|The Day the Music Died: A Marching Band greeted the opening of a Wal-Mart in an almost entirely black community in Chicago back in 2012|
David Mekarski, the village administrator for the south Chicago suburb of Olympia Fields, told a startling story this week at the American Planning Association's annual conference about a debate he recently had with a restaurant official.
Why, he wanted to know, wouldn't quality restaurants come to his mixed-race community, where the average annual household income is $77,000, above the county average?
The reply: "Black folks don’t tip, and so managers can’t maintain a quality staff. And if they can’t maintain a quality staff, they can’t maintain a quality restaurant.”A gasp then rippled through the room in front of Mekarski. "This is one of the most pervasive and insidious forms of racism left in America today," he says.
There's a term for the phenomenon he's describing: retail redlining. The practice is a more recent and less studied variation on redlining as it's been historically recognized in the housing sector. In the context of retail, grocery stores, and restaurants, redlining refers to the "spatially discriminatory practice" of not serving certain communities because of their ethnic or racial composition, rather than their economic prospects.
It's a newer phenomenon in part because there are more upper-income minority communities in America today. Households that can afford the same stores and restaurants as comparable white communities now want to know where the retailers are. The practice is tricky to study, though, because these types of communities are still relatively few in number (with hard-to-find comparison communities), and because it's difficult to distinguish a retailer's "unconscious racism" from its legitimate business reasons for locating a store or a restaurant.
Olympia Fields and three adjacent south suburbs wanted to better understand this phenomenon (and if it really existed). So they undertook a quarter-of-a-million dollar, multi-year study in conjunction with researchers at the University of Illinois. In the 1960s, these four suburbs had almost no black residents.
By 2010, 72 percent of the population was black, with three of the communities having above-average income levels for the county. These are among the most racially mixed higher-income communities in the region. Collectively, they spend an estimated $780 million a year on retail goods and services – and because much of that is spent elsewhere, that also means these communities don't fully benefit from sales tax receipts.
"What we’re dealing with essentially is attitudes, behaviors, cultural bias," Mekarski says. "This is not simply a study about the convenience of shopping. Retail in America is about community, it’s about a sense of place, it’s about quality of life."
The U.S. is the No. 2 tourist destination worldwide, and Chicago ranks in the Top 10 for attracting global travelers with plenty of money to spend.But where I live and work, this kind of consumer is a far and few in between. I set up my business in a black community on the South Side, which sees little of the $11 billion these tourists spend.
On Dec. 6, Mayor Rahm Emanuel announced that he is pouring $2 million into marketing Chicago to increase tourism and boost revenue by 50 percent by the end of the decade. This translates to at least $15 billion in tourism revenue for the city of Chicago, precious little of which will make it to the city's 30-plus black neighborhoods and their entrepreneurs.
For every new customer I get as an African-American small-business owner on the Near South Side, there are 10 who never experience my great product and service because my neighborhood needs some work.
At the dawn of 2012, I cannot stand back and allow the economy, politics or bad social behaviors to determine my destiny. My business asset is losing value every year. Something must change. In the year ahead, I am attracted to others like me who are far too impatient to sit back and wait on the South Side to transform itself by happenstance.
This is why we need to change the face of commerce in the 'hood. African-American businesses and associated investment partners need a fresh start. Why? Because, typically, the commercial quality of life in most black neighborhoods consists of excessive crime, far too much loitering and unclean, unkempt streets that are unfriendly to people who don't look like me.
Families, seniors and other ethnic groups with disposable income tend to avoid the black community because they feel unsafe and unprotected. Progressive businesses start and fail regularly, and more so where I live, making new jobs and emerging industries marginal at best. The funding mechanisms and common drivers associated with growth and stable investment — creativity and a uniform approach — seem to be lacking. I believe it is because we are in denial about the cost and liabilities of crime and their effect on commerce. We need a massive South Side transformation to address these issues.
It is risky to invest on the South Side without direction and a common purpose. An independent business with a good idea, product or service has little or no chance of survival. It is equally ridiculous to expect the aldermen to change the course. It is up to each invested shareholder to make the difference. Those who own a piece of the rock must stake their claim.
Few if any think tank groups are willing to leverage their talents to change the pattern in a marginal economy. Harnessed by conventional thinking, we can expect nothing but more of the same. This translates to slow business, low profits, declining property values and fewer jobs for the underclass.
We African-American business leaders must drive business to the South Side of Chicago. We cannot afford to waste time complaining about racism and unfairness. This kind of rhetoric, though sometimes valid, gets us nowhere. We must offer the kind of terrain that will attract visitors from around the world. Everyone knows that neighborhood spending helps residential property values, attracts commercial investors and produces a better quality of life for all. When worldwide visitors feel safe to walk on clean streets, so do residents and their families. Populating the streets manifests itself into sustainability.
What some would label “Retail Redlining,” “Food Deserts,” or “Retail Apartheid” is nothing more than a reminder of natural inequality as well.