Saturday, 31 January 2015

Rags, swag and pet food - Gentrification, markets and the grocery store...

Scott Beyer writes about gentrification:

If you’re an urban pioneer who settled in downtown Cleveland sometime in the past decade, you’re probably happy with the neighborhood’s progress. Even as the city as a whole has continued to lose population, the central area has revived thanks to an influx of young and educated newcomers. Downtown Cleveland right now has its highest-ever population, with more than 13,000 residents and lots of new housing developments on the way. There are more than 4,000 hotel rooms, with another thousand expected by 2016. And residents today enjoy a more walkable neighborhood, as new restaurants and bars open around old cultural institutions like the theater district. If you are looking for a large grocery store, however, you’re still out of luck.

Partly this reflects the high income of those gentrifying folk plus their preference for eating out - not so much at fancy sit down restaurants but at those street food places, coffee shops and bars that sell slices of cured pig. But it also raises a question about the economics of food retailing and the truth that retailers (especially convenience retailers) are entirely driven by 'counting chimneys' - or whatever the urban high rise equivalent of 'counting chimneys' might be. If there aren't enough people living in the area, there won't be a grocery store.

The response has been subsidy or financial incentive (or even worse - and UK planners are very guilty here - use class constraint). The problem with this approach is that it doesn't change the economic reality - if there aren't enough customers spending enough money then the store will close once the incentive dries up.

The answer - rather than chasing national retail chains or hoping for some hipsterish spin on the corner shop - may lie with something that can be great but is too often neglected by local authorities: the market. The problem is how to strike the balance between the municipal market's traditional customer base and the wealthier, trendier folk following in the wake of gentrification.

The commodification of the shopping experience, with its attendant fetishization of taste and provenance, is still in its early phase in Kirkgate Market, as indeed it is in other British markets. In this sense, Kirkgate and other similar markets are on the gentrification frontier.

Part of the irony here is that the 'hipster' is searching for authenticity, for the sense of discovery and difference, yet doesn't realise what is the authentic and genuine in an English municipal market (swag, rag and pet food as one trader described it to me a few years ago).  I have criticised Leeds Council's approach to Kirkgate - preferring long leases and high rents in the Grade I listed part of the market buildings thereby creating something of a false environment. This is not because I'm against long leases or higher rents per se but because it is very clear that this strategy doesn't work.

Given that markets are in publicly-owned spaces (whether open air or covered) and not operated for profit, there is the opportunity to both support the traditional low income customer base (who want swag, rag and pet food) and also to encourage new customers - whether from new immigrant groups or from those trendy gentrifying sorts. In and around Bradford's Oastler Centre (I still think I was wrong to agree to changing its name from John Street Market) we can see this mix in play as the old mix of stalls (meat, fish, greengrocery, clothing and cafes) is supplemented by stalls serving the new immigrant communities - the spice stall, the stalls catering for African, Philipino and middle-eastern communities. What has yet to happen is for new places to open that complement the customers served by the bars and cafes opening in adjacent streets.

But I'm not here to talk about Bradford's regeneration but to look more generally at how gentrification delivers both benefits and problems. The benefits come from the investment and from the spending power of a wealthier customer base -- no-one can deny that this can, and does, transform places. But the downside is that the improvements are all kecky-pooky. We get nice bars, cafes and specialist food or clothing retailers but the everyday stuff of the high street - grocery, hardware and so forth - doesn't arrive or at least doesn't arrive so quickly.

As Scott Beyer concludes (after two decades of gentrification) in Cleveland where the first general grocery, Heinen's, has opened:

Retail options are now focused around a few scattered nodes, namely the East Fourth Street pedestrian mall, the 5th Street Arcades and the Warehouse District. For the neighborhood to be truly livable, say Starinsky and others, the city will need to fill in the gaps with additional retail options. Attracting the right mix of stores will require continued focus by public officials and private groups alike. But downtown residents will no doubt look at the opening of Heinen’s as a crucial step in the right direction.


1 comment:

Curmudgeon said...

In similar areas in the UK there's no shortage of Tesco Expresses or the like, which have their limitations but at least will provide a range of basic groceries.