Food retail is consistently one of the visible changes that signifies the sustainability of gentrification in any given area. This is why the addition of a Whole Foods in Harlem made people say, “there goes the neighborhood.” They recognized and rightfully grieved the loss of Black Harlem. This isn’t because black people don’t like Whole Foods, but because people recognize that the influx of particular amenities are not for all bodies. You don’t have to be a social scientist to know that.
In the earlier and mid-stages, gentrification may not manifest itself in the form of Whole Foods. It might be craft beer.
In my neighborhood, one of the residents helped design and promote a survey for a corner store in the neighborhood. I’m not certain of all the results, but the one that was reported back to us was that what my neighbors really want to see in this store is a selection of craft and local beer.
Corner stores carry an unfair burden of stigma, particularly in this moment when they are the poster children for the problems in neighborhoods that have low food access. They are blamed for selling too much junk food and too few fruits and vegetables. Never mind the fact that it is difficult for corner store owners to get contracts for fresh fruits and vegetables, because companies often prefer to sell to larger stores. This wasn’t always the case. Small neighborhood grocers and markets were the standard in most urban neighborhoods through the first half of the twentieth century. However, the rapid rise in supermarkets since the 1950s relegated small markets to second class citizenship in the food world. To survive, some rebranded their identity and became specialty stores. Others’ identities shifted for them as people depended less on small grocers and more on supermarkets. The corner store, then, is a product of shifts in preferences, tastes, and the flow of money in and out of neighborhoods.
Craft and local beer.
Gentrification has many effects, one of which is the slow but steady shifts in meanings and practices of institutions (and sadly, often the eventual erasure). In the coming years, we may see the loss of ‘corner stores’ and the reemergence of ‘neighborhood grocers.’ The store owner no doubt sees and understands what is happening around him. He wants to have a thriving neighborhood business. This may very well be the first time he has conducted a survey to get feedback on what to sell. It’s hard out here in these gentrifying streets. He wants to survive.
I don’t know if the store sells Victory brews, Southbound, 420, or any of the others my neighbors requested. I have no idea if my neighbors followed up on their support of the store, despite the physical condition of the building, which neighbors pointed out as undesirable. What I do know, however, is the request for craft beer has meaning. The fact that many of my neighbors, most of whom will not shop there anyway, felt comfortable and confident in their request is significant. It is indicative of the many ways long-standing communities are expected to shift, change, and meet the needs and demands of a population that was largely nonexistent before. Yes, businesses shift and change as markets change. But we should be paying attention to the hows and whys of these shifts. The ask is the beginning of erasure.