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A Black Urbanist Book Preview: The Market

I’m starting this book with the market, as without the market, we would not have urbanism. Churches and homes and farms and schools and even some general stores survive and thrive without being in urban areas. You could always walk the terrain of rural areas, as well as navigate with all forms of human transport that have followed. Yet, there’s really no city without a major marketplace. Without the convergence of mass amounts of people to trade their goods. Over the years, this market has gone back into homes, it’s become enclosed inside big boxes and it’s become less about product and more about people. So where do I really stand on this thing I like to call the market?

Today’s post is the first part of my upcoming e-book: A Black Urbanist-Essays Vol. 1.  The e-book will launch on December 1, it’s only $10 and there will be a printed version coming. Find out more about the book here

Does It Matter Who Owns the Corner Store?

Recently, a friend on Facebook asked this somewhat quintessential question: Why don’t black folks own businesses in their own neighborhoods? One commenter to this status mentioned that it may be because we (as in black folks) have forgotten to help our own as we have achieved higher financial goals and wealth.

I personally believe (and I mentioned this in a comment myself) that black folks went through a period where some of the business types in predominantly black neighborhoods were unwanted and unneeded in their eyes. I’ve even had someone who remembers urban renewal in Greensboro tell me that they willingly tore down the neighborhood businesses in hopes of something better.

However, in many cases, that something better never came. I am also cautious of some modern “revitalizations”, especially when the lots have been sitting empty for several years with no vision and no purpose.

Meanwhile, I applaud those who took up the banner of preserving the history, the commerce, and the tradition of ethnic enclaves, of all cultures. I even applaud those of other cultures who have come in and filled up the vacant spaces, either with businesses and services more geared to their cultures. I especially love if they maintained the original businesses’ quality and culture, and improved the original operations.

When community and culture and affordability are respected, then I don’t think it matters who owns the corner store.

Yet, when businesses on these proverbial corners completely forget their legacy and their obligation for service, then they fail. If a shop owner follows its teenage customers instead of offering jobs, then they have failed. If women are looked upon as strange invasive creatures and vice-versa for males, then they have failed. Yes, we need safe space to be ourselves as men and women, but at the end of the day, there still comes a time for mutual respect. Elders should shop for free. It’s this vision of the corner store or business as a service that owners need to undertake.

Ultimately, I think that this obligation is what makes it hard for people to maintain such businesses over a long haul. These businesses are more than stores, barbers or beauty salons. They are sounding boards, mini town squares, and city halls. If you are not ready to be a de facto mayor or community leader, then you best take your business elsewhere. I believe this is why these businesses fall onto those who either want this charge or those who have no other choice but to run this type of business. I think some black leaders (and I’m sure there are others of other ethnic enclaves who feel the same way) who wanted to run a business that would not become every inch of their lives.

So does it matter who owns the corner store? Absolutely. Yet, it’s not a question of what the owners look like on the outside, it’s a question of what they believe on the inside about their community and their business.

Another store we pined for in Greensboro and it finally arrived in April of 2012.

Another store we pined for in Greensboro and it finally arrived in April of 2012.

What if that Corner Store is Walmart? Why Can’t it Be Trader Joes

What really determines who owns the corner store is the inability to take risks. Certain stores, you know, the ones that have cheapish stuff, but a somewhat upscale atmosphere, I believe are only taking advantage of what they think youth or boomers with disposable income or some other magical unicorn person will buy and will buy repeatedly. Unfortunately, magical unicorns tend to not have strong political views or bank accounts that hover around or appear to hover around zero. Stores that don’t take risks don’t like cleaning up old parking lots or making sure even the folks who carry EBT cards have the opportunity to have shiny electronics or even just basic food items.

Walmart, however, goes directly after that market. We talk about the exploitation that they do, but there’s a degree of exploitation in the pretty but cheap store market too. They exploit the emotions of those of us who make just enough to spend at least $50-100 at Target each month, 60% of the cart being non-food items that may or may not be adult toys or pure junk. They make us feel better as a town when they show up promising more Salted Caramel Chocolate cookies for cheap. They allow us to buy more clothes, even though those clothes fall apart at the end of the season.

But back to Walmart.They replaced an empty Borders store on a once vital, recently struggling side of Greensboro and whenever I shop there, it’s packed.They are now going into Quaker Village, the one place many of us Greensboro privately wanted Trader Joes to go, had they been willing to spend the funds to revamp the shopping center like the Walmart. But Walmart is the world’s largest retailer, so if it fails, then it’s no big deal. These other retailers, they aren’t as big as we think. Ask Harris Teeter. Yes, the bigwigs got golden parachutes in their deal with Kroger, but everyone else and the name itself took a small hit. If it weren’t for Kroger understanding the impact of the name on the market, then there’s just one more “luxury” name gone away.

I think the lesson learned here is that sometimes, it doesn’t matter what your name is or what your perception is as a store. At the end of the day, it’s all about the bottom line, customers are just props to be lured in like the Pied Piper, with colorful patterned displays and cheap wine.

Which Gets Us to Amazon

There are benefits to the world domination of Amazon. Big box and traditional department stores either step their game up and stay in business or they count their losses and combine forces at one central location, as the Greensboro Belk will do, by going to Friendly Center. I also would like to note here that at one point, Friendly Center was said to be on the rocks. Now, it’s our shining example of that hybrid of the mall and the main street.

Getting back to that hybrid idea for a moment, although I bemoan Raleigh’s North Hills/Midtown gentrification from a housing standpoint, its efficiency is bar none. All the places I love to shop, save IKEA and the Limited are right on site. The best plain wings in North Carolina are right in-house at the Q Shack.  I get my chicken quesadilla fix at Moe’s and yes, I still have a soft spot for Chic-Fil-A chicken nuggets, which is conveniently located next to the movie theater, giving me more options besides popcorn for movies. Harris Teeter is now across the very busy Six Forks Road, but so is the brand new North Hills amphitheater and several other fun spots. The crosswalks are long and safe enough, it’s not so bad.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention the suckling power of the Great Bullseye, the crown jewel of this setup. What is it really about the store? The Wikipedia entry gives a great nod to the attention to customer experience. When I come to Target, I’m not prompted in-between sad old songs to buy things. (Although, I will interrupt my Target love fest to say that the IKEA’s choice to play disco era jams during my last visit was also spot on. But more on the big blue box in a minute).

Target’s usually a stop after work when I’m tired and I need time to process my day, as well as pick up a few things. I know that most of those things will be there.

Plus, I get entertained by a few wants and for the most part they don’t fall into my cart. Even with the card security issues, Target offers an actual happy experience over crowded spaces, extremely overpriced, but of similar quality clothing, and just the right foods to stock up my pantry. Once again, they are committed to being a part of city life too, with stores in mixed use developments, traditional malls, East Harlem and its new CityTarget concept in the Chicago Loop.

That other big box of weakness, IKEA, does its part to be urbanist and hip to the Amazon Prime crowd. You can actually see what everything looks like, in a real room setup. Now granted, I’m used to this, having grown up a stones throw from the furniture capital of the world and the year-round, well-dressed, showrooms of furniture of real wood and already-assembled craftsmanship. However, how many stores show you how cool your studio apartment really is? How many stores have kitchen and bathroom and office planning consultants on site? And seriously, how many have pillows made of hearts with arms ready for hugs. Sure, you’ll probably need lots of hugs after you finish putting together all that furniture, but they’ve also made sure you ate well coming in and out of the door.

Like all for-profit companies, including that Amazon, there have been issues with labor, poor products, poor customer service and once again, that many of these stores are always in driving distance. Yet, they do deliver. This, is what makes IKEA and Target, in my opinion, the department stores that will lead the way as we become more digital and return to the traditional main streets from the malls and the box stores.

I know I put this picture into sepia, but the mall isn't quite dead yet.

I know I put this picture into sepia, but the mall isn’t quite dead yet.

Don’t Sleep on the Mall Though

Say the words mall and main street and two very different images come up. I’m going to guess the former image involves neon signs, fountains and Sbarro, while the latter may also include a fountain, but a barber pole and Sheriff Andy Taylor. Well, until recently,when popular acceptance of new urbanist principles created a hybrid of the two in many areas, which is a revival, not a hybrid.

Much of my urbanism is informed by a love for the traditional enclosed mall. And like the love I have for my city, it is a tough love. After all, it depends on whether I really need to buy a bunch of clothes, or a Cinnabon, since that’s all that seems to exist at these structures these days. Once upon a time though, I lived for the weekend trip to The Disney Store and Waldenbooks. I find more comfort these days on “main street”, called Elm Street here in Greensboro. I like that there are multiple types of businesses, fresh air, and a culture of people just coming to hang out and fellowship, not just spend money on objects.

Yet, the truth is that I could probably stick to my budget and do all my ordering of things on Amazon and have a good time at an-all inclusive beach resort. Retail is retail is retail right? As long as there’s a product and an exchange of currency, all forms of shopping are the same right? Why then, should I (and in turn you) be concerned with the keeping of our shopping districts, no matter the form?

First, because for so many communities, even the reviled inclosed mall creates community. Many people have shied away from malls, citing too many_______ people (Fill in the blank however you please). However, for those ______ people, the mall does keep them out of  trouble , provide a source of employment, a safe place to walk, and of course clothes and Cinnabons. Also, for small business owners, older enclosed malls and strip centers provide cheap office and storefront space that can help them create a livelihood, and in turn, create opportunities for their families and the greater community.

Other older malls have reinvented themselves as churches, libraries, schools, indoor farms and food markets. Likewise for main streets in smaller towns and cities that were once areas of empty shells and blight, but have been brought back to life. A bonus for the main streets is that many of the buildings were built in an era where quality was king and time was taken to create structures that not only last, but have lots of architectural character.

Secondly, dead real estate is dead real estate, no matter the location. As we learned in Retrofitting Suburbia and the Sprawl Repair Manual, even if it started as sprawl, going back to fix it can re-ignite the community and keep a neighborhood from going into further decline. Going back to imagining things, I see a montage of main streets going from the heyday of the mid 20th century, to the late 20th century abandonment and neglect, to the indie stores and street festivals and new apartments of today. If we can fix main street, we can fix the enclosed mall and make it a proper community center too.

Third, not everyone will understand or find benefits in online shopping. It’s still best to try clothes on and handle fruits and vegetables before you purchase them. I remember the one time I bought shoes online, I ended up with major blisters and a weird gait on a day where walking really mattered (my graduation day from NC State). Plus, who can deny how well a human touch can make even the worst product the best in the world.

Closing this Store, For Now

Even though I’ve said that the mall is probably dead, I also believe it does matter who owns the corner store. Retail is a strange animal, but where would we be without it? This is where I give props to the homesteaders who seem to have answered that question. Meanwhile, for the rest of us, onward and upward to Target and IKEA.

Would we be people without commerce and a marketplace? Maybe, if we go full on into a marketplace of ideas. Would we be urbanists though? Probably not.

This post is part of #NaBloPoMo, an effort to post on blogs every day throughout the month of November. Find out more about it here. Also, if you would like to pre-order A Black Urbanist, you can here. Since this isn’t Amazon, all proceeds come right to me and you get it in a PDF that can be read in any format.

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