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Main St. Returns from Exile

Think the days of knowing where your food and clothes come from are gone for good? What began as ties between one café and local farmers could grow into a new model for the global economy.
 
 
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A short walk from the University of Pennsylvania, on a block of Victorian brownstones once condemned to the wrecking ball, resides one of the East Coast's great salons for the liberal intelligentsia. A visitor on a given evening might find Eric Schlosser deconstructing fast food, former ambassador to Czechoslovakia William Luers analyzing the United Nations, or a gaggle of TV cameras crammed in to cover a protest of the Republican National Convention. Yet the crowds are as likely to be pulled in by the Sweet Potato Plantain Soup, Crispy Twice-Cooked Quail, and Organic Pear Salad with Jumbo Lump Crab Meat as they are by a lecture on the hydrogen future.

Judy Wicks founded the White Dog Café on the first floor of her Philadelphia home in 1983. Her food took its cue from the innovative New American cuisine of Alice Waters's Chez Panisse in Berkeley: updated regional dishes, rebuilt on a foundation of seasonal local produce. At the White Dog the food was a hit, and diners soon spilled onto the sidewalk, waiting for a chance to taste farm-fresh strawberry pie and the succulent local tomatoes on Betty's Beef Kabobs.

As the restaurant grew, so did Wicks's notion that the strength of her business relied upon the quality and sustainability of its locally grown ingredients. Six years ago, after reading about the horrors of industrial hog farms, she stormed into her kitchen, scratched pork off the menu, and went searching for a farmer with a soft spot in his heart for pigs.

Her hunt took Wicks beyond the meat wholesalers, who knew not whence their cuts came, to Glen Brendle, a farmer who delivered produce to the White Dog in his compact pickup truck. Brendle knew Amish farmers in nearby Lancaster County who still were raising hogs the old way. But he barely had room in his pickup for vegetables, let alone pork chops, so Wicks gave him a low-interest loan to purchase a refrigerated cargo truck. The loan enabled him to deliver meat to more than fifteen restaurants and caterers, creating an entirely new market in Philadelphia for locally grown, humanely raised, free-range pigs.

"Judy is an enabler," Brendle says. "Without her encouragement and financial help I probably wouldn't be doing this."

That could have been the end of the story, but Wicks saw something powerful in what she and Brendle had done. She began to envision how strengthening relationships between independent, community-rooted enterprises could inspire broad and profound cultural change. In 2001, she and cofounder Laury Hammel unveiled the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE), the first national network of small, sustainable companies dedicated to buying and selling products locally. The organization supports merchants who are deeply committed to their communities and who define success more holistically than the managers of investor-owned corporations.

"In a living economy, investors seek a 'living return' -- one partially paid by the benefits of living in healthy, vibrant communities and participating [in civic affairs]," Wicks says. "By addressing the deeper needs of their employees and community, business owners can grow their companies in new ways, providing more fulfilling jobs, healthier communities, and greater economic security for their bioregions."

A living economy sustains community life, economic viability, and the natural environment. "We have to change our concept about how we measure value in things, and get people to be willing to pay more for something that's well made, made locally, and that they would have for a long time," Wicks says.

BALLE members join local "affiliates" (a term intended to emphasize how BALLE -- which is pronounced "bah-lee" -- is a bottom-up kind of organization) and pledge to purchase as many locally made items as possible -- everything from energy to personal clothing. Banding together, they attempt to construct an alternative to corporate globalization by building local and, if their plans work out, international networks of self-sufficient economic communities. "This is a new way to operate," Wicks says. "It's about stepping outside your business and working collectively and cooperatively with others to rebuild entire local economies."

The first person to unite small businesses into a national force for economic self-determination was born in Porbunder, India, in 1869. Mohandas Gandhi is best known as the pioneer of nonviolent resistance, but many of the techniques he used to fight British imperialism harnessed market forces. He inspired Indians to burn imported British fabrics and return to the traditional textiles woven in villages, and he helped retrain local spinners, weavers, and carders. Gandhi's independence movement illustrated how a group such as the BALLE could combat modern colonizers that today take the form of Burger King and Wal-Mart. Wicks invokes Gandhi's example when she promotes BALLE. "Where Gandhi fought British tyranny," Wicks says, "we're now fighting corporate tyranny -- and we're using the same strategies."

By effectively ignoring global corporations, the BALLE strategy represents a break from more traditional efforts to reform them, choosing to focus instead on the benefits of local businesses and their interconnections. Strengthening local economies shortens the separation between cause and effect, allowing business owners and customers to comprehend the environmental and social impacts of their behavior more immediately. It also causes economic interests to mesh more effectively with community interests by illustrating how they overlap.

BALLE employs a diverse set of strategies to bolster business on Main Street. For instance, it lobbies for policies to tailor technology for regional use and to recirculate financial capital locally. But the foundation of any local living economy is a community's appreciation for its own uniqueness. BALLE thus focuses heavily on boosting community pride and tying this notion to the idea of local purchasing.

By late 2002, BALLE counted about four thousand members among twenty affiliates in twelve states. By then, some of the groups had begun actively trying to stimulate business-to-business connections. The New York affiliate, Whole Profit Exchange, started holding a monthly working cocktail hour dubbed the "Transaction Bar." "For a lot of us, the traditional kind of networking thing is not that interesting," says Ajax Greene, organizer of the Bar and cofounder of Visionary Health Concepts, a Manhattan healthcare company. "We wanted to meet with people who share our values." The affiliate in Minneapolis, Responsible Minnesota Businesses, began organizing similar monthly salons. And Sustainable Connections -- the BALLE group in Bellingham -- issued its first membership directory, a catalog of 110 merchants, in 2002.

The 1990s were an especially brutal decade for local retailers. In ten years, eleven thousand independent pharmacies closed as chain drugstores captured the majority of the market. More than forty percent of independent book stores failed; Barnes & Noble and Borders now command nearly half of all sales. And five supermarket firms jumped from controlling less than a quarter of all grocery receipts to ringing up nearly half of them. Today, Blockbuster rents out one in three videos; one hundred chains pocket forty percent of restaurant spending; and Wal-Mart marshals over a third of the entire U.S. market for product lines ranging from dog food to diapers.

Big businesses leach money and vitality from the communities they purport to serve. A study conducted by the Austin Business Association found that a dollar spent at a local store circulates in that community three times more than a dollar spent at a chain. Big-box stores situated on the urban periphery also lure people away from downtown parks and sidewalks and into their cars, reducing their social interactions to elbow bumping in checkout lines. And corporate chains rarely lend customers a hand. "When is the last time you got advice from Safeway?" asks Stacy Mitchell of the Institute for Local Self Reliance, an antichain research group. "Or borrowed a dollar from Walgreens?"

BALLE, which Wicks launched with the help of other members of the Social Venture Network, has grown quickly because the advantage it brings to members is the connections they make with each other. These relationships are good for business -- witness the improved dollar-recycling effect -- but they are also good for the other values BALLE espouses. "It's a model for activism, in some ways," says Bellingham's Long. "It's about thinking about what's in it for everybody. It's about not pointing fingers, but going about business the way it should be done and caring about each other."

BALLE is structured around "building blocks," each essentially a citizens' task force dedicated to one of twenty basic industries -- for example, sustainable energy, independent media, locally designed and manufactured clothing, neighborhood tourism, reuse and recycling, green building, independent retailers, local arts and culture, and holistic healthcare. Volunteers form building blocks to strengthen bonds between restaurants and local farmers; to build intelligent local transportation solutions; and to green up the local construction industry. "A key to success is tapping into the energy and passion of people in your community," Wicks says. "That's where the building blocks have made a big impact."

Last winter, BALLE partnered with The Society of Friends (Quakers) to create the Greater Philadelphia Local Living Economy Fund, an eight-hundred-thousand-dollar endowment dedicated to promoting new businesses based on BALLE principles. The type of loan that Wicks gave to Brendle is now available to scores of other merchants. The fund has invested in locally owned Pennypack Farm -- which donates a portion of its produce to the hungry -- and is studying a ridesharing business called Philadelphia Car Share. "We want to invest in goods and services, rather than bads and disservices," says fund director Andrew Anderson. "We are looking at businesses that are moving toward a restoration economy."

BALLE's next project will tie local affiliates together through a national online purchasing database. A remodeler in Boston shopping for eco-certified timber could buy it at Home Depot, for instance, but if she types "wood" into the BALLE webpage, up pops an independent forester who will ship straight from Vermont. The database, open to all, is designed to unite local networks -- and individual shoppers -- into a national marketplace of independent businesses. As far as Wicks is concerned, there is no reason to stop there. One of BALLE's principles is to "reach out globally to other communities to trade in those products they cannot reasonably produce at home." Reaching out online, restaurateurs could buy sustainably grown coffee directly from Chiapas farmers; furniture makers could order eco-certified veneers from West African villagers; and decorators could purchase rugs from Moroccan weavers. What began as ties between the White Dog Café and Pennsylvania farmers could eventually grow into a new model for the global economy. "You can't buy everything locally," Wicks says, "so what we are envisioning is a global economy that is comprised of this intricate network of small-to-small relationships around the world. "

As BALLE's power to market and network local businesses has expanded, entrepreneurs have begun resurrecting local trades once nearly extinct. The moribund clothing industry in Philadelphia seemed a particularly hopeless candidate for revival until Wicks took it up as a project this spring. She doubted BALLE could enable local garment makers to compete on price with major chains that manufacture their clothes in the Third World, but she wanted to open minds to the idea of spending more for locally made options -- much as the White Dog had popularized local (albeit sometimes more expensive) food.

Marcia O'Donnell, the head of BALLE's Philadelphia clothing building block, never thought she could earn a living from garments until Wicks connected her with a government grant that helped O'Donnell pay the salary of an additional seamstress. Wicks also pointed her to trade shows where she could meet buyers. "Judy has been a critical resource for me at this time in my career," says O'Donnell, who now produces outfits for children through her new company, Added Touch Sewing Specialties. She will sell her creations alongside those of other local designers in a new clothing store Wicks plans to open adjacent to the White Dog Café next fall.

O'Donnell and Wicks proved BALLE could create a buzz around Philadelphia's rebounding clothing industry when they mounted a local fashion show at the May conference of the Sustainable Business Network. Three hundred people ate locally grown salads in the assembly hall of a design school as models strutted up and down a red carpet runway produced by a Philadelphia company from recycled materials. O'Donnell took the microphone to introduce a dress inspired by a snowdrop flower, designed by Philadelphian Kiril Tchangov. Later, a muscular model appeared in a sleeveless shirt designed from vintage tie fabric by local boutique owner Anthony Sparacino. And O'Donnell's granddaughter captivated the audience when she stepped into the ballroom wearing O'Donnell's pink Cinderella dress. She strode down the runway in a flutter of organza, stopped, twirled, and smiled.

Later that month, reflecting on what BALLE has accomplished, Wicks summarized the consciousness a local living economy creates. "When I eat the food from my restaurant," she said, "I think about the local farmers in Pennsylvania I buy my produce from. I think about the goat herder and the sheep. When I drink the coffee from my café, I think about the Indians in Chiapas, Mexico, who grew the beans. Business is about relationships. Money is simply a tool."

Josh Harkinson supports his local coffee shop in Houston, Texas, which, unlike Starbucks, also serves tequila. His work has appeared in magazines such as E, San Francisco, and Harper's, and he is a staff writer for the Houston Press.