Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space

"A community’s physical form, rather than its land uses, is its most intrinsic and enduring characteristic." [Katz, EPA] This blog focuses on place and placemaking and all that makes it work--historic preservation, urban design, transportation, asset-based community development, arts & cultural development, commercial district revitalization, tourism & destination development, and quality of life advocacy--along with doses of civic engagement and good governance watchdogging.

Tuesday, May 05, 2015

Even more on commerz in the 'hood

Ben's Chili ValetFlickr photo of the original Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street NW by Edward Hoover.

The Washington Post seems to believe that the impact of "gentrification" on business operations is a new impact, judging by the article "The Ben's Chili Bowl model for outlasting segregation," which says in part:
"One of the hidden stories of displacement is that it affects businesses and not just residents," says Calvin Gladney, a real estate developer and consultant who works with cities and neighborhoods on urban revitalization projects.

We talk a lot about how how people can be uprooted and priced out of their homes when a neighborhood like U Street transforms over time around $2,000-a-month apartments and high-priced gastropubs. But long-entrenched businesses get nudged out, too, overwhelmed by rising commercial rents or by new residents looking to buy things they don't sell.

Gladney counters that the displacement of businesses doesn't have to be inevitable, and Ben's Chili Bowl is the centerpiece of his case. Of course, every hairdresser or corner store in town won't benefit from cameos by Barack Obama or scenes in the Pelican Brief. But the Chili Bowl has made a few other savvy moves that are replicable, starting with that turkey burger.
Maybe Ben's is in fact unique and worth writing about, because they are expanding to new locations, and fundamentally, they aren't changing what they're offering very much.

IMG_0439_2 layersFlickr photo of the Ben's Chili Bowl on Wilson Blvd. in Arlington County, Virginia.  The location is decidedly not in a traditional black neighborhood.

What they are doing is selling black authenticity as defined by chili dogs and chili cheese fries.

But that's still a form of polishing and refashioning their identity and selling it on new terms to new audiences and in areas that aren't necessarily black communities either now or historically.

(Note that Ben's hasn't been all smooth sailing.  A venture in the city-owned Reeves Center at 14th and U Streets lost lots of money and hundreds of thousands of dollars in unpaid rent.)

Retail businesses being impacted by changing demographics is something I've been dealing with and/or writing about for 10 years at least.  I wrote a series of pieces in 2006:

Commerz in the 'hood... (aka "Commerce as the engine of urbanism")
Commerz in the 'hood, part two
Commerz in the 'hood, part three
Commerce dans de quartier de la ville, partie quatre (this is about how businesses in a neighborhood in Paris changed their approach as the neighborhood changed)

Ironically, many of these pieces were in response to what I thought were facile Post articles.

Back then, it was a constant frustration to try to get businesses to rethink their business model, operations, and concept, in response to new and different customer segments.

Instead, proprietors typically criticized the new customer base.  (Note this isn't unique to DC.  I led a tour of public markets in Baltimore in 2005, and the working class vendors in Cross Street Market in Federal Hill denigrated the new higher income residents of the neighborhood.  Those residents, rather than deal with being demeaned, shopped at Whole Foods.)

Sign on the front door of Jak & Co. Hairdressers in Bloomingdale cities gentrification as a reason for the business closings its doors. (Perry Stein/The Washington Post)

In fact, this came up in a different Post article from April, "After 50 years, a D.C. store will close 'due to gentrification," where the business proprietor blamed their closure on "gentrification" and the property owner "asking for market rate rents."

But the reality is that their business remained the same and in the same place while their customer base moved on.  And now there is demand for the space from new tenants willing to pay higher rents.

Just as in the early 1960's, Ourisman Chevrolet moved from H Street NE to Marlow Heights in Prince George's County, following their customer base as it relocated, to stay in business, businesses must constantly grow and change and adapt to remain open.

But back in my Main Street commercial district revitalization days there were some changing businesses that stood out like Modern Liquors at 9th and M Streets NW ("A Liquor Store Makes It Back From Skid Row," Washington Post, 2006), two Korean-owned corner stores on the 400 block of East Capitol Street, and Lee Flowers ("NW Businesses Fear Skyrocketing Taxes Will Push Them Out," Washington Post, 2005) on U Street NW.

And some businesses fail, not so much because they aren't supported, but because there is a disconnect between their location, customer demographics, sales volume potential, and what they offer, such as the failure of the Culture Shop in the Takoma neighborhood of DC ("Struggling to Give D.C.'s Takoma Park a Shop All Its Own," Washington Post, 2007).

My sense was that as cool as Culture Shop was, it was in the wrong location.  Had it been located on U Street (but the proprietors lived in the Takoma area), it likely would have been much more successful.

These days, the Post and the Washington City Paper are publishing pieces about new and unique stores and restaurants like Upshur Books, the new Union Kitchen Grocery ("Union Kitchen Grocery promises more than an everyday corner store," Washington Post, 2015), Glen's Garden Market ("Glen's Garden Market launches dinner among the dry goods," Washington Post, 2014), Maketto on H Street, Broad Branch Market, the Red Hen restaurant, etc.  But the idea is the same--as demographics and opportunities and density changes, so do the activities and business plans and operations of smart business proprietors.

It's an ongoing process.

In 2012, I did two follow up pieces in response to new developments:

More on Commerz in the 'hood
- Commerz in the 'hood revisited: Asian slurs edition.

From the latter piece:

This comes up because of the lighting up of the media because of Councilman Marion Barry's complaint about Asian-American owned businesses in his ward/poor areas of the city as "We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops. They ought to go, I’ll just say that right now, you know. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too," according to WRC-TV and recounted in "Marion Barry apologizes for anti-Asian remarks" in the Post. But the apology included this:
But Barry renewed his critique of Asian-owned businesses: “Let me make it clear, I’m not castigating any group of people. I’m not doing anything except trying to have a renaissance of our community and get some respect. A number of these restaurants serve high caloric food, bad food, et cetera, but the more important thing, they don’t participate in the community. . . . That’s what I object to, I don’t care who it is. “ 
Asked why he singled out Asians in his remarks, Barry said, “Because that’s reality. Who owns these little restaurants? Who owns them? You know, Asians. . .Ninety percent of all the small restaurants in Ward 8, at least.” It is difficult to verify that claim.
African-American resentment about Asian-owned businesses is nothing new. People ought to remember the boycotts in the 1980s over such businesses in New York City. See this piece, "Review/Television; The Boycotting of a Korean Grocery in Brooklyn" from the New York Times about an episode of the tv news show, "48 Hours," on the topic. It even made it in as a recurring theme on episodes of the television show "Hill Street Blues," which ran from 1981 to 1987.

... The issue is important but we need to look at what's going on. First, it's not like African-Americans haven't owned stores in neighborhoods, but there has been a long period, co-incident with the outmigration of middle-class African-Americans from the inner city, where they sold their businesses.

Second, it's true that stores in inner-city neighborhoods, especially those extremely impoverished, can be second-rate.

It's a function of low profits, partly because of low revenues, but also because of "shrink," the impact of theft of goods--which is why some stores have everything, not just the clerk, but the stock also, behind plexiglass.

It's also a function of a higher incidence of robbery, some of which results in death. The number of stories in the Post over the past 24+ years that I've lived in the city about robberies of stores resulting in the deaths of clerks/owners etc. are far too many to be able to count off the top of my head.


Last summer, I came across a book on the topic, Civility in the City: Blacks, Jews, and Koreans in Urban America, by Jennifer Lee, a professor at UC Irvine.

She worked in family owned businesses in impoverished communities while growing up, and then again while doing research for her dissertation.  I wish I had found the book much earlier.

The book is well-done, not only for its insights in the interactions between Asian business owners and workers and their African-American customers, but also for the discussion of how poorly capitalized and micro businesses operate generally, pre-crowdfunding community fundraising techniques within the Korean-American community, and the extranormal stresses on the business that come from operating in impoverished communities.

Also see "In the produce aisle, solidarity for Korean grocers, New York Times.

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At 7:20 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: Ben's. Of course what is hilarious is that Ben is actually an Indian Muslim. That is why he didn't want to serve alcohol. His sons and cousins (who work there) don't actually eat the food (hence the turkey burgers).

Also see Florida Avenue Grill.

I see the case for property tax abatements here. Hard to draw the line. KInd of like Japanese "national treasure". I mean, I miss the Jockey Club too. And the Mayflower bar.

At 8:32 AM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

its hilarious that Bens is paraded as "Native Washingtonian" when it is absolutly not. Other, much older- and just as authentic TRUE local restaurants have gotten almost zero attention and have been allowed to fail. Also- we must not forget "gentrification" and the effect on churches. These churches are often destructive in their impacts [ buying out blocks and demolishing historic buildings for parking] on particular areas and it is a good thing that they are following their market base- so to speak- to the suburbs..

At 8:35 AM, Anonymous Christopher said...

One of the books that has been key to my thesis project is Richard Sennett's "Together" which is all about motivations for cooperation. Sennett's next book should also be interesting as it will be about how city building is what defines humanity through craft and cooperation (his twin interests). He covers a wide range of history, including Korean store owners and their latino employees. The missing part of the story in NYC is that it wasn't just black-Korean conflict but latinos that generally worked in the stores were the other part of that triangle. I can't remember off the top of my head which books he used as reference for that discussion, too.

At 9:11 AM, Anonymous charlie said...

RE: EOTR market

@Christopher; again, a great extension to why cities/urbans are valuable. I'd argue that DC for most metrics is not succeding there -- the greater metro area may be.

Unfortunately, for us, the paper of record makes us all a bit more stupid with "gentrification", "NIMBY", "authentic", and "Transit-friendly".

At 10:56 AM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I will have to check out Sennett's latest work. I did see him speak a few years ago at UMD on his "craft" work.

2. this is a separate piece from what I want to write about wrt places like EOTR and "markets." And yes, the Brixton market is another example.

The point is to recognize the significant disconnect in people's desires vs. what needs to be done "to run a business." Markets are good incubators and can be places to teach the necessary skills and develop the experience to be successful.

That's happened at Eastern Market with the outdoor markets. But the problem is that as lots of other places model after EM and set up markets in other places, EM's sales are dropping. (I've argued one of the retail businesses that could be in the Hine development would be a co-op gallery representing the artists and crafts workers exhibiting at EM on weekends.)

But the idea is do-able in places like Anacostia or some places in Baltimore.

The problem of course is an adequate customer base. You can't have successful markets without customers. I know when people in Mt. Pleasant asked me about adding a market to their farmers market, I said, if you're going to do it, do it once/month, and make it special. If it's every week, it's just another thing to not go to.

The City of Takoma Park has done something similar, very successfully, in their efforts to activate Takoma Junction, by creating the "Grant Street Market" -- an artist and flea type market that only runs three times, once each in June, July, and August I think (or maybe not Aug. but in Sept.).

3. An article in the NYT last week about succession planning for natural foods store mentioned a store that one of the daughters is taking over. It does $3.2MM/year and has 20 employees.

A business with 20 employees would be a big deal right now in the MLK Ave. corridor...

At 1:23 PM, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Three quick points:

1. "The point is to recognize the significant disconnect in people's desires vs. what needs to be done "to run a business." As someone dealing with a LLC on the side to supplement income, DC is an incredibly expensive and pain in the ass to deal with. A framework to get around that would help.

2. "You can't have successful markets without customers." Too true. Only so big a market for stolen TP and detergent. Or fake metro cards, etc.

3. The background for a lot of the investment babble is hirshman's two track development model. I don't doubt a lot of it applies. More so than jobs, need to get money flowing back and forth.

At 4:00 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

I hadn't thought of Hirschman specifically, but I think that third world development theories apply generally to locations of "uneven development" within low income communities in the US. I'll look into it more.

Years ago I wrote about enclave development and Anacostia referring to the development of St. E's as internally focused campuses that likely will have limited external impact.

... even, I clipped an ad for some festival at that space on the St. E's grounds, on 4/28. The thing is that DCG is at cross purposes. They want to focus on activation of St. E's east campus, to assist them in developing it.

But the market for activity east of the river is limited. They are trying to create "a new submarket" when instead they should focus on improving the Historic Anacostia commercial district first and foremost.

Similarly, I argue adding development at Skyland only makes it that much harder to maintain Congress Heights Marketplace and Good Hope Marketplace as successful shopping districts, let alone Anacostia.

At 4:52 PM, Blogger Richard Layman said...

Damn, my four articles from 2006 read pretty well 9 years later.


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