From the Vice President: Safeway closes chapter on an American way of life

February 8, 2012

Chris Currie 2007 - croppedBY CHRIS CURRIE — When the January HL&T broke the story about the Hyattsville Safeway’s February 4 closing, views of our Web edition hit 1,000 within a week of its posting. Dozens of messages about it appeared on the HOPE community listserv alone, to say nothing of the many conversations among neighbors.

Why has the departure of one business cut so deeply into our collective psyche? Certainly the centrality of food in our lives has something to do with it, as did the store’s location in the heart of the residential neighborhood. But I think its leaving also marks the end of an era, not just in Hyattsville but in American society. It reflects a cultural transition about which many of us feel a profound ambivalence.

Safeway, once the nation’s largest grocery chain, had deeper roots in Hyattsville than in any other Maryland community. It operated continuously in our city for more than a century, having acquired the Sanitary Grocery on Gallatin Street in the 1920s.  When my kids dig in the swale in our side yard, unearthing buried treasures of antique bottles and jars, I am struck not so much by the strangeness of a bygone age as by its familiarity.  The Clorox bleach and Phillips’ Milk of Magnesia bottles probably were purchased at our local Safeway store decades ago, and were still available there until its closing this month. They represented the touchstones of American life across generations.

When I was a child growing up in Detroit’s inner city in the 1960s, everyone shopped at the A&P or its local competitor, Great Scott! The Wheaties in my cereal bowl came from the same place as those of my classmates from the projects down the street, as well as the corporate honchos who worked above my dad at Chrysler world headquarters.  While there were deep cleavages then in society, particularly between races, there were nevertheless many common reference points in everyday life – some of which began at the supermarket cash register.

Today, A&P and Great Scott! have vanished from the landscape; indeed, there are no chain groceries at all within the city limits of Detroit. Safeway, too, has been changing with the times. The company is systematically converting stores to its Lifestyle platform – designed to compete with upscale stores like Whole Foods – while closing outlets in local markets (like ours) that it deems unable to support its glitzier new brand.  This is a widespread trend across the retail sector, as companies pursue what are now called “standard demographics”: median incomes and educational levels that are well beyond those of many communities that once supported similar businesses.

Yet people of modest incomes need to eat, too. So new brands have emerged, like Aldi and Safeway’s forthcoming successor on Hamilton Street, Bestway. On the one hand, it’s nice to have more choices and ones that perhaps are more closely calibrated to our means and tastes. On the other, you can’t get a box of Kellogg’s cereal at Aldi. At Whole Foods, you’d be more likely to buy organic yogurt and muesli. Our lifestyles, it seems, are inexorably diverging as American commerce becomes more market-segmented and stratified.

Sociologist Charles Murray, in an article in the Wall Street Journal last month, portrays this as part of a broader phenomenon he calls The New American Divide. Noting 19th-century historian Alexis de Tocqueville’s observation about America, “The more opulent citizens take great care not to stand aloof from the people,” Murray argues that a common understanding about the American way of life has been replaced by the polarization of class and culture in today’s society. This is now being protested by people both on the Right (the Tea Party) and the Left (the Occupy movement). He recommends that people from different backgrounds venture outside of their enclaves and get to know each other again – which sounds a lot like Hyattsville, whether at the bakery counter or over the backyard fence.

Our family will continue to shop at Hyattsville’s food stores, buying cheap granola bars at Aldi and the occasional organic staple at Yes! and, hopefully, some decent produce at reasonable cost someday soon from Bestway.  And we’ll undoubtedly continue to support the dying model of the everyman’s supermarket at Giant Food.

At this writing, Safeway is days away from closing. On February 4, I think I’ll run into the Hamilton Street Safeway one last time and search the near-empty shelves for a box of cereal that I haven’t tasted since I was a kid. And I’ll eat a bowl of Wheaties, solemnly, in honor of the way we were.

Chris Currie is vice president of Hyattsville Community Newspaper Inc., publisher of HL&T.