I haven’t yet figured out how to synthesize Rob Walker’s column about the drug-store chain Walgreens starting to sell fruits and vegetables in neighborhoods neglected by traditional grocers and produce sellers and my somewhat mind-blowing experience at the brand-new Duane Reade (a NYC drug-store chain) in the hipster haven of Williamsburg, Brooklyn. Neighborhood activists have encouraged a boycott (on Facebook at least) of this particular Duane Reade location because it apparently represents the wrong sort of gentrification and is uncooling the area with its non-mom-and-pop-ness. It sits across from another local pharmacy that has served the neighborhood since before it was colonized by 20-somethings and is therefore acceptably authentic.
To counter the bad vibes, Duane Reade apparently did some market research and concluded the way to win over locals was to hide the pharmacy in a remote corner and stock the store with a beer counter where one can have growlers filled; a huge walk-in beverage cooler that features, as it says above the entrance, “retro brands”; haute niche brands in both the food and makeup departments—Ronnybrook Farms, Skyr Icelandic yogurt, Demeter fragrances (including Paperback, Dirt and Riding Crop)—in the immense and gleaming K-mart-size basement-retail floor with luxuriously wide aisles. We can’t give you mom-and-pop authenticity, the store seemed to be saying, but we can collect more of your lifestyle accouterments in one store than you ever dreamed was possible. People were audibly cooing and gasping in delighted surprise as they wandered around and saw just how much Duane Reade was willing to pander to them.
It’s at this point that I want to draw some righteous parallel between poor neighborhoods and crypto-bohemian ones, between the food desert on the one hand and the desert of the real on the other. Whereas the Williamsburgers apparently want to see their warped integrity reflected in their neighborhood retailers, the people in food deserts see only society’s general intention to ignore them until they disappear. The oversaturation of symbols and the esoteric plane on which the lifestyle war is being fought in the one neighborhood reflects the dearth of social resources in the other, the misplaced energies of a social order seeking profit opportunities and thus reinforcing hyperindividualism among the privileged.