Friday, September 4, 2015

The Rise of the Locavore Economy

            One of the noticeable economic developments of the last couple of years in our area has been the explosion of what I will call ’locavore goods,’ products made and sold locally usually by small and startup producers. One strand of this explosion represents a kind of local boosterism: t-shirts and bumper stickers displaying outlines of our state or slogans such as ;our state kicks ass; There are also a share of inside jokes such as the dark blue shirt with the word Y’ALL spelled out in bold white letters. Many of these strike me as the hipster equivalent of college or professional sports paraphernalia.
Another vein of this development is the emergence of various cottage industries experimenting with all kinds of different twists on everyday products. Beer is the most obvious example of this. We have at least three significant craft brewing operations now in town, each one offering its own takes on a certain genre of the larger beer market (German beers, American wheat beers, flavored beers). But we also have folks creating their own barbeques, ice creams, soaps, truffles, dog treats, sodas, and more.
            In many respects this cottage production is very attractive. People are imagining creative projects and finding opportunities to sell them. They are experimenting with and synthesizing various flavors, textures, colors, and the like and coming out with a whole range of new and intriguing things to buy. Few if any of these things will spread into markets beyond our city, but that’s not really the point of all of this. These folks are not looking for a multi-million dollar business idea. They are trying things out, experimenting, playing, creating and in the process fulfilling some of the more salutary impulses of our human condition.
            The rise of these local producers has gone hand in hand in our city with the emergence of the ’market’ as a social event. Our city has had a lively downtown farmers’ market now for at least a decade, and over time this event has become a common place for cottage producers to shop their wares. The setup costs are low – often a table, table cloth, and some samples – and a critical mass is already at hand: the people who are willing to pay a little extra to buy produce directly from local farmers are also the same people who are more likely to try locally made pasta, gourmet popcorn, or an array of salsas and beer cheeses. It is a fortuitous convergence of interests amplified by a certain level of discretionary income and the sense that buying such locavore goods has some vaguely beneficial effect on our community.
            Looking to build on this convergence, groups in other parts of the city have started organizing night markets on various weekend evenings. Offering music, local beer, and tables or booths filled with locavore goods, these markets have been very successful in drawing herds of upwardly mobile singles and young families out to browse and mingle in the fading sunlight of a warm summer evening. These markets have become a kind of see-and-be-seen event and, by bringing people into parts of the city they might otherwise have never have seen, have created a new process of micro-scale tourism within the city itself.


About this time every summer, one of the streets in our neighborhood hosts a big party. The organizers typically block off one of the streets, rent an inflatable waterslide for the kids, have the local firefighters come and show off a truck, put on a series of dog, kid, and parent footraces, and finish the evening off with a low-rent band playing underneath a makeshift tent on someone’s lawn. It is a cool, laid back scene where everyone brings a dish to share, old neighbors introduce themselves to new ones, and kids run up and down the street in packs, weaving in and out of parental knots and reveling in the freedom to jump around in the middle of the road. For several years it has been one of the highlights of our summer.
This year on the weekend that the neighborhood street party usually occurs, the development behind our neighborhood – an old warehouse area that has been recently outfitted with art studios, a yoga place, a cabinetry shop, a pottery maker, and a French bakery among other things – decided to have a night market of its own. Posters and flyers went up around the city, and people came flocking in. It seemed to be a big hit: a bluegrass band played throughout up on a temporary stage, the local ballet company gave a short performance, one of the local breweries poured beer as fast as they could, and all the shops brought out things on to the sidewalks for people to browse. I imagine the developers and shop owners were immensely pleased.
We were not. In the midst of all the market activity our neighborhood street party never happened. I don’t know if the folks who usually organize the party decided to help out with the night market instead or if the timing was just such that no other good weekend was available. Whatever it was, we kept looking out for notices about the party for the two weeks after the night market and were disappointed that nothing came along. Our locality, our community event had been run over.


            There are two things I will take away from this experience. The first is that tourism as an engine of economic growth has more costs than we often acknowledge. Walking through the night market that weekend, I found myself cast in the role of unhappy native. All of these strangers had flooded into my world to eat, drink, and shop with my neighborhood as an exotic backdrop. This was supposed to be good for us. It was supposed to be bringing in money and making our area more attractive, lifting the property values of our homes and making our lives richer. But all I could think was that this invasion was not to my liking. I’m quite happy with our neighborhood as it is (or was) and these ’improvements’ feel more like things people tell me I should want instead of things that will actually make my life better.
            The second thing I came away with is that business – whether it’s giant corporations or small-time cottage producers – has its own logic. For business, the big crowds of a night market are good. Not only does it mean there are lots of potential customers, but the noise of the music and the flow of people prevent one from stopping in the middle of things to really talk with somebody. I saw several of my neighbors that evening at the night market. If we’d been at our street party we’d have stood around in the middle of the street and talked about the world for ten minutes or an hour. I would have lost track of much that was going on around me and never felt bothered or pushed or in the way. But at the night market there was no such space for that kind of indulgence. Instead, we waved or exchanged a cursory greeting before going our separate ways. The only places to really pause were in front of the shops and tables and even then it was loud enough that a real conversation wasn’t truly possible. Instead, you wound up looking at the goods displayed around you. The night market may have been promoted as a place to come and hang out with friends and be part of a community, but its structure made it difficult to do anything but shop. 

The logic of business possesses its own values, and we should always be careful about thinking otherwise. This is especially true when it comes to locavore goods and claims about what they add to the community. It is great that the revenue they generate remains in place and furthers the development of businesses in our city. But we shouldn’t lose sight of the fact that buying and selling are not the same thing as creating community, and we must always be careful lest the former completely overwhelms the latter.

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