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 and higher financial goals and wealth.

I myself 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 willingingly 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.

We underrated, we educated
The corner was our time when times stood still
And gators and snakes gangs and yellow and pink
And colored blue profiles glorifying that…

The corner was our magic, our music, our politics
Fires raised as tribal dancers and
war cries that broke out on different corners
Power to the people, black power, black is beautiful…

The corner was our Rock of Gibraltar, our Stonehenge
Our Taj Mahal, our monument,
Our testimonial to freedom, to peace and to love
Down on the corner…
Common featuring The Last Poets, The Corner, 2005

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. What about GLBTQ folks and their needs? 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.

Image credit Flickr user Mr. T in DC under a Creative Commons Licence.

  • Who should own the corner store? #urbanism

  • pete-rock

    Sometimes I think people over-analyze this matter.  I agree with you that ultimately it’s not important who owns the neighborhood store.  But I do think it’s important for more blacks to become entrepreneurial, either within our outside of our communities.  I’m a black man who’s lived in black neighborhoods in major cities my whole life and I think people often overlook the demographic and economic transformations that cause the question of “why don’t black own stores in their own neighborhoods” to arise.

    Segregation led to long-time black ownership of stores.  Integration meant black consumers had greater choice, which hurt black-owned stores in segregated neighborhoods.  That caused many black-owned businesses to collapse and other owners step in.

    To me, the question of “why we don’t own stores in our neighborhoods” is the result of two perceptions, equally bad — 1) one of whites who believe we don’t take responsibility for the makeup of our communities, and 2) one of blacks who believe we abandoned our communities for selfish gain.

    • Kristen Jeffers

      Thanks for stopping by. I do think folks, especially black folks, need to be supported in their ventures. I’ve seen a lot of black entrepreneurship, but is it supported? If we want to be really real, the drug trade and other less savory trades are great examples of black entrepreneurship. We also have our restaurants, beauty/barbers and in some cases we still have medical, legal and general stores. I would like to see more non-traditional and more legal pathways to entrepreneurship. I wonder if we aren’t doing as much ideashare on the basics of running businesses that keep us from branching into other avenues and remaining in business. But then again, entrepreneurs of all stripes fail, but they find ways of continuing on.

      •  I would assume access to capital is a huge issue.

        We bootstrapped Urban Milwaukee: The Store. I’m not entirely sure what non-family avenues I would have pursued to obtain a loan to open the store otherwise (knowing that it’s not a traditional retail operation).

        We need a (legal) financial mechanism where-in the community can fund for-profit businesses.

  • Does It Matter Who Owns the Corner Store?

  • Hard but necessary dialogue:@blackurbanist: Who should own the corner store? #urbanism” N

  • Charles

    African-Americans are not usually trained to be, nor do we think of ourselves as, entrepreneurs. Therefore, even when we have good or excellent credit, we will not start a business. As no, many times we see an African-American business, other that barber and beauty shops as inferior, we will not shop there.  Until we get these issues resolved, we will continue to have not have African-American owned businesses in our neighborhoods.

  • pete-rock

    We’re talking about two different things here.  Black entrepreneurship is one thing.  Supporting businesses as community institutions is another.  We may want to merge individual economic success with community revitalization but they don’t necessarily have to go hand in hand.

    • Kristen Jeffers

      True, but all businesses, including online ones, have some sort of home base. It may be on the traditional residential street corner, it may be in an office park, it may be in someone’s bedroom. While a business may not want to be a trading post or community institution, it may already be doing so without trying. They don’t have to go hand in hand, but without a customer base, which is a community under one of it’s other definitions, or a high yield proposition, which may crash, then it will fail

  • Don’t know about everywhere but in the case of East Market Street here in Greensboro where you and I live, miles of mostly black owned businesses were bulldozed to widen E Market Street from downtown to its end at Burlington Rd. And while I know you’re not old enough to remember that I’m sure you remember the recent narrowing of East Market st.

  • Great post! It really is a good question and does open up the discussion on many topics.

    Does it matter who owns it? Yes, you’re right on, someone who is vested in the community who can be “eyes on the street” would be the best. Black, White, Hispanic, or Asian.

    The time will never be better than now to educate and train all Americans how to become business owners and community activists. We’ve seen how destructive our policies can be and how much inequality still exists even with the great strides that have been taken.

    We must continue to learn more about our built environment and the behaviors of people to really see that it truly does matter who owns the corner store.

  • Does It Matter Who Owns the Corner Store? by @BlackUrbanist

  • I can’t speak from the black cultural experience but I can speak from my experience building and operating a corner store. This sentence rings true: “Yet, when businesses on these proverbial corners completely forget their legacy and their obligation for service, then they fail.”

    I’ve really come to appreciate how much local business owners can contribute to a community’s social fabric; that the ownership position is a privilege and responsibility outside of whatever service/products/etc. the business itself is contributing. This social role is very demanding — more than some would appreciate, but also rewarding. When this social role feels like a burden it gives me comfort knowing other public-facing, placemaking entrepreneurs share this role. We each have a role to play to make our neighborhoods happier and healthier.

    • Kristen Jeffers

      I’m glad that stuck with you Katie. I see yourself and others as examples of good community stewards, period. I think that goes beyond race and creed and goes to basic human dignity. We all have a role in creating place, through our neighborhoods.