The Market Basket Case

If you don’t live in New England, you undoubtedly missed out on the story of the summer for regional news outlets: the Market Basket saga of 2014. Whether “Greek tragedy” or “war of attrition” is overblown to describe the corporate troubles of a regional supermarket chain depends on your perspective. It’s a great story to make fun of, but it also offers some takeaways that people in other regions might find interesting but would have no reason to know about.

Market Basket is a cheap regional grocery store with some fanatic devotees. For many years the chain has been owned by the Demoulas family, which has struggled behind (and in front of) the scenes to wrestle control of the store from one another. The antagonists in this particular saga are cousins Arthur T. Demoulas and Arthur S. Demoulas, AKA Artie T. and Artie S (for full comic and dramatic effect one should read this in a Boston accent, IE, AH-tee).

Artie T. was pushed out by his cousin in June from his role as CEO of the stores. During his time as CEO, Artie T. had built up a substantial following for his penchant for personal relationships with employees (remembering names, attending birthdays or funerals) and more generous benefits, wages, and opportunities for advancement than other supermarkets.

The Arthurs. Can you guess which one is cast in the role of folk hero, and which is conniving corporate exec? Source:
The Arthurs. Can you guess which one is the folk hero, and which is conniving corporate exec?

Soon after the news of Artie T.’s firing broke, truck suppliers struck, Market Basket workers took up protests outside their workplaces, and supporters of all stripes enforced a customer boycott of Market Basket stores. The media picked up on the story enthusiastically during a slow news summer and a lackluster Governor’s campaign, playing out each testy meeting of the Demoulas family and reporting the newest reports of lost earnings like juicy celebrity gossip. After about 6 weeks of protests, the Arties agreed on a sale allowing T. to come back as CEO, buying the company from the rival faction.

Source: Portland Press-Herald
Source: Portland Press-Herald

Unless you just love the bizarre drama of the story (I can pretend to be above it, but there’s some pretty good lore – like apparent fistfights, switched allegiances, and surveillance wires) it has a couple interesting takeaways.

The first is the role of personality and likeability in corporate governance. There have been debates about how much one can generalize from the outcome of the MB saga, but one thing is for sure: there was a fanatic devotion to Artie T.’s controlling role. In an age where most people working for large companies have no idea who works two steps above them, a vast majority of employees had enough familiarity with their corporate executive to put their jobs on the line for him. The demise of the protests were predicted many times over the course of the strike, but the protesters got essentially everything they wanted – Artie T’s reinstatement. Beyond their belief in the leadership style of their old boss, they have no reason to expect personal gain.

It’s surely not a straightforward morality tale, but it’s hard not to side with the workers, especially when some columnists so helpfully fulfill the role of Ebenezer Scrooge by insisting that the protesters “go back to work” and that companies do not “have to dance to mob rule”.  To me, it’s a small sign that workers are not entirely powerless to improve their work environment, even if it was ultimately a symbolic issue.

Second, the entire affair was orchestrated by non-unionized labor. In a world of dwindling union membership and resources, the protests could be seen as a hopeful note for labor or a depressing death blow, depending on your perspective. This Globe article even raises the possibility that the very non-unionized nature of the workforce may have created greater possibility for success: managers and low-level workers could all work together to achieve their goals. In unionized workforces, managers and workers are usually prohibited from taking labor action together. The downside is that unions can help workers hang together during a strike, for example by helping pay a fraction of their paychecks.

If anyone – for or against unions – is predicting that this heralds a new age for labor, I don’t think they’ve thought this one through clearly. Certainly if Market Basket had been a national chain in the McDonald’s or Walmart model rather than a family owned company, the protesters would be begging to go back to work now – the deep pockets and diffuse governance structures of multinational corporations would probably make a protest untenable on the national level.

If you choose to see a morality play at work you can. I think there are more interesting questions to answer. Is the changing structure of the economy closing down the possibility of another Market Basket? How and why did employees (and shoppers) attach to the good Artie vs. evil Artie narrative so easily? Could other CEOs or workers’ rights advocates use this to their advantage, or is Market Basket is a unique case in a unique area? Whether this could even happen in a place with a less than religious zeal for its grocery chains is an open question. You’d better believe, though, that the saga of Arties T and S will be the talk of New England business school seminars in the years to come.


On Nicknames

I love city nicknames. Like a connoisseur of fine wines, I love to discover and savor new ones. Which ones age well? What groan-inducing idea did people think would turn the city around in the 70s?

In this post, and with an assist from social media, I wanted to share my anthropological work so far on city nicknames. Without further ado, it is my distinct pleasure to present to you the Thickly Settled Encyclopedia of Major Nickname Categories.

Category 1: Cultural Shorthand: To the point and loving, it’s the type of thing you say when you have to explain to your friends why your city sponsors a naked bike ride. “Well, that’s just Portlandia for you,” you say, with a smile and shake of the head. Cultural osmosis sometimes bestows a nickname for no real reason (Hotlanta) or to compare yours to another city (NashVegas). Sometimes it’s just part of the DNA: Reno is and always will be the Biggest Little City in the World. Often the name doesn’t reflect much about the actual city but is just a colloquial way to say the name; these range from the highly local – Woo-town  for Worcester, MA – to the universal, like Philly.

Category 2: Status Symbol: Probably the best kind of nickname to have. It reflects a cultural or historical value to the community that is truly unique. Detroit has a handful of great ones: Motor City, with its upbeat, industrious feeling, eventually morphed into Motown, the city most identified with American music. Whether it’s a (mis)translation of the name like the City of Angels (LA) or The City of Brotherly Love (Philadelphia) or a just-so story about the place’s history – e.g. Atlanta’s role as The City Too Busy to Hate – a good Status Symbol gets the warm fuzzies going.

Category 3: Serves a Practical Purpose: Self-explanatory. Which side of the line am I on – KCK or KCMO (Kansas City, Kansas or Missouri)? Indy (Indianapolis) and OKC (Oklahoma City) save you from struggling with a 6 syllable name every time you want to reference the place.

Category 4: Stock: These nicknames are a dime a dozen. Sometimes it’s an area code (perhaps Ludacris’s most enduring cultural contribution) or an airport abbreviation (PDX, DFW). Believe it or not, your city’s cutesy abbreviation (the ‘Burgh (any place ending in -burgh), the ‘Ville (any place ending in -ville), B-Town (my town starts with B!), etc, is not all that original. If your best nickname fits in this category, you can do better.

Category 5: The Epithet: The stock-in-trade of your hilarious uncle/rival sports team supporters. I think your city is boring (Indianoplace), dangerous (Spokanistan/SpokomptonBodymore (Baltimore), Chiraq (Chicago), Fayettenam (Fayetteville, NC), dirty (Filthadelphia), or just generally disagreeable (Mistake on the Lake (Cleveland), Lost Wages (Las Vegas).

  • The Reclaimed Epithet: Sweet revenge. Once your name was a punchline, but through willpower or sheer obliviousness the name has lost its sting. Chicago, capital of Midwestern self-deprecation, has successfully reclaimed a number of old jabs that no longer carry negative connotations: Windy City (maybe because of the weather, maybe the bloviating politicians) and Second City (now Third?) make the list at least, and probably also The City of Big Shoulders if I knew what that meant. Naptown (Indianapolis) now trades on its formerly sleepy reputation. Boston is known as the Hub of the Universe, which was probably supposed to be an insult, but Bostonians liked the sound of it and applied it themselves. Referring to NYC as Gotham has an origin story worthy of Batman, and at one point was probably an epithet. Bellingham, WA is hilariously the City of Subdued Excitement but I can’t imagine anyone has ever actually taken offense at that. I don’t think Bellingham is physically capable of taking offense.

Category 6: Hopelessly Fanciful or Dorky: These can be great, but usually not for the reason they were intended.

  • The Industrial Capital: A particular fascination of the Rust Belt. The city attempts to cling to their one-time domination of a niche industry, which usually comes off as sadly desperate. At BEST, you’re an Akron (the Rubber Capital) or Toledo (Glass City). I remember driving past Albany, OR, the “Grass Seed Capital of the World.” Sound like a riotous good time. Fun fact: the original title of the Beastie Boys song was “no sleep ’til Insurance City (Hartford)” but they couldn’t think of any good rhymes for Connecticut.
  • Nobody From Here Calls it That: “So, how’s life in Frisco so far?” “It’s fine, thanks mom.” Perhaps Beantown was cool to say at some point in the past, but I’ve never heard anyone in Massachusetts use it non-ironically. When someone references The Big Apple, the local eye rolling is almost audible. If these are part of your regular vocabulary, you’re probably also the person who tells actual Australians to “put another shrimp on the barbie.
  • Blank of the Blank: a true wildcard. Your standard BotB will improbably compare a quaint town with a European cultural capitol. Athens might dispute that Nashville is the Athens of the South or Columbus, IN is the Athens of Indiana. Sometimes it can be hard to tell what is a joke: as everyone knows, Chicago is the Miami of Canada, but what must have started out as a joke spun out of control when Worcester, MA declared itself the “Paris of the 80’s,” leaving unclear how one becomes a place of a time. Having impossibly high aspirations is probably better than the alternative, though. Pity poor Des Moines, the “Hartford of the West” according to Wikipedia. Me, I call it the Insurance City of the Plains. That one’s on me, Des Moines.

Introduction: Visiting the Gateway Cities

What comes to mind when you think about New England? I have to admit that before moving here, my view was almost cartoonish. I expected Massachusetts would be about evenly divided between the high-tech, prosperous Boston metro and idyllic colonial towns and pastureland. As it turns out, that view is very wrong. Although Massachusetts has education rates and income levels that other states drool over, success on some measures obscures the fact that there are huge gaps within and between cities in the Commonwealth.

In Massachusetts ,”Gateway Cities” are some of the places that don’t fit within that binary. Gateway Cities are a legal classification of city developed in the last decade to focus attention on neglected parts of the state. Part policy response and part branding push, the Gateway Cities cover 11 midsized post-industrial Massachusetts cities outside of the Boston metro area (although the number has since expanded to 26, including some high poverty areas right outside Boston).

Gateway Cites

The 11 original Gateway Cities. For some background on “Gateway Cities,” you can read the MassINC/Brookings Institution paper that created the concept.
Source: MassINC

Massachusetts’ prosperous reputation does have some basis in fact. The state generally and Boston in particular post some impressive numbers in almost every metric of economic growth. But the fruits of this prosperity are spread very unevenly. In terms of jobs, personal income, and economic diversity, Gateway Cities have been lagging for decades: in aggregate, the number of private jobs in these cities is the same as it was in 1960. Industrial legacies have acted like a millstone around the neck of growth and economic diversification. Unsurprisingly, they are also the areas that have the largest reputational problems to overcome. At the same time, Gateway Cities contain some of Massachusetts’ richest historical, cultural, and even economic assets, and were each at some time in their history places alive with people, ideas, and trade.

As a series on the blog, I plan to visit the 11 original Gateway Cities in Massachusetts and write about what I see in each. My goal is to provide just a bit of context on each economy, community, and region. I’ll be trying to answer some basic observational questions (What does this city say they want? Are they following through on it? Is it working?) from a skeptical but contextualized viewpoint.

I want to do this for two reasons. First, the current coverage is bad. If you follow the major urbanism or placemaking websites, you know when Boston, San Francisco, or DC wins a major victory or starts an interesting new experiment but no one really knows what’s happening in the struggling communities down the road. The media gap is especially pronounced in these small cities, which usually have a single, nationally-owned news outlet hanging on by the fingertips. The drive to come up with a positive strategy becomes doubly important because without constant forward progress, these places cannot sustain the press’s attention. If reputation matters to economic success, it spells trouble for these places. In the age of the internet, there are no information vacuums – only empty repositories yet to be filled with negativity.

Second, the problems in Gateway Cities get at a timely and fascinating question in economic development: “What economic strategy will help small- to mid-sized cities, especially those with a strong industrial heritage, move forward?” Do they focus on tech? Cultivate a class identity? Plan to shrink? Though big cities are popularly seen as being in resurgence, no one thinks that the way forward is clear for smaller rust-belt cities. Don’t get me wrong, bigger metropolitan areas have huge challenges – they struggle with inequality, gentrification, and suburban retrofitting in ways that smaller cities don’t – but big metros have at last started to get some of the attention they deserve.

By contrast, small-to-mids like the Gateways face a wide array of challenges. They don’t have the same heft to force state and national governments to pay attention. Their problems are controlled by such local circumstances – sometimes as local as a single company – that orthodox economic development strategies aren’t helpful. There’s no Mayor Bloomberg to command headlines or Ed Glaeser to relentlessly champion small cities as a class. Well-meaning leaders in small cities sometimes just try to copy what’s going well in the big cities, rather than try something bold and original that could move the region forward but poses a high risk of failure.

Although I think most Gateways get an unjustified bad wrap, I don’t mean to suggest that what I write will be relentlessly positive. Exposure and growth can come from acknowledging an area’s shortcomings. I hope by personally visiting them I can get across a better understanding of the gap between their rich history and the present, and try to find a little bit of what’s work is left on their path to success.

Where do Immigrants Settle in the US?

While looking for migration data, I happened across this incredible tool from the Migration Policy Institute. It displays Census data showing where international migrants to the US settle by Metropolitan area.

This is not only quite fun to play around with, it’s actually extremely useful. It can be hard to find out where immigrant groups settle with a direct internet search – you usually have to rely on imprecise proxies like “what cities have a lot of Nepalese restaurants?” I recently tried to find out where the epicenter of Beninese immigration to the United States was, and beyond locating the embassy in Washington, DC, I wasn’t very successful.

Indian Distribution
Indian Immigrants are scattered throughout the country, even in very small metros.
Indian Distribution
There are far fewer immigrants from Bosnia and Herzegovina and they tend to be much more concentrated. Utica, NY, Des Moines and St. Louis all have high Bosnian location quotients.

Especially interesting in this graphic is the inclusion of both raw numbers (reflected in size of the circle) and percentage of population (color of the circle). I think it’s fascinating that although Minneapolis has a higher number of Laotians than any other city, the smaller Laotian community in Fresno makes up more than 1% of the entire metro area. As soon as I get some more sophisticated mapping skills, I’d like to reform this data to answer a different question. I want to make a graphic showing which immigrant populations a particular MSA punches way above its weight in. For economic development nerds, it would be neat to see a graphic representation of the various “location quotients” of immigrant communities in cities or even Census blocks.

For now, here are some fun facts that I learned from poking around the map.

  • Atlantic City, NJ has the highest percentage of Bangladeshi immigrants.
  • Worcester, MA has the highest percentage of both Albanians and Ghanaians in its population.
  • Fort Wayne, IN is home to a higher concentration of Burmese than any other city.
  • Moldovans and Belorussians are highly concentrated in Sacramento.

Some facts are of limited usefulness: although Atlantic City has the highest percentage of Bangladeshi immigrants, the community in nearby New York City is 38 times its size. Still, I suspect a better understanding of where and how immigrant groups cluster would be useful to public officials and service providers, and relative size of the community could still be indicative of the size of the need. It also makes for an interesting look at the cultural fabric of cities.

Mapping Decline in a “Suburb of St. Louis”

Although I can’t add much to the conversation about the tragic events in Ferguson, MO besides frustration, I want to share a tool that’s been very helpful to make sense of the events there. The interactive tool Mapping Decline was released by Colin Gordon at the University of Iowa well before Michael Brown’s death. Though it has nothing to do directly with the flurry of news coverage, I probably learned ten times as much about the underlying issues in the community as I did from all the breaking news updates put together: the tool lays out a graphic representation of the history of white flight and its relationship with the land use policies of St. Louis county.

On one map, white and black dots denote increases (and red and orange dots decreases) in the white and black population respectively. As you can see here, Ferguson was an all white town until nearly 1970. Ferguson abuts Kinloch, which increased in black population throughout the middle of the century. The dividing line between the two is stark: for most of this period, there was undoubtedly first an official, then an unofficial racial covenant preventing blacks from moving to Ferguson. Once black dots begin to trickle over the arbitrary but inviolable municipal border, as happened in other cities and towns in decades before, the area fairly erupts with white abandonment. Usually after several decades of segregation, orange dots burst forth, indicating the abandonment of the black middle class. The chosen colors give the not altogether mistaken impression that these places burst into flames as the mass exodus of residents accelerates.

STL Mapping Decline (Kinloch)

HOLC Ratings 1940
The red trapezoid in the northwest corner is Kinloch. That’ll teach them to be black and want homes.
Source: Mapping Decline

Pair the first image in the series with the map on the right, showing the Home Owners’ Loan Corporation (HOLC) ratings in 1940. The red areas represent “D” ratings, dramatically restricting home loans and giving the name to the practice known as redlining.

Looking at these maps, you can’t help but start asking questions about the area. What would it be like to live in a majority black community that had not allowed blacks until 1970? What happens to the civic infrastructure of a city (especially a small suburban community dependent on the metropolitan area for economic opportunity) that loses the vast majority of its residents? Looking at the Kinloch situation, how many of Ferguson’s current residents came over the border trying to escape 80 years of government sponsored discrimination, segregation and housing disinvestment? How would these histories affect your view of civic participation and local government?

Ferguson is universally described as a “majority black suburb of St. Louis.” An article might helpfully follow up by describing it as “in north St. Louis county.” For the vast majority of stories, simple geographical facts suffice to establish the background – no attempt at explaining what life is like there, what the concerns of the populace might be, even basic historical context. As Jelani Cobb wrote in an article in the New Yorker:

The city of Ferguson, which is sixty-seven per cent black, has never had a black mayor, and five of its six city-council members are white. Only three of its fifty-three police officers are black…Country Club Hills is a smaller neighboring city that has a similar demographic history…It has a black mayor, David Powell, a black police chief, Clifton Ware, and a city council that is three-quarters African-American. Powell and Ware have worked for the past six years to transform a department that was nearly ninety per cent white to one that is evenly represented by black and white officers—an initiative they saw as essential to better community policing.

– “Bullets and Ballots” Jelani Cobb, The New Yorker, Sept 1, 2014

Cobb’s essay is not long, and is essential reading for this topic. Unfortunately, what took Cobb some 1100 words to say is, in the breaking news media, shunted aside in favor of rumor and fear mongering. The issues require careful treatment that the media has never been that good at and that Twitter and online comment sections are downright awful for. The press needs to exhibit a high level of professionalism and expertise – not only do they need the experience to provide in-depth coverage of a minority community (a community which is not well-represented in newsrooms) but also the regional knowledge to cover this specific community. Finally, we can’t ignore that this news is embedded in different contexts for different audiences, in this case often along racial lines. For the black community, this story is inseparable from a long history of discrimination and the historically paternalistic and sensationalist news coverage of their community.

The very least we must demand from media coverage is that it doesn’t make us dumber. I think we failed here. I’m sure the media will be in contact with me soon to straighten this all out but until then we’ll have to keep digging on our own.