The Loss of Russo’s

Russo’s, a beloved market in Watertown, Massachusetts is closing. This is crushing news to local residents, including my family, who have come to rely on their fresh produce. Russo’s is not a failed business. It has been operating continuously for 100 years. The reason Russo’s is closing is because Tony Russo, who has been working at his family’s market for more than 70 years, is retiring.

Most people think of Russo’s as a retail operation. The truth is more complicated. Russo’s is a farm, a distribution network of small growers, a wholesale distributor, and a food processor as well as a retail location. It’s something that can not be franchised; a unique expression of local cultivation.

Russo’s local connections enabled it to provide produce that was both fresher and less expensive than the best deals you can find at Whole Foods or Trader Joes. The variety also transcends what can typically be obtained from national chains. “Where am I going to find curry leaves?”, laments my wife.

Russo’s also employs over 120 people. If the business is successful, why close it? Why not pass the business on to the employees or an investor? To answer that question I want you to ponder another: What is the value of the real estate of Central Park in New York City? At $1000/sq foot, the value is estimated at $39 Trillion dollars.

The expansive lot that Russo’s resides on has been sold for $38 Million dollars. The lot is worth more than the value of the business itself, and the value this resource provides to the community. This is the part that is messed up.

So what will replace Russo’s? Glad you asked. Biotech lab space! Yay!

To be clear, I wish Tony and his family the best and if I were him, I’d be doing the same thing. I do feel it is worth a pause to consider what we want and value from our local community. Would the real estate next to Central Park be worth the same if Central Park didn’t exist? Of course not. It is the loss of Russos a tremendous loss for the surrounding community? Sure feels like it. If the value if your home appreciates because your community is known for great schools, when your schools need an influx of money you don’t stab your community in the back.

So what can be done? Watertown is a very oddly-zoned town, and by odd I mean, like, no oversight at all. Residential, commercial, light industrial all mix side-by-side and there doesn’t seem to be guidelines on how closely you can build to a property line. Biking infrastructure is laughably absent.

Specifically, Watertown should investigate setting aside public space for a Permanent Farmer’s Market. More generally, we need to embrace and support efforts to expand the Common Good in our communities and understand that investing in our communities returns an appreciation of quality of life and home values.

Associate Professor, Electronic Production and Design, Berklee College of Music Opinions: my own