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Beatnik Beat: Who Said the Spirit of the 60s and early 70s Is Dead?

by Carl Hedman

Given the historical importance of such things as the civil rights movement and the anti-war movement, it’s easy to forget the less spectacular aspects of the 1960s and early 1970s. I refer to the building of alternative institutions: food co-ops, housing co-ops, free schools, communes, etc. Yet, even as some of the larger projects of this era have faded from view –some regrettably, some deservedly — there are signs of renewed interest in building alternative institutions. At least, that is what I have learned from the people who started a new food co-op in the Riverwest neighborhood. Until recently, I had come to believe that the first decade of the 21st century would be a period when good people continued to retreat into their private lives; licking their wounds, so to speak. God knows many old activists paid a high price for their political involvement. Sometimes their commitment to larger social causes put undue pressures on their family life. Sometimes such “career choices” as dropping out of graduate school to start a food co-op or free school meant that later on they had to settle for being an ad hoc instructor rather than a tenured professor. But — and this is what motivated me to write this story — the group of young people who organized the Riverwest Co-op have taught me an old lesson: that no matter how victorious regressive social and economic forces might seem, progressive impulses by the young can prevail. More specifically, they have taught me that the idea of a small neighborhood-based, democratically-run food co-op has not been totally co-opted by such natural food chains as Whole Foods, etc. Perhaps, then, the following account of Riverwest Co-op will encourage others to recapture the spirit of the 1960s and early 1970s by banding together with friends and neighbors and creating an alternative institution, be it a free school, a housing co-op, or — if this message gets to people outside of our neighborhood — a food co-op. Riverwest Co-op was incorporated in February 2001. It had its roots in a group of young people — “bicycle anarchists” I called them — who had been working on the idea of a food store that would be owned and operated by the workers. They held a number of benefits ranging from spaghetti dinners to rock shows, and these events generated a list of people who were interested in helping start a food co-op that would be a “consumer co-op,” a store owned by all the people who shopped at the store. I joined the group just as it was time to write By-Laws. The group decided on a membership structure wherein members pay $20 a year into a Fair Share Account for five years or until they have paid in $100. (Here we benefited from the experience of Outpost Natural Foods, a co-op that had an early storefront in the very block where we are located.) This would represent their ownership stake in the co-op and qualify them for a 5% discount on purchases. Officially incorporated, we went looking for suitable space for a store. After looking at some places that just didn’t seem right, a long-time neighborhood activist declared that he and his wife were going to buy an old Schlitz tavern and that they were doing this just so we could have a suitable building for the coop. In return, co-op members agreed to provide the massive amounts of “sweat equity” needed to rehab the building. Just here is where I began to see the depth of commitment on the part of the young people, many of whom had replaced hippie beads and long hair with tattoos and all sorts of body rings. Their commitment turned out to be more than just rhetoric. They did every thing from scraping three or four layers of paint from the floor to completely rebuilding the rotted out bathroom floor. (At pain of admitting that the youngsters didn’t do everything, I should note that the lead carpenter on the bathroom project was an old hippie and our treasurer and I are no longer youngsters.) For a while, it looked like we wouldn’t be able to raise the money need to build an inventory and purchase decent refrigerators and a freezer. But following the practice of earlier food co-ops, we asked our growing membership for long-term, low-interest loans. Members responded to the tune of $4,500. (One member gave us a $2,000 loan and has recently given us a gift of $2,000.) The group continued to hold benefits and on November 3 we celebrated the grand opening of our store. Now our sales are approaching $4,000 a month, and we expect steady growth as we increase our inventory and store hours. So far, we are operating in the black. This is due almost entirely to two factors: an incredibly low rent from the building owner and the all-volunteer staffing of the store. (A member who works at the store gets an additional 1% off purchases for each hour worked a month.) Work normally done by a paid manager is done by a series of committees. The co-op’s membership is now over 150. Twenty of these have become Lifetime Members by contributing the full $100 to their Fair Share Account. Clearly we need to greatly expand our membership. To this end, we are constantly seeking people who want to work on PR and membership recruitment. (Come to our regular Tuesday evening meetings if you have any ideas!) So, to repeat my opening remarks: things are not as dark as they might seem. Rather, it seems that old ideas are being revived by young people even as some of us “old farts” retreat into late middle-age existences. The point, of course, is not to beat up on the old warriors — they did more than their share. Rather, it is to celebrate the continued vitality of their ideas, especially those where we talked of small, bottom-up initiatives that challenged both doctrinaire Marxists and proponents of cowboy capitalism. A concluding note: Just as other co-ops and neighborhood activists have supported us in the struggle to create our business from scratch, so we would be happy to share what we have learned with other groups who want to start a co-op of some kind. We have seen how all kinds of people are ready to come forward to help once an idea is put forward. If you are interested in doing something similar, we are always ready to help with such things as by-laws, organizing strategies, etc. Carl Hedman is the secretary for the Riverwest Co-op and is a professor emeritus in Philosophy at UW-Milwaukee Riverwest Currents – Volume 1 – Issue 1 – February 2002
by Carl Hedman