Friday, December 05, 2008

Food retail in rough places

Continuing a series of walks through urban U.S. neighborhoods that have been identified as food deserts, I journeyed in November on foot through the Skid Row neighborhood of Los Angeles and the Anacostia neighborhood of my hometown of Washington, DC.

Skid Row

At least from an outsider's perspective, Skid Row seemed bleak beyond words. It is a defining failure for a prosperous society to tolerate such poverty. The food retail situation looked poor, but it would be naive to think food retail policy on its own would make much difference in such a setting. I carried a camera, but, despite being a hardened veteran of urban living in the United States, I felt so much like a tourist from another planet that I could not bear to pull it out. So, I have to link to Wikipedia for an image.

My destination, after passing through Skid Row on my way along 7th Street from a conference hotel downtown, was the produce terminal for Los Angeles, an absurdly immense, congested, and seemingly run-down transportation facility. I can just imagine all the Southern California families, buying their fruits and vegetables in pleasant grocery stores and eating them on the dining tables in their pleasant homes, having no idea of the journey their food has taken through this bleak urban wasteland adjoining Skid Row. I told my students later that it is not much done any more for university teachers to quote Karl Marx, but I found the term "alienation" from his philosophical manuscripts running in circles around my head. Here is an image from the University of Southern California's geography department site describing walking tours in Los Angeles.


In Anacostia, I met up at the lovely historic Frederick Douglass Home with David Garber, who keeps a fine blog called And Now, Anacostia. Historically a food desert, the poor neighborhoods in Ward 8 east of the Anacostia River in DC have benefited from a new Giant supermarket in Congress Heights (on Alabama Avenue just off the left edge of this Google map), but David pointed out that Congress Heights is more than a mile removed from the heart of the Anacostia neighborhood, which could still be considered a retail desert. Moreover, others have complained that Giant's strip mall grocery format was poorly matched to the needs of the neighborhod.

View Larger Map

On the walk, I was intrigued especially by this fairly rough store front (photograph by David Garber), which, on close inspection claimed in its overhead sign to be the "Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket," (point C in the Google map). In a year of living in the neighborhood, David said he had never been in once. Inside, it turned out to be a real mid-sized grocery store with a full line of food, from packaged manufactured food to fresh fruits and vegetables of adequate if unimpressive quality.

I am sure this store is nobody's ideal. At the same time, a policy of tax breaks or other incentives to bring in a new supermarket to this neighborhood would raise a number of questions. Would the tax breaks and incentives be good public policy in tight fiscal times? Would a new retailer drive the Anacostia Warehouse Supermarket out of business, and would that be a net benefit or loss for the neighborhood? Would the new supermarket fail, because of competition with the Congress Heights store a short drive (or long walk, or one metro stop) away? I don't know the answers. Like the other walks in this series, this walk offered a lot to think about on the topic of diagnosing retail deserts.

No comments: