Bare shelves at a retail store often portend misfortune for its staff and owner. But bare shelves at a locally-owned, independent store that many neighbors have grown to appreciate spread that misfortune outside the stores walls.
Such was the experience I recently had when I went to Rainbow Natural Grocery on 15th Avenue. A sign near the register acknowledged the depressing state of affairs and indicated that the store's financial picture, while not hopeless, is certainly bleak.
This brought to mind the other challenges Capitol Hill faces as it struggles to retain those elements which give it its cultural identity. With the impending changes to numerous sections of the neighborhood, it feels like much of what many of us value about the Hill is increasingly under threat.
Not surprisingly, the resulting focus and attention has been centered on the demolition and building that seems to be taking place every few blocks. In terms of this urban development trend, as the saying goes, "resistance is futile."
Simply, the bell tolls for the single-story retail and commercial building as evidenced locally by the recent demolition of Thumpers and the forthcoming demolition of East Pine Street's 500 block.
We must either build up or out. If we do neither, the consequent scarcity of space will only increase the likelihood and even exacerbate the results many of us fear will accompany Capitol Hill's already-planned redevelopment. Indeed, to do nothing and instead brandish our own version of Seattle's infamous "No" works against the very attributes we wish to save; namely, Capitol Hill's affordability that encourages a unique mix of residents and businesses.
And with buildable land near Seattle becoming more scarce while our highways conversely become more dense, clearing open-space for suburban lawns and three-car garages makes little sense any more, if it ever did.
Thankfully, the character of a neighborhood depends only partially on the buildings that house its businesses. More important, however, are the businesses that populate those buildings.
Hence, our energies should focus not on resisting new buildings with their requisite vertical rise but instead on ensuring that that which we love, appreciate and value can find space and thrive in this new commercial environment.
Two ideas strike me as integral to the process of ensuring Capitol Hill retains the character that makes it Capitol Hill in the first place.
One, aesthetic decision-making should take place with community involvement and reflect communal values such that the resulting building and its environs aren't unsightly. No more roof-top Lamborghinis; no more apartment-front fountains that look like someone stuck a hose in the middle of a faux rock and turned it on.
And two, the businesses we want to continue to serve our neighborhood and reflect our communal values need our support now more than ever.
Call it affirmative action.
I know, I know. You may have recoiled at that loaded term, yet in this context it requires little more than an acknowledgment of capitalism's big lie: that all things being equal, market forces fairly determine the deserving economic victors. The lie, of course, is that all things aren't equal.
Can independent grocers like Rainbow Natural Grocery share in the benefits of corporate-funded advertising that's expertly produced, published and distributed like the fliers for Trader Joes or the circulars for Safeway and QFC? Can independent grocers afford to undersell commonly purchased items which, in turn, give that store the appearance of being the least expensive option?
All things aren't equal, so we are called on to be the equalizers.
Our support of local grocers, even if milk is, say, 25 cents cheaper at QFC, levels the economic playing field and encourages businesses that speak to the values of our community and reflect the diversity of our needs and interest. It gives them a chance to survive in those yet-to-be-built buildings that are fated to rise skyward.
This doctrine, in turn, calls upon us to save the Rainbow Natural Grocery.
I understand that not every independent business will make it and it may be too late for Rainbow. Perhaps it's not. Nonetheless, your patronage there and at other local shops stand as neighborhood votes cast in favor of the entrepreneurial spirit and grass-roots, locally-owned and operated businesses.
Not only that, studies have demonstrated that money spent locally often remains local. Your dollars can stay in Capitol Hill. Or they can go to corporate offices somewhere to fund exorbitant CEO salaries that often needn't be related to and sometimes even contradict a company's profitability.
Your locally-spent dollars can increase the likelihood that a local lawyer, accountant or bookkeeper finds work at a local store, that local advertising publishers get business from local stores and that local charities can garner local support. Or, those dollars can reward mega-company actions that are often motivated and viewed fondly by its stockholders and Wall Street including layoffs and outsourcing.
Perhaps in one respect, the falsity of "all things being equal" is useful for it paradoxically generates its own oppositional force. It allows us to take a stand for our values in ways complete business-equity wouldn't require.
I'd argue it requires us to.
Mario Paduano's column appears in the third issue of each month. He can be reached at editor@capitol hilltimes.com.