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Globalization, sustainability, and cob benches at People's Co-op

The People's Co-op is one of the premiere examples of green-building in Portland. Despite the heat of summer, the store has been quite cool and comfortable thanks to a passive heat exchange system that works by circulating air through a pipe that goes 300 feet under ground. In the winter, rainwater will be collected in a reservoir and used for grey water purposes, such as in the toilets. The exterior siding and the porch's large pillars are of wood recycled from an old dock in Seattle. The cob walls offer insulation, and are decorated with delightful bas relief plants, trees, and sensuous, root-like curves.
The double-columned cob entryway, with canvas roof and benches.
The double-columned cob entryway, with canvas roof and benches.
A bench. The hole is for water drainage so they won't fill up with rain.
A bench. The hole is for water drainage so they won't fill up with rain.
Applying clay mixture to cob.
Applying clay mixture to cob.
Wetting the cob so the clay will stick.
Wetting the cob so the clay will stick.
Smoothing the clay to make a nice surface.
Smoothing the clay to make a nice surface.
The result is a geography of hills and valleys like the ones around the region.
The result is a geography of hills and valleys like the ones around the region.
But the beauty of the People's building is not found only in the simple elegance of its practicality; the process of creating it all has been an integral component of its appeal and success. Throughout the renovation and up to the present, people who visit the store have had the opportunity to observe, ask questions, and -- best of all -- participate themselves. For the past few days, people have been working on finishing the cob benches in front of the store. Working with earthy materials, patience, and a light touch, volunteers and staff have been putting a colorful smooth coating over the firm cob. The community and sustainability expressed in this project is only the latest illustration of the uniqueness that People's brings to the neighborhood and the city, a quality that could never be reproduced sincerely by a larger, corporate store such as the one that's threatening to move onto a site just a few blocks away.

The gateway made by the two pillars and canvas roof at the corner of the open space in front of the store is not just a physical entryway; it is also a visual and psychic one. Without presenting a barrier or blocking anyone's way, it offers definition of the space in an enclosing but invitational way, and does so with shapes that evoke the geography and ecosystem of Cascadia: the pillars are tree-trunks, the backs and seats of the benches emerge from articulations of the tree's roots, and the bases grow mushroom-like from native stones that are uncut and fitted by hand. I've seen shapes like this by streams in the forest, where younger trees are springing out of fallen older ones and a dappled shade is provided by a canopy of low branches. These benches are one of my favorite places to sit in the city. They were made comfortable by volunteers who sat in them while the cob was still pliable, so they would form to a human body. I was quite happy when I saw a couple days ago that the benches were finally going to be completed.

The gold coating is a mixture of kayolin clay, water, sand, paper pulp, unbleached wheat flour, and iron oxide pigment (a combination of yellow, red and black). After spraying down the cob surface of the benches, one globs on some of it and smoothes it down with a hand and a flexible plastic disk trimmed from an orphaned yogurt lid. This layer takes hours to dry and longer to fully season itself to the surface. Afterwards, a coat of linseed oil or beeswax will be applied. (Go see the information kiosk outside the Red and Black Cafe for an example of a totally finished cob structure.)

On Tuesday the 29th, from 10:30 to around 6:00, people will be working on these benches again, and anyone who is interested in learning and trying it out is invited to come. This type of work is not merely an arts-and-crafts activity; it is an example of sustainable building that can be used to construct entire buildings. In England, cob houses have been standing for centuries. The materials are easy to come by -- in fact, you can dig most of them up in your backyard. For the final touches some investment is necessary, but if you have other skills you might be able to trade with someone who has some of the materials. In any case, the basics are easy to learn, the formula is age-old and tested, and the results are pleasing to the eye that loves beauty and the back that wants rest out of the elements. The City of Portland is still figuring out how to issue permits for these types of projects, but cob structures could also be built out on the land somewhere, away from zoning and regulations. In the difficult days that are coming, practical skills like this will be useful.

And the difficult days are, for better or worse, on their way. The global demand for oil will be exceeding the available supply sometime in the next 5-10 years, and the price hikes and panics that ensue will bring about devastating hardship. Climate change from the burning of fossil fuels might also be rapid and dramatic and bring famine and widespread social disolution. The current system of consumption and infinite growth is headed for disaster, in other words. It's not a question of whether or not business-as-usual can continue; it simply won't. Knowing that this is the road we're on, we must do everything we can to get off it. A system of electoral politics that adjusts the steering wheel a little to the right or left is not going to do it. Though it might seem Sysiphean, the only way to save ourselves is by restructuring our society by changing our lives. Sustainability must be our watchword and our guide.

This mindset, which is destroying life on earth, asserts that a New Seasons grocery store has the "right" to move in on People's territory and squash it (see "Southeast Portland residents launch campaign to keep New Seasons out of their neighborhood"). Places like People's that are putting different models into practice are invaluable resources, and our survival as individuals and as a species is tied up in them. Conversely, our death is tied up in corporate economics that puts profit over people. Places like People's build community among fellow experimenters by providing a place (both physical and mental) where people can meet, exchange ideas, launch projects, and find support. Places like People's are not the final solution to saving our skins, but they are vital incubators for nurturing the ideas and practices that will. This is what People's offers that New Seasons never could and it is because their modes of operation are fundamentally different. People's motto is, "Food for people, not for profit." New Seasons' model is the opposite.

"Think globally, act locally," we are advised, and here is the perfect opportunity to put those wise words into practice. Corporate globalization happens block by block and street by street, and it's happening in Southeast Portland right now, and in thousands of other places around the country and the world. Everytime a 7-11 drives out a mom-and-pop convenience store, or Starbucks takes out a neighborhood coffee shop, or a big whole food store mows under a community co-op, the empire of capital grows bigger, and each of us as individuals become a little more powerless. With each victory of profit over people, no matter how small, the air gets a little harder to breath. We are already choking in a thickening pollution of greed, but somehow many well-meaning people still live in denial. "Oh, it won't be that bad. What's one more? It won't really hurt." These are the sentiments of addiction, and we must all help each other break those viscous cycles before we self-destruct.

So this is a call to action; a call to stop New Seasons, a call to liberate ourselves from the chains of capital, a call to finish cob benches.

Here's how:
Stop. Stretch. Breathe.
Step away from the machine.
Root yourself in the earth, not the system.
Really start living, and spread the good word.

Resist & Cry Out!! 29.Jul.2003 08:13

sick o' corporations

So, we will stop NS?!! let's do it.

get over it already!!! 29.Jul.2003 08:49

I eat food

So all this negativity towards New Seasons is some Coop folk being freaked out over competition. You pointed out in a different post what a cool, energy efficient building you have, etc. Great!! Doesn't make other local stores bad.

Now, if you think you're going to be able to rouse the Division/Clinton neighborhood into a MickyD like ferver to prevent NS from occupying an abandoned store...you are being really silly and wasting your own beautiful energy.

I think it's great they're moving in. I travel or bike to shop there sometimes. Sometimes I shop at Natures cause it's convenient, Coop is pricy to me. I also shop at Safeway as members of my family want junk from time to time. And trying to connect all of this to some nasty plan by "the man" to displace poor renters, etc. is also silly.

You should do some soul searching here, drop the hostility (it's non productive), channel your energy into continuing to do your good work, and seek to expand your customer base using positive energy - not negative! I can tell you right now, as a clinton neighborhood person, I think you are acting like a baby!

did you READ that story, "I eat food"? 29.Jul.2003 09:14

i did!

Apparently, you didn't even read the above post, because nowhere in your "response" do you actually respond to it. The point being made clearly above is that what's needed to change the world is a new value system based on quality rather than quantity, and cooperation rather than "competition" (which it isn't even, in this situation, from an equitable point of view). Your world of shopping here and shopping there is unsustainable. That is undeniable at this point. We must all start living differently and put smaller, gentler footprints on the earth. The author above does not even claim, however, that People's is providing the final answers for that goal; but it IS providing the space for the search for those answers to happen, which places like New Seasons is not (to say nothing of we-won't-stop-selling-genetically-engineered-foods-because-we-can't-afford-it-Safeway). The person who needs to "get over it" here is YOU, and what you need to get over are consumerist addictions and a brainwashed mindset. As someone commented in another post, is it fair competition if someone 10 or 40 times your size attacks you, and wouldn't you cry out for help if they did? And wouldn't you be foolish to just roll over and take it?

As for your accusations of "hostility" and "negativity", I see none of that in the above story. You brought those things to this thread with your reply. The above post is an expression of hope despite seemingly unbeatable odds (and that's regarding the idea of saving the planet from human destruction, not about the People's-New Seasons situation). Start the soul-searching yourself, poster! I believe that was the point the author was making in their last few lines.

putting market fundamentalism up against the wall 29.Jul.2003 10:00

heebee jeebee

St. Ebbit:
This is a good discussion. Your article on People's Co-op
points to many important values served by community-based,
stakeholder-controlled institutions, like cooperative
businesses, for instance. Anyone who has visited People's
can attest that your description is authentic, and that
the affection people have for the place is from the heart,
and the social values it serves are real. Some of these are
obvious from your descriptions of the physical attributes
of the place. Other values may be more intangible but no
less real, such as the sense of community and personal
empowerment that people experience when they have a direct
say in important aspects of their lives, such as their
work environment.

Unfortunately, some of the responses also point to the problems
faced by such institutions. The principal problem centers around
the reality that our society currently lives under the reign of a
very anomalous sort of secular religion that, for lack of a better
term, may be described as "market fundamentalism." This doctrine
holds that a special reverence must be observed for any
outcome produced by "free" transactions of buying and selling
where the price is set without any input from anyone but the
buyer and the seller. This is then called the "true" or "market"
price of a good or service, and a special totemic place is
reserved for it, and to adjust this "true price" in any way is
to "interfere" in the market, which is held to be the ultimate
sin in this secular religion.

It is time to challenge this strange religion head-on, by declaring
the obvious: that there are other social values served by our
economic activities than just assuring that individuals walk
away with any given good or service at the lowest price. There are
many problems with the market fundamentalist religion, not the least
of which is that it is a system of one dollar/one vote, instead of
one man or woman/one vote, and those dollars are distributed very
unevenly indeed. Another problem with it is that it rewards the ultimate
merit to decisions made by isolated, atomized individuals, and no merit
to social or community-based decision making through democratic,
deliberative processes.

There are real-life policies that localities could adopt to favor
community based institutions and the values they serve. Groups like
Sprawlbusters ( http://www.sprawl-busters.com) have proposed policies
like differential tax and regulatory structures weighted by such
factors as ratio of retail floorspace to retail employees that could
start to contain and reverse the spread of businesses like Walmart
which are socially destructive but financially profitable (to their
owners). Portland, given its storied reputation for progressive
urban policies, could be an ideal candidate for such new approaches.
The problem is a huge one, and lies at the heart of much of our
crisis as a democracy and a culture. Any progress in this area could
become a model for the future for challenging "market fundamentalism"
and re-establishing the primacy of democratic and community values.

New Seasons is No Threat 29.Jul.2003 10:47

Voice of Reason

As a Peoples' member, I don't think New Seasons is any more a threat to Peoples than a new 7-11 store would be. New Seasons will compete with Wild Oats (aka Natures) on Division and the other grocery chains. I am not sure why the community should organize to protect Wild Oats market from local corporate competition.

It seems to me the author is getting caught up in the very corporate, competitive mindset that we should be fighting against. As the author notes, Peoples is a community based store that measures its success with other values than sales and profit. New Seasons can't compete with that. Our energy ought to be directed at getting more community support and engagement in promoting Peoples' based on our values, not fighting corporate America based on their values.

re: voice of reason 29.Jul.2003 11:28


I believe that Peoples will likely be out of business within 3 years if the New Seasons store goes in on 20th and Division. You may disagree with my assessment, but that is my conclusion based on observation and precedent in other cities. Therefore I will voice my opposition to New Seasons putting in this store and am glad that some people are opposing it.

Furthermore, New Seasons is itself clearly taking a competitive posture by putting this store in which is counter to their public statements of respect for Peoples. I believe the New Seasons president is a hypocrite and that this store going in is an example of mercenary greed, not respect for Peoples. New Seasons is doing just fine and has no need to threaten Peoples at all.

Again, I oppose New Seasons putting in this store and will add my voice to those who have started working to stop it.

Voice of Reason makes sense 29.Jul.2003 12:18


Thanks for spreading some logic amonst the hysterical fears being expressed. I agree that the only threat NS will pose is to Natures. Coop should focus on strenghthening their foundation and services to ensure their vitality, and not divert their energy to opposition. Typically you can't be constructive and oppositional at the same time.

Similar Situation in NE 29.Jul.2003 14:00


A similar situation exists with New Seasons opening up at 33rd and Killingsworth after the Alberta Co-op opened in 2001 - as was stated, New Seasons generally competes with upscale full-service supermarkets like Wild Oats or Zupan's, not with specialty groceries like co-ops.

A produce market or for-profit natural foods store would be a direct competitor.

I buy different things at the Alberta Co-op, New Seasons, Fred's, and Safeway - I can't get everything I need at the Alberta Co-op, or even at New Seasons. I think my purchasing habits are similar to most people who patronize co-ops.

Better idea 29.Jul.2003 15:50


Instead of putting a New Seasons there somebody should put up a Krispy Kreme. This is opening day for the one on 82nd Clackamas and people are camping out waiting for them to open! Hawthorne area NEEDS a Krispy Kreme!  http://katu.com/news/story.asp?ID=59439

Don't Believe the Hype 29.Jul.2003 16:11


Krispy Kreme is a new verision of the McDonalds corporate model. First, the food isn't healthy. Second, the replication of sameness and uniformity that such chains bring makes the world a boring corporate subdivision.

sugar = addiction 29.Jul.2003 16:13


the sugar addiction in this country is something most people don't talk about, but very harmful. do you know where sugar comes from? do you know the processes used in refining sugar? i would put up more of a stink if someone were to try to open a krispy kreme in my neighborhood. that's a sick idea.

Krispy Kreme your arteries 29.Jul.2003 16:22


Whay a bunch of hype for an overrated donut who's only attributes are lots of fat and sugar.

When we value cooperation over competition... 29.Jul.2003 16:22

We support People's

We are so fortunate to have a place like People's here in our city! If you are unfamilar with all the hubbub, check out the store. Especially on a wednesday for farmer's market!

Their website is www.peoples.coop

They have been in business for over thirty years; there's been a food store there for over sixty years!

When we value cooperation over competion...

We support People's!

Krispy Kreme 29.Jul.2003 16:41


Krispy Kreme would attract a lot of cops to the area but on the other hand they would be so busy eating Krispy Kremes they would be harmless and maybe a little sweeter.

How did People's Grow and Expand 29.Jul.2003 22:03

customer base?

to grow, a store must have a customer base and People's seems to have grown
there were loyal customers and the community assisted in the expansion - why do some believe that the "threatening" store will knock People's out of business - how absurd!
next you'll be saying "that terrorist store" - fear tactics from government or activists sucks

you must not have a lot of faith in what People's represents, otherwise you would know
it will be around when all the other ones go out of business

Natures Didn't Put Peoples out of Business 29.Jul.2003 22:59

Voice of Reason

I understand the fear that New Seasons will put Peoples out of business. But I see no reason why it should when Nature's didn't. If anything Peoples has grown stronger since Natures opened. Coops don't generally go out of business because they lose too many customers, they go out of business when they lose a large enough base of people committed to their ideals. People will shop at Peoples because it is their store, their community - they own it and they support it. The energy at Peoples needs to go into building that community and strengthening people's committment to it, not worrying about competing with New Seasons or Natures for shoppers.

the writing could be on the wall for co-ops 30.Jul.2003 11:43

co-op shopper

According the "Cooperative Grocer", a national trade monthly for co-ops around the nation, "most co-ops may go out of business in the next ten years" because of decreasing profits and market share as the large whole food stores muscle in. Cooperate Grocer also has some ideas about how to fight this, but I found the prediction somewhat chilling considering its source.

Original article:
Are You Experienced?

dedicated folks will continue to support Peoples 30.Jul.2003 18:30


those who feel strongly about cooperatives and their values will not pass on that to save a couple of bucks. and i'll second what has already been said re People's energy being best spent doing what they already do to be successful.

there is a "healthfood" chain store where I live but those of us who support cooperatives and locally owned healthfood stores continue to despite these supermarket stores.

maybe energy is best spent figuring out how Peoples and New Seasons can live in the same neighborhood cooperatively. Isn't that the grand goal of life anyway...

Similar Situation in NE -- NOT 30.Jul.2003 22:13


Does anyone know who owns the building that the Alberta St Coop is in? It's owned by... one of the owners of New Seasons! That's right, ladies and gentlemen, if NS really wanted to put the coops out of business, why would they rent out space to one of them?

You all need to calm down. NS is not a big bad corporation, they are a locally owned grocery chain. They will compliment People's, not put them under.

Alberta Co-op's lease 31.Jul.2003 14:09

beat reporter

that's right, Alberta Co-op rents from Pub Group LLC, of which New Seasons' president Brian Rohter is a part owner. According to the word on the street, the terms of the lease are "unreasonable", and the rate paid -- of $1.50/sq. ft -- is one of the highest in that area. So it's not like he's going easy on them, and that situation could definitely get worse at any time!

About Supporting People's Co-op 31.Jul.2003 17:43

By Someone Who Might Just Be an Employee Of Peoples

The best way you can support People's Co-op is by doing all of your grocery shopping there. Period.

Bring your friends. Anti-corporate? Don't shop at Wild Oats, Whole Foods, and especially do not shop at a New Season's in the same neighborhood.

To people who think the new New Seasons will have no effect on People's business: unfortunately you are very wrong. In fact, you are repeating what Brian Rohter himself has said to the media and at the HAND meetings. In case you were wondering what the truth is, instead of your uneducated guess, we will be effected. So says information from all over the country from co-ops who had a similar invasion of a large store in their neighborhood.

To the People stating definitively that People's will be shut down within a few years: You too are just guessing, not providing facts, and definitely do not know the finances, customer base, or the strength of the staff at Peeps. While New Seasons will make us lose money for several months, nobody is panicing. That's because we are an experienced group running the store, making prices competitive, educating people about co-operative shopping. WE can survive this thing. We need our members and community to support us too.


??? 24.Oct.2003 13:44


I really don't see how the author can equate a locally owned company's expansion with corporate globalization.

It was also poorly written.