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Why Are Our Black Neighborhoods ‘Business Deserts?’

It has not been a lead story on any of the 6 p.m. newscasts, front pages of the local daily or blasted on Facebook, but the Family Dollar Store at 2561 Tidewater Drive in Norfolk is closing.

Last Saturday I was among the patrons scurrying between the near empty shelves, seeking to find toilet tissue when the obvious caught our senses.

One of the clerks verified it, quietly, and gave no reasons.

But any reporter worth his keep had to see what was up. Turns out, Dollar General will buy the site and reopen it.

Yea!!

To make a long story short – thanks information from the Norfolk Office of Communications – 330 or so Family Dollar Stores have been bought by Dollar General. The rebranding and reopening will be done in the coming months.

Disaster averted. Now you ask why this is so important.

If the store had closed permanently, it would have been blow to a portion of the city inhabited mostly by Black and poor people historically underserved by commerce.

Translation: it is the closest retail outlet in an area many companies don’t want to set up, plain and simple.

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Read on and I hope I will explain why.

The premature news that the retail site would close was a shock.

One neighbor was so irate she held her own loud and vocal protest in the store. She is a conscious supportive citizen and was eager to voice her concerns during joint Baraud Park Cottage Heights and Lindenwood Civic League meetings.

Tidewater Drive runs through all three neighborhoods.

She loudly condemned the pending closing, questioning “if the community was too poor to support it, if theft was the cause, and if so, why not hire security to fend off thieves?”

She wanted to know why nearby residents were not notified by their civic league or city officials who attend league meetings monthly. Why, she asked, can’t the city help invest and retain retail and outlets as they do in other areas?

I often walk from St. Paul’s Blvd. downtown along Tidewater to Rugby Street where I live. I can count, on one hand the number of retail and food outlets along this very busy thoroughfare.

A Burger King at Tidewater and Virginia Beach Blvd. Then there are no other commercial or retail outlet until you get to the now dead Family Dollar.

The store sat next to an outlet where people secured loans and other services that banks used to provide in that community before they pulled the plug – another urban economic tale.

Next door is a post office; across the street is a convenience store where you can buy gas.

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Now If you continue further up, you will see a little retail activity, including a blue collar diner and nearby, again – a convenience store and a Dollar Tree and auto parts store.

Moving forward, no significant retail action exists until you get to the 3500 block of Tidewater where you find a Food Lion, a strip mall across the street, including – hmm, a convenience store.

You see my point.

Last Saturday, I left the dying store, as my irate neighbor ranted in the check out line.

I lugged perhaps my last purchases home from the outlet, but tossed each one of my irate neighbor’s questions around in my head.

This is typical of large stretches of the nation’s urban centers, where mostly Black, poor and working class people live in what social scientists and frustrated city planners and pols call retail and commercial deserts.

If the Family Dollar is not replaced, its patrons will have to walk, drive or bike at least a mile or longer to buy food, toilet tissue or other items unless we use one of them small “corner stores” or convenience stores, which charge high prices and are owned by people who don’t live in the community.

The reasons for the lack of “investment” or presence of retail and other outlets in urban Black areas vary, and we are all keenly aware, although we want to deny them.

These varied social and personal causes attribute to the high cost of doing business in many working and low income urban areas causing potential investors to think twice about setting up shop.

However, once Dollar General takes control of the old Family Dollar site, it will find a reliable customer base from the people who have no other options.

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Blacks have the consumer ability to support any business outlet, for we see how much money we spend outside our communities.

How many times have you read or heard well-meaning and “concerned” Black activists and civic leaders ask “why can’t the city recruit fine restaurants, grocery stores and other services to our side of town?”

Should they be asking “why can’t we attract and retain them?”

I have talked to members of city council and their planners and to their credit, they spend a great deal of their time seeking to entice investors to these areas.

Black Council members who represent the communities are frank about citing the needs and the reasons for their frustration.

Planners are evasive to spare feelings and avoid citing longstanding factors and reality.

They are reluctant to point out the actual and perceived reasons: safety, shoplifting and other disruptive behavior in many low income and working class Black areas which raise the risk and cost of doing business in these areas.

Family Dollar did not have a security guard on premises, but an electronic system, alerting customers and workers they were being “monitored for your protection.”

One day a clerk alerted a colleague that some thief had taken a whole shelf of high brand soap and grooming products. His coworker registered no reaction; for such was the routine.

I am sure that such happens also in White communities in retail outlets more so than we know.

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Another factor is just the adverse idea of doing business in Black communities, regardless of its income level, even for potential Black investors.

Over the years I have run across a divergent perspective.

There are the Black business people who have the money, ideas and the product they believe will allow them to make a living and serve these communities.

They say with verve, “I want to give back to the community and want to inspire others to join me.”

You get the impression they are undertaking some valiant crusade full of challenge and risk.

The Croaker Spot restaurant in the Park Place section is good example of a good investment despite any negative soothsayers.

Leading up to the opening of the site, I asked a number of Blacks about the venture. And the dual response of hope and dread was evident.

“Oh, that is a great idea … they sure do need something like it in that neighborhood.”

Then seconds later, “But why did they have to put it over in that area? Is there parking close to the front door … you know it does get dark over there and you have walk to our car.”

Fortunately, the Croaker Spot investor was one who had found success in a challenged neighborhood in Richmond, and wanted to repeat it here.

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At this point I should be asking how did we get here, what can we do and who is the blame?

Even if you have not been living for 30 plus years or working as a reporter as I, you know if you have been reading the New Journal and Guide, and other Black media, the answers to each one of those questions.

To repeat them is like pulling out last week’s leftovers for dinner.

They are the warmed over resolutions.

Why not aspire to something new?

Thirty years ago, I am sure some Black reporter was saying the same thing.

Thirty years from now will a reporter, politician and planner still be fielding and answering questions about commercial and retail deserts in urban centers?

Marches, speeches and another study calling for change has not helped us turn the corner on this and other issues facing our schools or killing each over petty grievances.

We can’t blame White folks; they are not directly and personally degrading safety and enterprise in “the hood.”

Walk or ride down 21st Street. Unlike the commercially dormant parts of Tidewater Drive, you will see symbols of investment, pride and community.

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Black folk have replicated many aspects of the greater culture.

Duplicating it in recruiting and supporting businesses which sustain our communities should be one of them.

If not, 30 years from now, the then grown child of my irate neighbor, who may be living in an underserved Black area, may be standing and angrily questioning why another needed resource in her life is being lost.

I hope not.

Only folk in Black skin can make sure her offspring and those of others will not.

By Leonard E. Colvin
Chief Reporter

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