When Panera Cares, a café that would operate on a pay-what-you-can basis, opened in Lakeview a few months ago, it was hailed as a novel and creative experiment. The fourth such location nation-wide, Panera CEO Robert Shaich reports that the experiment seems to be working. About 20% of the customers pay above the suggested donation while another 20% pay less. In the end, the locations break even while responding to crises of food deserts and the normative, institutionalized models of soup kitchens and service provision meant to bandage them. But now, report CBS Local and the Huffington Post, Panera is coming under fire, but for all the wrong reasons.
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Lakeview residents, whose properties valued, on average, $300,100 in August 2012 according to Zillow.com, have criticized Panera for creating problems in the neighborhood, citing a rise in crime and linking that rise to the clientele Panera attracts by serving food on a pay-what-you can basis. Apparently some residents have complained to Ald. Tom Tunney and held a meeting with the Chicago Police Department (who say it’s impossible to establish a causal relationship between Panera Cares opening and a rise in Lakeview crime).
These issues aren’t new to anyone who watches Lakeview. Less than a mile north of Panera, Boystown has been a locus of such rhetoric as well. After the “Take Back Boystown” campaign began in 2011 (see In Our Words and the Chicago Reader articles), this summer, the North Halstead Business Alliance made a bold and criticized move when they hired a uniformed police force to patrol the streets at night. Of course, all of these maneuvers have signaled to many activists and observers the extent to which racism, classism, and transphobia are deeply-engrained in the Boystown community, but this is nothing new. Even in 2003 DePaul University professor and geographer, Heidi Nast included an analysis of Boystown in her widely cited article “Queer Racism, Queer Patriarchies International” (published in Antipode). She discussed Boystown as a locus of gay white ascendency built on hierarchies of patriarchy, classism, and racism. Examining the rhetoric coming from Lakeview residents about the Panera shows a similar kind of narrative.
Longtime Lakeview resident Sally Figuolo, according to CBS Local’s reportage (linked above), “feels unsafe:”
“‘It’s just kind of scary,’ she said. ‘A crowd of guys won’t let you through a sidewalk. That’s invasive.'”
While I’m sorry that Ms. Figuolo “feels unsafe,” I think that this rhetoric of “feeling safe” needs to be more closely scrutinized. After all, different things make different people feel safe or unsafe. For some, a military or police presence is a sign of security, property protection, and safety while for others it presents a threatening potential for harassment, incursions, delay, profiling, and abuse. For many, it even invokes memories of such. I wonder, if the ability to walk undeterred down a sidewalk is an important metric of safety for Figuolo, if she’s ever taken a stroll through Wrigleyville right after a Cubs game or on a weekend, say around 11:00. Having referred to this time and place before as comparable to one of the outer circles of hell for it’s drunken over-crowding, I’d have to think this experience would be nothing less than horrifying for CBS’ interviewee. But I don’t think that’s what’s going on…
As the third most segregated city in the U.S., race and class in Chicago are deeply interconnected — this is true everywhere, but Chicago seems to be a particular locus of segregation, income disparities, distribution of violence, and disparities in state policing. After race couldn’t be written into property deeds (post-Shelley v. Kraemer) and the Civil Rights Movement(s), racial segregation was institutionally maintained and enforced nationwide through disparities in home loan distribution and, in Chicago through racialized “steering“.
The complaints of some upper-class white Lakeview residents and Figuolo’s feeling of unsafety seems to be more about her feeling unsafe around certain kinds of people — poor people and African Americans. When CBS’ article cites trash piling up in a spot on the street or the business that recently put up a gate, they clearly communicate the kinds of clientele Panera is attracting, and insinuate the problem without ever having to mention race explicitly. Race is signified without being mentioned. It’s clear that readers get the message from a quick glance at the comments section where readers made racist and classist comments like, “Wonder if they look like they could be Obama’s sons.” or “Put a birdfeeder on your house and you’ll be covered in s**t.” Similarly, a commenter (on a report on someone’s iPad being stolen from Caribu yesterday) said, “What’s with all these Trayvons and their hoodies?” While I hesitate to reproduce these blatantly racist comments here, they express how clearly race and stereotypes can be communicated through class. The absence of race in some of these articles successfully communicates the “problem” to the audience.
Finally, while the article and the discourse it contributes to posits Lakeview as some apparent hotbed of violence, this seems a difficult claim at a time when Chicago has just reported 400 murders this year and only 3 have been in Lakeview (all of them north of Newport — about a mile north). In doing so, it privileges white, upper-class narratives of violence while displacing the extreme, everyday violence unfolding elsewhere in Chicago. While any violence should be considered too much, I doubt that Lakeview residents will be willing to work in city-wide coalitions and organizations to work on building safer communities. This narrative needs to be read as Lakeview residents wanting to keep away those they consider undesirable and, thus, keep their property values among some of the highest in the city.
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In a talk, given by Panera CEO Ron Shaich at a conference called “Conscious Capitalism”, the executive outlines how Panera has managed to see extreme growth throughout the recession by focusing on its long-term mission and community investment (short-term gains be damned!). The executive described a planning process wherein Panera tried to observe what the American consumer public wanted and come up with a plan that reflected those desires. The plan is, in some ways, a brilliant business model.
Panera would serve “real food,” appeal to “feminine” sensibilities (Shaich said Panera serves “chick food” and has a lot of lesbians working for it), create an environment of dining that included relationships of respect, and be invested in the communities in which cafés operated. Interestingly, Shaich described Panera playing it conservative during the time of rapid expansion that preceded the 2008 recession because Panera executives knew that kind of growth wouldn’t be sustainable. Instead, Panera focused on the time of the recession itself for growth, and they’ve seen huge gains and expansion throughout the recession. The executive even went so far as to raise a critique of other business leaders and executives as being complicit in the kinds of behavior that led to economic crisis and emphasized the problems of an extremely polarized and absurdly ineffective political climate. Finally, he described the Panera Cares, pay-what-you-can cafés as proceeding from a sense that writing checks wasn’t enough and the soup kitchens were a place of negative energy.
I, and many others, were originally interested in the Panera Cares project. While I’ve been critical of models of “compassionate capitalism” before (as I am of Google’s new international LGBT rights campaign), some aspects of Panera’s plan represented something I couldn’t not want. In creating a space where people from the community could come together without purchasing power as a condition for entry, and in his critique of dominant models of service provision and economic processes, Panera Cares seemed like a great response. After learning about the recent rhetoric coming out of Lakeview, I am no longer convinced.
While I’m hesitant to share personal experiences, the Panera Cares story was deeply resonant with me for a particular reason. I lived and worked in a community in Boston (the South End), in some ways perhaps not so different from Lakeview. The neighborhood had undergone rapid gentrification since the 80’s and became an extremely upper-class predominantly white neighborhood. A significant amount of government subsidized housing and affordable SROs (single resident occupancy) were scattered throughout this largely upper class neighborhood. Very few people had managed to hold on to their properties, but a few remained. By the time I got there, in 2007-2008 many of the gayz and “artists” (does this ever really mean artists?) had been pushed out by white middle to upper-middle class families (or become white middle to upper-middle class families!). In the midst of this, I lived and worked in a soup kitchen where we welcomed and worked alongside volunteers and guests (many of whom lived on the street or were elderly people living in subsidized housing).
Engagement with the neighbors was a fairly regular process, but we tried to have structures to deal with it. If a neighbor wanted to complain about a guest or vice-versa, it was ideal to have some kind of interaction and mediation if at all possible. We held community meetings (mostly attended by our volunteers and guests) to discuss problems in the soup kitchens and to find out how we could work together more effectively. We tried to use concepts of restorative justice to respond to violence, and we also attempted to get guests and neighbors to connect. The soup kitchen was a small café -like space. I remember times when passersby would stop in on their way to work thinking it was just some a normal café. Trying to engage in this way was a process that called all of us — volunteers, community members, guests, and neighbors out of ourselves. Some even chose to disengage. While all of the steps we tried to take weren’t successful and we didn’t have a perfect model, we did have one that provided some structures for people to work through differences, interact with one another, and work through our issues together.
What bothers me about Panera’s project, after reading the recent stories, is that it doesn’t provide these structures. While it sells a trendy image built on personalism and appealing to consumer-citizens perhaps widespread critiques of systemic issues (like capitalist economy), it doesn’t provide a way for people people to actually work on these issues. Panera offers a comfortable critique. Consumers can buy personalism without having practice it. (That critique has, by the way, given Panera wide, laudatory press coverage.) While Panera might be an interesting tactical move, let’s not kid ourselves into thinking it’s a radical challenge. What the Panera project seems to give us in the end are separate groups of people — paying customers happy because they supported a “good cause” (thus, perhaps, checking it off their to-do lists); paying-less/non-paying customers who have a place to eat, relax, use the bathroom, etc. (and this is important); and Lakeview residents who are — per usual — pissed. While I hope the classist and racist outcries from the latter group are ignored, fall on deaf ears, or are, if it becomes necessary, confronted, I also hope this saga also presents us with an opportunity to think and practice the personalist critiques of society and economy that Panera sells.
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Note: The article refers in the first paragraph to ‘food deserts’. While Panera CEO Ron Shaich has said that Panera Cares was formed, in part, to respond to the crisis of ‘food deserts’, Alex CG (on the In Our Words re-post) rightly points out that none of the four existing Panera Cares locations are actually located in an area considered a ‘food desert’. Mia Amélie also points out that ‘food deserts’ is a contested term that ignores the sharing of food, circulation of people, etc. These comments are resonant with the author.
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Image Credit (for header): Michael Wolf, Night # 7, Skyscraper: Art and Architecture Against Gravity, Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago