Monday, April 30, 2018

The Corner Store - blight or savior of urban neighborhoods?

Most readers of the Baltimore Sun probably never shopped in a store where the clerk sits behind a scratched and yellowed bulletproof plexi-glass screen and transactions are handled via a slot under the glass or a turntable like in bank.  Most probably never paid the prices that these stores charge for the hot dogs, snacks and other packaged goods they sell and which are usually higher than those for similar items in a Harris Teeter, Trader Joe's or Wegmans. So for most the mayor's statements about Baltimore's corner stores falls neatly into the narrative of Baltimore's dark places where the better off never go.
Typical Baltimore corner store (Photo: Spence Lean)

But then, most have never needed credit from a shop-owner when they needed food before the next check comes in and most wouldn't get such credit from their grocery store where they are not recognized, even though they have been shopping their for ages. But in a Baltimore neighborhood corner store, this is not unheard of. Some shop keepers occasionally extend credit to their loyal customers.

Most don't think twice about loading their car with heavy shopping bags and wouldn't dream about carrying them home instead. They don't know what it means to shop groceries without owning a car and how helpful it is to be able to just walk down the block to get a can of soda, a six-pack or a cup or a package of sliced ham. For most the "corner store" is only an item of a distant past when Baltimore had streetcars, the sidewalks were thick with pedestrians walking to places and the City had nearly a million residents. In those days almost every neighborhood intersection had a at least a couple of stores,covering almost any need, from butcher stores to bakers, and from cobblers to ethnic deli food.

How these stores changed over time is a perfect mirror of the shifts in American urban landscape. With suburban flight, with the fixation on the automobile came the shopping center and the supermarket, combined pushing corner stores either out of existence or forcing them to shift to items suitable for a small store, small in size and high in profit. For example: cigarettes and liquor. Still, competing with the 24/7 supermarkets and the 7/11 convenience stores became almost impossible. Thus the corner store became the jumping board for immigrants who would commit to 16 hour workdays seven days a week.
Factory bread, cold drinks and ATM:
Corner store in East Baltimore
(photo: Philipsen)

Ironically, these heroic attempts of making it in America just to escape the crushing conditions of the places from where they came, took place in neighborhoods that became more and more like places of last resort, resembling what the immigrants had fled: Crushing poverty, violence, bad schools and poor health. Thus the corner store has become the intersection where the  ethnic, class and cultural conflicts of contemporary America are being carried out.

Those stores already bore the brunt of the civil unrest following the assassination of Martin Luther King in 1968 and again in April of 2015, just because they were close by, they were usually run by immigrants who often don't speak English very well and were eyed by the community with very mixed feelings.
Chudary Bhallii, who moved to the U.S. in 1991, entered the convenience store business in 1993 after working in a pizza shop. He now owns four in Baltimore, two of which were struck that night — AB Mart on Fayette Street and King Grocery on North Avenue — resulting in what he estimates is more than $50,000 in losses. (SUN article , May 29, 2015)
The corner liquor, convenience, and carry out stores are seen by residents as a convenience on the one hand, but also as a place that is also poisoning the community with what it needs the least: Alcohol, cigarettes, highly processed meats and often also drugs.

When the Mayor stepped into these stores at her recent early morning field tour with department heads she also stepped into a hornets nest with her comments about opening times and the unsanitary conditions she found.
“Yeah. We need y’all to close at nine o’clock at night....These stores on Pennsylvania Avenue and North Avenue need inspections...Health Department, I’m going to expect you to get in there and inspect those places because some of those places need to be shut down. ....How many mini markets do we need in one area?...How many carry-outs do we need in one area?....If you have one mini-market on the block, is there a need for three?....What are they selling, Fritos and soda?”
The Mayor who doesn't drink, smoke or eat anything processed or fatty certainly remembered many of the talking points her department heads had given her in previous meetings. The health department talking about the 20 years that life expectancy in Druid Heights is lower than in Roland Park, the police department talking about the many calls they get about robberies, drug dealing and loitering at corner stores, the planning department addressing food deserts and its long bruising debates whether to allow corner stores in its new zoning code (in the end they remained legal and became even officially sanctioned while liquor stores were curtailed). She certainly also had heard from residents who complained about the stores as a nuisance.
Corner store West Baltimore (Photo: Philipsen)

It didn't take long until the Mayor's comments exploded in online discussion forums, TV talk shows and additional news articles. ("Baltimore priest takes tour of West Baltimore corner stores, sings their praises after mayor's comments")
"This was a good thing, with the Mayor and the heads of the city departments venturing out. I hope it becomes a regular event. But to I also want to hear that our city government is investigating errant property owners, and not just badgering the few merchants who bravely set up shop in these neglected neighborhoods." (Reader comment on the Baltimore Brew
"The mayor's agenda for mom/pop corner stores in low income neighborhoods is the same as for the city's Harbor Point and Port Covington deals: Picking the winners". (Reader comment on the Baltimore Brew) 
"I'm really conflicted here. I'm no fan of most corner stores and was thrilled when the one on my corner closed, mostly because of the litter they generate. But speaking of density, what replaces a corner store when it closes? Nothing, we get another vacant. There are a minority of corner stores that harbor illegal activity, they should be addressed by BPD. There are also some stores that sell fresh produce in partnership with a certain local non-profit. So these generalizations are not helpful, they're reminiscent of other callous generalizations she's made. And they fall way short of leadership". (Facebook comment on Baltimore City Voters)
The irony is that corner stores have made a come-back in many come-back neighborhoods. Bakeries, coffee shops, even occasional butcher shops have sprung up in the revitalizing communities of Remington, Hampden and Washington Village. In Pigtown's "main street" on Washington Boulevard Ms Pugh herself ran a consignment store while she was State Senator, celebrating the renaissance of retail there.  Of course, most of those corner stores in the disenfranchised neighborhoods in Harlem Park, Sandtown, Park Heights and Rosemont are a far cry from their reincarnated brethren on revitalized "main streets".  But are they any less useful? In neighborhoods where more than 30% of buildings are vacant sagging hulls and where up to 75% of households have no access to cars those stores are one of the few places that provide a sign of life. For example, all of the feature ATMs, and a way to get cash in communities that to this day are "redlined" by banks. Shuttering the ones that are not so well run or cause frequent disturbances would certainly not mean that another, better one would magically appear. It would most likely mean that even fewer services are available and another building would stand vacant.
Peter and Ky Lim run Mama's Market  in West Baltimore: Bananas and closed
at 6:30pm (Photo: Fern  Shen, Baltimore Brew)

The problem of corner stores, liquor and barbershops which have become part of drug dealing logistics has been discussed many times. So have their unhealthy food offerings and the lack of variety. (They tend to sell the same things, even if there are several in a cluster). There is always some reality in the criticism but the truth is too often layered with innuendo, racism and  a sense of superiority that feels wrong and does little to solve the actual problems.

The organization of Korean store owners (KARGO) started a scholarship program 23 years ago.  with annual grants going to students in neighborhoods where member stores are located. Mayor Rawlings Blake together with Johns Hopkins had begun an initiative of enticing corner stores to sell fresh foods and reduce the problem of food deserts (Baltimarket) although from several defunct weblinks it isn't clear if the program still continues. Zoning and the liquor board have addressed the problem of too many liquor stores.

My office has received many calls from store owners confronted with issues such as a requirement to create an accessible entrance or to pass a health department inspection of their small commercial kitchen operations.  Architectural permit drawings for a store reconfiguration or a use permit, specifications for vent hoods, the complexity of ADA, all these are matters that leave individuals who work those long hours in the stores and are often their own suppliers entirely helpless. If the City really wants to have healthy neighborhoods, better services, healthier food, fewer food deserts and fewer vacant buildings, it takes more than the annual trips to the retail convention in Las Vegas. It takes an intricate, multi-department approach of assistance to small business owners including maybe a "corner store ombudsman" who helps owners to comply with all the rules.
Sales through bullet proof glass:

The  Vacant houses, corner stores and many poor unemployed residents themselves can cause problems. But the solution shouldn't be any longer old style urban renewal tactics of displacement, eminent domain, demolition and forced closure. These heavy handed measures should finally go on the trash heap of history because they just make things worse. What is needed is assistance, targeted investment and building social capital by using existing structures, networks and the entrepreneurial spirit that still exists even in the poorest neighborhood. As one of the gubernatorial candidates put it in a recent debate: "talent is everywhere, but opportunity is not".

Klaus Philipsen, FAIA

Improving Carryouts in Baltimore; Johns Hopkins University
Baltimarket healthy corner store food initiative

Corner Life: For decades, Korean-American storeowners have faced struggles in Baltimore City. They still do. Baltimore Magazine, Sept 2013

No comments:

Post a Comment