Catering to black dollars

Where I live, there are cows, there are tractors and there is a barn: Pottery Barn.

The store is flanked by an Abercrombie and Fitch, Borders, Talbots, Trader Joe’s White House/Black Market and Williams-Sonoma on the west side of the street and a cornfield on the east side.

Even after living several years in my town, there are stores that I’m just now finding. But it’s vastly different from the South and West side neighborhoods where I’ve reported for this magazine. I could drive miles before getting to a major grocery store. That’s why I wrote “Retail Runaround” in our November/ December 2005 issue highlighting the retail drought in black neighborhoods.

Five years later, not much has changed. In this issue’s cover story, Reporter Kelly Virella investigates retail growth among some retailers and the lack of that growth in Chicago’s black neighborhoods.

A report by the International Council of Shopping Centers says there are myriad factors that determine where a business locates. The report points to some basic criteria, including population and median income.

After the basics are considered, businesses consider as much additional information as possible, including educational attainment, ethnic composition, and change in income and population.

But as Virella’s investigation points out, after the information is analyzed, those businesses are still not moving to black neighborhoods.

It seems as if those businesses are only chasing the white dollar. I suspect my neighborhood was desirable because it was changing. Not from black to white, but from poor white to wealthier white. Even still, it’s hard to swallow that a community with several large tracts of undeveloped farmland can garner more attention than already-established black neighborhoods with proven buying power.

Some say that black neighborhoods are too poor for better retailers. But that can’t always be the case. According to the 2005-2007 American Community Survey, my town has 29,747 people. Most of them are white, and just 49 are black. Here, there are 6,011 households that earn more than $75,000 annually.

Conversely, my boss lives in Auburn Gresham on the city’s South Side. The combined population of Auburn Gresham, Englewood, Washington Heights and West Englewood is 168,387–”97.6 percent of whom are black. But the number of households earning more than $75,000 in those community areas is 8,275. That’s more than in my town. And while that South Side region has more than five times the number of people than in my town, the areas are roughly the same size in geography. My town is 12.37 square miles, compared to the 12.88- square-mile area of those South Side neighborhoods.

Can you guess the number of Pottery Barns in those neighborhoods? How about major grocery stores? As Virella’s reporting finds, in those neighborhoods, there are few. A mile from my house, there is a four-way intersection that alone has five: Caputo’s, Costco, Dominicks, Jewel and Meijer.

If the federal stimulus money is intended to help people get jobs, perhaps it can also help people get resources like clothing and food. I don’t say this to bash businesses–” they are much needed in our black communities. And I’m not saying that those businesses are making racially motivated decisions when they choose where to build. It just feels like it.

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