area ("Saturday Night's Alright for Knifin'"?!), and the at times racially charged commentary (criticizing the sale of hip-hop style clothing at local stores) really undermines any solidarity or sympathy the bloggers might very well feel for their low income neighbors.

I feel that Uptown Update has so much potential to be a uniting place - where people who care about the neighborhood as much as they do can have real, contextual conversations about what we want our neighborhood to be. Instead, whenever bad or controversial news is reported, it turns into an anonymous echo chamber of the fears and tensions of one segment of the larger community.

Which then goes back to the original point - why should bloggers do or say anything other than what they feel like doing or saying? They don't get paid for this. Bloggers (and commenters in threads) are amateurs - professional journalists have more time and resources to get into the weeds on this stuff and provide more reportage and context on the big issues. The loss of professional local coverage is bad for a neighborhood. Bloggers do what they do, for good and/or bad, but it will never replace a Lorraine Swanson.

Frank said...

well said Hugh. I've got the same feelings about Uptown Update, and will also miss good journalism about the far north side.

Anonymous said...

Wow, that's really interesting. I have to admit that as a condo owner (not an evil one, I swear) I wouldn't have been too happy about an Aldi being built in my neighborhood prior to reading this. (Even though i regularly go to Uptown to shop there.)

But now I feel properly shamed for thinking that way.

The idea of gentrification is a tricky subject and something I have an ongoing internal struggle with.

Hugh said...

A lot of people struggle with feelings around gentrification, and I feel that's okay. There are a lot of tricky problems with no obvious answers. I think trying our best to be humble, thoughtful, and open about these issues is much more helpful than blaming and shrieking sound bites and slogans, which often happens in our conversations about it.

yo said...

I did not mean to imply that you said condo owners were evil. My apologies if I came across that way.

I do agree with you on the point that larger systemic forces are at work and should be discussed in a rational way; however, I think one area where you and I disagree is on style.

I will not argue that Uptown Update isn't dripping with snark; but, is that a bad thing?

The "Saturday Night's Alright for Knifin'" post had a snarky headline, sure; but the rest of the post was pulled straight from the Sun Times.

No one applauded the violence.

No one ridiculed the men for being in an SRO.

No one picked on the poor.

If anything (as I cannot speak for UU), the main point was to highlight what Alderman Shiller continually ignores - that being that her actions may very be making Uptown a less safe place.

The posts regarding murders do the same: highlight the fact that Alderman Shiller may very well be failing in fostering a safe neighborhood for all socio-economic stations.

Similar to the Labor Ready issue.

Day labor was a part of the argument, but the bigger argument was the crafty and truth-challenged tactic Alderman Shiller took in obtaining a zoning variance.

The anger resulting from that was targeted specifically on the proximity of the proposed location to places where poor and not-poor children congregate.

Blogs are blogs. Not journalistic institutions.

Nor should they be treated as such.

Many, if not all, are clearing houses for ideas and in a lot of cases, forums for the venting of frustrations.

In this case, the frustrations of people who are emotionally, and sometimes physically, injured by the inattentiveness of the person elected to serve them.

We can discuss the good/bad points of Alderman Shiller until the cows come home, but the indisputable fact remains that she has turned into a reclusive entity who plays fast and lose with the power vested in her office to better the lives of some at the literal and figurative expense of others.

That makes people angry.

And they should be allowed to vent.

Uptown Update provides people who feel disenfranchised from (yet still on the hook to pay the tab for) the political structure of the 46th ward.

Additionally, Uptown Update has provided many useful posts regarding ways inwhich its readers can get involved in charitable causes.

Personally, I've increased my charitable contributions simply because I know where to target my money - due to UU.

You mention that UU could be so much more (agreed), yet, have you participated in the conversations?

Opposing viewpoints will be challenged, and often times strongly so; but, from my experience those who are contributing a differing viewpoint have some connection to the alderman.

There have been instances where (for lack of a better term) an "average joe" pipes in and is listened to.

That's when UU is at its best; however, I've noticed a lot of people who criticize UU rarely contribute.

You're dead on correct stating that humility, thoughtfulness and openness are the keys to generating better discussion; however, for as much as your criticism may stick regarding the blaming and shrieking, all sides of any argument would be well served following that example.

And, let's not overlook the fact that posts by UU have inspired media coverage from News Star and Medill.

Hugh said...

Yo, we probably agree more than we disagree. I do not support the Alderman and I am not connected at all to her and I am not by any means defending her. I feel the concentration of violence and homelessness in the area is shameful, dangerous, and unpleasant to everyone, and that things need to change, as I'm sure you also agree. I also agree that UU's isn't a journalistic institution.

We disagree about what a helpful tone is for conversing about the neighborhood is. I think we probably won't come to an agreement on that in this comment thread today.

Also, I have participated in conversations on UU in the past and was frustrated at the lack of meaningful conversation - the threads in my experience can be openly hostile to low income and minority people, rather than just tone-deaf.

yo said...


I'm with ya' in spirit, if not in tone. I'm going to go ahead and consider any disagreements that we may have to be respectful disagreements.

Me? I'm a smart-ass by trade; but, that certainly doesn't mean I assume to know everything -- just almost everything ;)

Still, it'd be nice to see your input on UU more. Based on the small bit I've seen, you've got the kind of perspective that could lead to some interesting conversations.

I'd only hope that you'd give some consideration insofar as what you view as openly hostile may not actually be such (not to say that it isn't, just consider it).

In return, I'll keep your perspective in mind when I contribute and see if I can't come to understanding your angles a little better.

It's not a solution, but it's a start, right?

Patrick Barry said...

Wonderful comments, people, thanks much. Me, I shopped at an Aldi for two or three years when I could squeeze in the trip while our daughter was down the street at the park district. Limited selection, yes, but great prices on produce, milk, cheese.

In the spirit of the balanced discussion, I'll acknowledge that my wife and I are rooting for a Trader Joes. We would have shopped at Broadway and Granville but it would be even better three blocks north at that new Loyola development, the Morgan, on Sheridan at the Red Line. Trader Joes would be a nice complement to Devon Market, which is a very fine grocery with excellent prices and selection.

Better than Trader Joes or Aldi.

Joel Bookman said...

Patrick, you sure struck a nerve with this one. There are a bunch of different issues here.

Several years ago, I helped bring an Aldi's to Pulaski Road in Albany Park, so we would have some good, low-cost choices to compete with Dominick's. At the time, their reputation was one of running sloppy stores. Their management was very difficult to deal with, and certainly not community-friendly -- a very bad image.

They promised better, and showed us some examples and plans. We signed an agreement with them; everything from store hours to lighting to signage to parking lot maintenance, and they have lived up to it ever since. Yet, I still hear stories in other neighborhoods of a lack of responsiveness.

And, on the other subject, I am saddened to hear about the demise of the News-Star. Even though they gave up on Albany Park a year ago, they were the last of what I fear is a dying breed. I mourn the days of the old Lerner Newspapers with top-flight, thorough neighborhood news, that I waited for each week and devoured immediately.

Blogs and e-news are great, but we have lost something important.

When Lerner covered a story and wrote an editorial endorsing a position or activity of the North River Commission in those days, we got a tremendous boost -- organizationally, politically, and spiritually. When they criticized us, we were angry -- but it caused us to think, re-assess, strategize, and work even harder. Now, we don't have that "authority" to report, praise, or criticize. It is a real loss.

Patrick Barry said...

Thanks, Joel. That Aldi on Pulaski was the one I shopped at, while the kid was doing gymnastics at the North Park Village gym.

I think Edgewater residents might find the new store useful in the same way: a place to grab a few items on the way home from work or classes at Loyola.

Ed Finkel said...

I remember well the eruption of controversy over the Aldi in West Haven at the first New Communities Program quality-of-life meeting in August 2007 -- and I probably will if I live to be 110.

Particularly vivid is the memory of the yupster who charged that the staff of Near West CDC "kind of half-assed it" when they focused on Aldi rather than another less discount-y chain. There was almost an, "I live here now, so there damn sight oughta be a Jewel or Dominicks" type of attitude.

As they explained, they tried, but no one else could make their numbers work ... and besides, as a long-time resident of the neighborhood noted, "I know a lot of people who shop at Aldi now," but have to drive (or, in many cases, take the bus) 3-4 miles to the nearest one.

Hopefully, Jewel or Dominick's will see there's money to be made at some point in the not-too-distant future ... assuming it's what a quorum of people in West Haven want.

Hugh said...

Trader Joe's is totally awesome. Everyone should go. Aldi is also pretty cool, though I must admit I've shopped at the one in my college town much more often than the local Aldis (plural, not possesive). I think any community would benefit from either.

Jim Capraro said...

Now if I remember correctly Aldi's & Trader Joe's are both owned by the same German company. Actually when you think about it the store size and some of the layout/format is the same -- the difference is price points & markets served

oldsmokey2 said...

i really don't understand the hostility that I've seen expressed about Aldi in Uptown and now in Edgewater and Rogers Park. I love the new Aldi in Uptown and buy the majority of my groceries there. It's clean, it IS well-lit, it has quality products, including fresh produce and meats, and, best of all, it's 30 to 50 percent cheaper than other supermarkets in this area.
I wonder if people wouldn't complain just as loudly if shoppers who drive had to walk halfway around the store to get to the entrance. Is it that unusual for a store entrance to be close to the parking lot? The store looks nice, much nicer than the old one anyway.