For decades residents of lower income, African-American neighborhoods have struggled with the disappearance the full service grocery stores. In most Syracuse neighborhoods, a trip to the grocery store is as easy as walking a half mile. If you have a car, going to an Aldi’s, Wal-Mart super center or Wegmans is an easy task. But for those without transportation obtaining fresh produce, meats and staples at a reasonable price is difficult.
Health officials cite the connection between the availability of fresh foods and the poor health of residents in some neighborhoods. Critics call it “food apartheid” because food market chains decline to service inner city areas despite the large concentration of potential customers.
Jubilee Homes, The South Avenue Business Assn., the Alliance of Communities Transforming Syracuse and local clergy have come together in an effort to change that situation on the city’s Southside. Securing $350,000 from the Midland Regional Treatment Facility mitigation funds, Jubilee has the property at 601 South Avenue. The location is currently is home for Hoxie Painting was at one time housed one of several neighborhood grocery stores in the area.
Walt Dixie, executive director of Jubilee Homes, is excited about the prospect. “We have major players here. There are people who have MBA’s with financial management experience who are eager to get on board.” He points out that in other parts of the country developers have been lured to building in urban settings. “We’re aiming for a store that’s developed and owned by the community. We’ll reach out to others for assistance, but this has to be primarily done by this community”.
Lori N. Tape Special Project Manager of Jubilee Homes discussed the process by which the grocery store would be presented to the community. Tape fields lots of calls from people wanting to be involved with this project. Tape also recalls, “As a north side resident I live near the smallest of a large chain grocery store. We don’t get the same service that’s given at their other locations. So I think the disparity between underserved neighborhoods and access to grocery stores is income. It’s not just a racial issue, but an economic issue. People who find they’re living in certain neighborhoods regardless of race are subject to sub standard shopping options. ”
Another person working close with the project is Michele Mike, program coordinator for the City if Syracuse, “I’m a liaison between the various groups and assist in getting people to participate in the process of planning projects that impact on our city.
Mike is concerned that those who are residents of the impacted areas have a voice. “Many times the loudest talker drowns the voices of those whose only goal is to be heard in their own neighborhood.” As a program coordinator for the city her goal is to increase participation in all aspects of our urban neighborhoods. “I don’t know what will happen after January 1st but I know that I’m committed to the involvement of city residents and solving problems in this city. My role in this project is to simply assist.”
Driving the streets of inner city Syracuse you can’t help but notice that in some areas home ownership levels have increased dramatically in the past decade, however development of quality of life amenities have been slow to catch up with the tastes of these new consumers.
The urban landscape is replete with corner stores that sell beer cheaper than water, chips, fried chicken wings and malt liquor, but items such as fresh meats, produce and household staples such as bread, milk, corn meal and eggs are hard to find. If these items are available they are usually higher priced than the traditional large grocery store’s products.
The community owned urban grocery store concept is not new. Back in 1994, Michael Monroe an economist from Ithaca College with students from his Urban Crisis course worked with the now defunct West Side Innercity Association and others on the near Westside on a concept called Operation S.E.E.D. Socio-Economic Empowerment through Democracy) which set up a model for development in poorer areas with people of a community participating as full stake holders who eventually own the project(s) being developed.
The concept may be reborn as a catalyst to the new grocery store venture of Jubilee Homes.
Monroe wasn’t just looking at this as a professor from Ithaca College. From 1968 to 1970 he served as press secretary to the Urban Affairs Council led by the late Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan. While studying in Cornell’s doctorate program Monroe saw that the conventional solutions to the problems weren’t working. That’s when the idea of having the solutions comes directly from the people. In a 1994 interview printed in the Ithaca College Quarterly at the time he was in Syracuse, Monroe stated, “They have to be involved in their own decision making and ownership of the resources they are working with.” His Operation SEED concept grew from his work in that area.
The Near Westside neighborhood organization was granted funding by the New York State Urban Development Corporation to conduct a feasibility study in order to determine if a community owned businesses like a grocery store could be resurrected and survive. Once Governor Pataki was elected the West Side Innercity Association’s $50,000 grant was cancelled.
The fundamental base for the operation is something called FIRMS (Fundamental Incubation and Resource Management Services) which would operate the businesses created under Operation SEED. Monroe’s ideas don’t concentrate on grocery stores as a stand-alone entity.
Halfway Houses creating crafts for sale, small construction companies to construct and maintain facilities. This is just a tip of the iceberg once fully operational Operation SEED would create jobs and community ownership of resources. Taping into Community Development Block grant funding and other sources of revenue to get started, after the enterprises are successful the employees are able to purchase the business from the incubator in the form of an ESOP (employee stock option package) the proceeds of that sale would be recycled back into the community by funding additional needed goods and services operations.
According to Jubilee officials the feasibility study for their area was completed last year. Another study of economic potential for the South Salina Street corridor has been sitting on the City of Syracuse’s shelf for years.
Several public meetings are scheduled by Jubilee Homes designed to foster the input from local neighbors and community stakeholders. If successful there will certainly be a time for jubilation for Jubilee Homes and the development of an area that was once blocks of empty lots transformed into a neighborhood. All that’s needed are goods and services providers to complete this urban mosaic, if Walt Dixie and his staff have their way that’s going to happen in the not too distant future.