The Death and Life of a Neighborhood Cooperative

by Ashar Foley (originally published in Voices of Lefferts, Volume 3, Number 1 in Fall of 2020.)

“¿Señorita tienes guantes?” a man in a winter sports jacket asked me through the chain-link fence that surrounds Q Gardens, a small triangular community garden at Church Avenue and East 18th Street. “¿Guantes?” he repeated. Seeing that I didn’t understand, he rubbed his hands together to show me what he meant.

“¿Jabón?” asked the woman who had just come in on her bike. “I think he wants soap,” she said to me. I dug through my bag for the little bottle of hand sanitizer that I had long since learned from other New Yorkers to always carry, and held it up. “¿Jabón?” I said. “He wants gloves, guantes,” said another woman who was working that day in the garden. She ran off into a shed at the far corner of the lot. “Señor,” I said. He had turned his back to the fence. “Señor, ella tiene.” I pointed to the woman running to the shed as he turned back around to face me. “Creo,” I added, because I realized I didn’t know for sure whether she was going to get him some gloves. He thanked me and turned back to face the street with the other men who hung out on that block on Saturday mornings. I wondered if he had been there last week and the week before — if I had seen him without recognizing him each time I brought the week’s food scraps to the garden.

“Sometimes I just hate this place.” I was brought back from my thoughts by the woman with the bike, now chopping at her compost with a spade. She continued in a hushed voice, “Every time I come here I see only white people.” I looked up from my own chopping. “Yeah,” I replied sheepishly. I was interested in hearing more on this point, but I didn’t know what to say. As far as I could tell, she was white, I was white, and so were the two other women working in the garden that day. But on other days it wasn’t only white women and men working in the garden or coming to chop their compost. “It makes me so mad,” she said, before backing her bike out of the garden and into the street.

I felt relieved as well as irritated to see her go: she didn’t seem to want to have a conversation about the persistent and complex problem of de facto segregation, nor could I tell what, if anything, I should do about it in that moment.

The problem of de facto all-white spaces was not news to me: I had spent a lot of time with it in the last year, when I learned that achieving community integration is deliberate and ongoing work

— like democracy, it is more verb than noun. I learned this for myself as a worker-member-owner of the Lefferts Community Food Co-op (LCFC), which was located at 324 Empire Boulevard between Rogers and Bedford. The co-op was established in 2007 as an offshoot of Prospect Lefferts Gardens Community Supported Agriculture (PLG CSA), with grants from New York City’s FRESH program and the Park Slope Food Co-op (PSFC). In addition to their weekly farm shares of fresh fruits and vegetables, members of the PLG CSA wanted to have access to more locally-sourced staples, and a co-op seemed the best way to provide that access. As I write this essay, the store’s gate, beautifully painted by India LoFaso, is still there.

The store was open two days a week, Thursdays and Sundays, from November 2014 to May 2019. When it first opened, LCFC had three refrigerators for milk, cheese, soy products, and vegetables, and a set of buckets for bulk goods. Over the years, the store inventory expanded to include household goods, frozen meat, breakfast items, baking goods, chocolate, packaged snacks, Dean’s Beans coffee, quite a few different types of rice, and a variety of nuts, seeds, and beans — in addition to twice-weekly deliveries of mostly organic vegetables from farms in Pennsylvania and Long Island. We stored it all in five refrigerators, buckets, bins, gravity dispensers, and shelves — we even had a compost bin in the backyard — all built, bought, bid for, or somehow procured for free by our members.

Though I worked several positions over the four and a half years that I was a member, my very first shift stands out in my memory. It was a Friday afternoon in February and I had been assigned to the Receiving Committee to unload and stock deliveries. One of the co-op’s founding board members, Karen Oh, let me into the store and gave me a quick orientation before the truck from Lancaster Farm Cooperative arrived. After we unloaded the truck, she showed me how to sign off and file the invoice before leaving me to stock the inventory and update the signs and prices. “Maybe if you have time, you could put some shelving together,” she said, referring to a pile of heavy cardboard boxes in the middle of the store. “But only if you have time in your shift. You don’t have to stay late.” But I didn’t mind staying late. I was in the early days of sobriety, and the only thing that seemed worse to me than going home on a Friday night was going anywhere else, and possibly getting into trouble. I stocked the inventory, made new signs and price lists, and unboxed and assembled four sets of metal shelves that stood in the middle of the store until it closed four years later. Over those four years, I often thought of the shelves as a little piece of the co-op that I helped build, as well as a memento of my decision to stay sober and be useful.

With bars out of the picture, the co-op helped me find another source of neighborhood community, not only during my monthly 2-hour and 45-minute shifts and weekly shopping trips, but also just walking along Rogers Boulevard and Flatbush Avenue. I began to recognize my neighbors on the street. Co-op planning retreats meant I saw where fellow members lived and worked. I met with members for coffee dates, chatted with their kids, went to their houses for potlucks, frequented their businesses, and heard them play music at the Owl Parlor. But while my sense of community and place was expanding, the co-op was standing still. Our active membership remained at around 100 people. Most members were more or less like me: young, white, and (as I thought of myself at the time) transient, with little ability to invest in the co-op for the long term. Furthermore, the majority of our membership did not reflect where the co-op was situated: in the heart of the largest Caribbean diasporic community in the world. At co-op strategy meetings, we (a mostly white “we”) discussed how the co-op could better attract those who had for decades called the neighborhood home. Presumably, this community was made up of many people who once and most probably still had a connection to land, who had grown their own food or at least enjoyed locally grown food, and who could discern the difference between fresh food and the food one expects to find in a conventional grocery store. In short, a co-op couldn’t have wished for a better potential membership base. Our Outreach Committee took to the streets for flyering, ran tables at community health fairs, and got in contact with the Ebbets Field Tenants Organization across the street to find out if we could leave our information for residents. We encouraged one another to be mindful, when our neighbors came in to look around or stopped at the storefront window, to invite them in and give them a tour.

Talking to residents this way, I learned that some of the co-op’s membership problems were cultural. Whereas I had assumed our lack of success in attracting Caribbean members was due to our mission to offer mostly locally-sourced goods (and thus not the tropical produce that shoppers could get at the nearby Associated and West Indian produce markets), several women told me that Sunday was a day for worship; if you want people to come in, they said, open on Saturdays instead of Sundays. In addition, the idea of a worker-member owned co-op was sometimes met with skepticism: why work without pay in order to shop at this grocery store, when you can shop at any other without also having to work? It was a good question, and one that I found hard to address.

Photo by Nancy Treuber

Another big cultural problem LCFC had was in community perception. While co-op committee organizers may not have known how to “sell” the co-op to longtime PLG residents, real estate agents certainly knew how to sell the co-op to newcomers. We found out that real estate companies were including the co-op in their lists of neighborhood amenities, used to entice prospective renters and buyers to the new luxury apartments going up on every block, thus exacerbating the harmful and false association of organic food and food cooperatives with gentrification and whites-only culture. Unfortunately, the real estate narrative may have won out.

One day during my shift at the co-op, I heard two passersby say to each other in reference to our storefront, “Co-op, bah! That’s gentrification.”

It didn’t matter that our store consisted of a few free fridges and buckets of beans: if part of the community perceived us to be gentrifiers, and if our presence was actively being used to promote the processes of gentrification, then we were in fact gentrifiers. It was only months later, as we were first facing closure, that LCFC members realized we could and should have used our voices and the media to actively push back against the gentrification narrative, seizing the opportunity to redefine and reintroduce the co-op while at the same time refusing complicity with the forces rapidly changing the neighborhood. In addition to our cultural insularity, we faced issues common to all fledgling co-ops reliant on volunteer labor rather than permanent paid staff. Though we accepted EBT, inconsistent training meant that not all of our cashiers knew how to run the cards, potentially excluding members enrolled in SNAP. And though we had a policy whereby members could waive their work requirement and designate others to shop for them, we had no system of remote ordering or delivery for those unable to get to the store or carry their groceries home, effectively excluding some elderly and differently abled folks. Adding a Saturday shopping day proved to be logistically difficult as well, requiring at least 16 additional cashiers to staff 8 new shifts per month.

By the winter of 2019, LCFC board members had determined that keeping the co-op open in its current form was no longer economically feasible; furthermore, our building was up for sale and the new landlord would almost certainly tear it down, renovate it, and/or raise our rent to market price. Members voted to close the co-op’s doors in May 2019. Faced with closure, it was easy to pin our failure on our organizational and financial problems rather than on our community problems. So, when one of our board members, Michael Loew, proposed bringing in the Cooperative Economics Alliance of New York (CEANYC) to lead us in a two-day anti-racism training session, I was perplexed. “Is racism really our problem?” I thought. “Aren’t membership numbers and money our problem?” The CEANYC training showed me how these two sets of problems are interconnected, and not just for our co-op. For starters, I learned that many of our practices in the co-op had not in fact been cooperative, but, rather, reflected the economic status quo: a few co-op leaders did the lion’s share of the work, taking on multiple roles because it seemed easier than delegating or sharing tasks and information; this state of affairs resulted in burned-out leaders and a membership that was leader-dependent rather than leader-full. We had few structures in place to keep members accountable and invested, and no co-op-wide culture of meeting to discuss problems and think of long-term solutions. Neither had we thought of the larger, non-member community as having a role in these discussions, when it was this larger community that we purported to serve.

The training re-formed our thinking by asking us to set aside the physical space of the co-op in order to put the lived place of our surrounding community first. We started asking questions like, If our neighbors were
to invest their time and ownership in a cooperative space, what would they want and need that space to be? What businesses exist around us, and how can we work together to be of mutual benefit to one another? What cooperative economies have existed in this neighborhood and in this borough? From this discussion, I learned that an LCFC board member, Cheryl Sealey, had belonged to another neighborhood co-op in the 1980s. Located on Carroll Street and Bedford, the Crown Heights Food Cooperative (CHFC) was also based on Park Slope’s worker-member-owner model, but where Park Slope’s membership was primarily white, Cheryl told me CHFC was Afro-centric, led primarily by black folks “from the cultural world,” including but not limited to community leaders, students from Medgar Evers College, and members of the Rastafarian community. Together, they addressed a problem: “In those days, the food was so bad in the community — you bought what you could get. We grew up on white bread, so you had to teach yourself to move away from it. You had to search for the alternative.” That search converged at the formation and maintenance of the co-op, where members “all had the same attitude about food justice,” explained Cheryl. Though there were a few health food stores in the wider area, like Back to the Land in Park Slope (closed in 2018), and places that carried holistic and Caribbean items, like Tony’s on Flatbush Ave in Midwood (still open), these stores were expensive and farther away. Crown Heights Food Cooperative, on the other hand, served Crown Heights and Flatbush and charged lower prices than many neighborhood stores did for “natural” — a designation similar to today’s “organic” — food, specializing in bulk items, health-conscious brands, and lots of produce, and excluding meat and conventional commercial products. Cheryl recalls one co-op item in particular: “I remember I was pregnant at the time, because I just wanted mangoes, and so we ordered mangoes in the co-op. You could get them in some stores or at Hunts Point, and there were Korean markets, but they weren’t as common as they are today, and they weren’t then in supermarkets.” Cheryl also discovered new ways of eating through CHFC, stating that “it was the first time I considered going meatless as an option, or heard about [foods like] Textured Vegetable Protein (TVP).” In addition to offering a variety of healthy food at lower prices than other health-minded stores, the Crown Heights co-op was an exciting space to make connections with neighbors, many of whom were, like Cheryl, “young and idealistic in those days,” as well as with community organizations. The co-op storefront shared the block with the Crown Heights Youth Collective (now at 113 Rogers Avenue), an organization that supports underserved young people from the African, African American, Caribbean American, and Hasidim communities of Crown Heights and that played an important role in restoring peace in the wake of the Crown Heights riots in August of 1991 under director Richard Green. Co-op members also frequented a community garden located on Eastern Parkway.

But while the Crown Heights Food Cooperative provided healthy food and community connections, it had the same problems that LCFC would experience thirty years later. “It was absolutely terrific,” Cheryl told me, “but it wasn’t a popular co-op because it was an unfamiliar model.” Like me, Cheryl faced the difficult task of explaining the worker-member-owner model to prospective members. “Our biggest problem was membership. Costs were high, and the weight of operation was on a few people,” in part because the operation itself didn’t make sense to shoppers used to conventional grocery stores: at CHFC members were required to work four hours a month to run a store that was open one day a week on Friday evenings. Today, Cheryl and I can anticipate member questions (Why do I have to work? Why aren’t we open every day? Why isn’t the co-op always cheaper than the grocery store?) and we can answer them (Because you’re an owner, because it’s us working rather than paid employees, and the more members we have, the lower our prices — just look at the Park Slope co-op!). Not only can we foresee and answer these questions, we understand the education piece of co-op organizing to be crucial to its success. As Cheryl said of running a co-op, “We don’t even know how to do it ourselves if we can’t explain to newcomers how or why we do it.” The Crown Heights Food Cooperative closed after a strong run of six or seven years, with many of their members continuing their “search for the alternative” at Park Slope.

As I spoke with Cheryl, I thought how we had missed an opportunity at LCFC. If we had known the neighborhood history, we could have hosted a reunion for CHFC members as a way of learning from them and, hopefully, recruiting them to our co-op.

With the benefit of their vision of food justice as well as their hindsight, LCFC might have moved forward in a way that was more community-centered than store-centered. But even though that opportunity was lost, more opportunities are on the horizon.

Today, cooperative efforts are alive and well, as the Central Brooklyn Food Coop — a black-led, worker-member-owned food cooperative serving Bed-Stuy and Northern Crown Heights — is poised to secure a storefront and is months away from opening. Just as some of CHFC’s members moved on to become members of the Park Slope co-op, some of LCFC’s members have put their energies into Central Brooklyn. Once you have experienced the alternative, it’s hard to go back to the same old, especially when there’s a chance of making the alternative become the new normal. As Cheryl said when we concluded our conversation, “What is it you want to make ‘normal’ in the community? You need to make new models. How can you take something new and make it become an everyday thing?” While Cheryl directed my attention to local food history, CEANYC pointed out huge gaps in my knowledge about the food movement on the national level. I had been well-versed in the California-based “slow food” movement and the figures associated with it — Eric Schlosser, Michael Pollan, Alice Waters, and the Berkeley-based Edible Schoolyard project — but I hadn’t heard much of the “hidden narrative” of food and economic history that CEANYC presented to us: seeds brought over from Africa by enslaved peoples; the Mondragon cooperative movement started in the Basque region; and the historical role of mutual aid societies, cooperatives, and credit unions in the lives of black Americans were all news to me.

The training ended, but the urge to uncover what I didn’t know that I didn’t know stayed. So, I dug deeper. At CEANYC’s suggestion, I read Collective Courage, a history of black American economic thought and practice by Jessica Gordon Nembhard, from which I learned more about black American cooperative efforts. With other co-op members, I went to a meet-and-greet hosted by Prospect Lefferts Gardens Neighborhood Association (PLGNA) and later volunteered at one of their family events. I bought a ticket and took the house tour hosted by the Lefferts Manor Association. On that tour, I met an artist named Mac [Karl Macintosh] who was handing out flyers for a show at Dorsey’s Art Gallery at 553 Rogers, and later I went to that show and met many more artists. While there, I learned that Dorsey’s is the oldest continuously run black- owned and -operated art gallery in New York’s metropolitan area. I made flyers for Equality for Flatbush, a non-profit group that helps fight evictions, tenant abuse, and other forms of racial and economic discrimination, and I went to some of their actions. When I can, I attend State Assemblywoman Diana C. Richardson’s monthly Civic-Minded Meetings at Middle School 61, and I have volunteered to phone bank from her office (yes, it took a CEANYC training session to open my eyes to the fact that the assemblywoman’s office was next door to the co-op!). And most recently, during the stay-at-home orders incurred by the COVID-19 pandemic, I have been working with Flatbush United Mutual Aid, People In Need, and Equality for Flatbush to get food to neighbors and first-responders.

Initially I had the idea that seeking out community connections would help strengthen the co-op’s community ties, should we decide to reopen. Today I continue to seek them out, partly for the same reason that I stayed on after my first shift at LCFC — I want to be useful — but also because I want to see my neighbors and learn more about the place I’m in, at the level of the neighborhood as well as at the level of society.

My experience at the co-op helped me realize how deficient my education has been, how limited my perspective, and how small my world.

As CEANYC taught me, white-supremacy culture is not just about blatant forms of racism, but also about specific practices and attitudes that maintain whiteness as a position of power and as the default perspective. I now understand that if I want to eschew this perspective — engrained and enforced by my schooling, segregation, and the media — I have to actively do the work.

It was all this that I didn’t know how to say to the woman in Q Gardens before she backed her bicycle out into the street. After I finished chopping my compost, I did some errands around the corner on Church Avenue. Heading back toward Caton Avenue on East 18th Street, I looked for the man who had spoken to us through the fence. He still had no gloves. We nodded at each other as I passed by.

Ashar Foley moved to Linden Boulevard in 2013 but grew up in Bowling Green, Ohio. She teaches Media Studies and English at Fordham University and City Tech. She is grateful to have been able to make so many acquaintances through her time at LCFC and other neighborhood organizations — they have made New York, Brooklyn, and Flatbush her home.

The Cooperative Economics Alliance of New York City (CEANYC) strengthens and expands community-led, democratically-controlled initiatives in NYC.