Monday, March 17, 2008

Fort Greening: Supermarkets and Peddlers

In last week's NY Daily News Brooklyn section our intrepid cart fan Veronika Belankaya writes about the return of a supermarket to the Fort Green neighborhood where it had been demolished to make way for a new residential development: "A much-needed supermarket and pharmacy may finally return to Fort Greene in about a year, developer John Catsimatidis said Tuesday..."If we start digging in about a month or two, [the supermarket and drugstore] should be done within a year if the world doesn't fall apart with the real estate market," said Catsimatidis, whose development project includes four buildings with luxury condos."

Well, well. Is this the same reporter who began her panegyric to peddlers with an interview of a resident of the Farragut Houses, the project that sits across from the vacant supermarket site? In that story Belankaya used the laments of the Farragut resident to dramatize the need for an additional 1500 fruit and vegetable peddlers on the streets of neighborhoods just like Fort Green.

It was, as we said at the time, a set-up, since it focused on a neighborhood that had a decent local market for over twenty years. Here's the Belankaya narrative, judge for yourself: ""Twice a month, Fort Greene resident Alvira Gorham makes an expensive, hours-long pilgrimage for a basic necessity — food. Gorham takes two buses to a Brownsville supermarket and then spends $20 of her Social Security disability check on a cab to shuttle the groceries back to her apartment in the Farragut Houses. "We have nothing fresh here," said Gorham, 54. "We need someplace where we could shop and eat decently."

Now Ms. Gorham is right, she does need a decent place to shop for her groceries, but the use of her plight to subtly promote a cockamanie peddler push is dishonest. The neighborhood needs an affordable supermarket, and the real issue is how that objective can be achieved: "There are some concerns about which supermarket will replace the Associated, said Ingersoll Tenants Association President Ed Brown. "The residents in our neighborhood can't afford a Gristedes," he said."

Given the cost of new construction, however, can any new market in the Catsimatidis development be affordable for the Fort Green community? What we're seeing all over the city is that, in certain nabes, the rising cost of real estate is pricing out the local markets; while in others the low incomes of residents is seen by supermarket owners as a barrier to new development. This is the challenge that city policy makers are facing.

And the green carts invasion is no answer to the healthy food access question; at best it's a non sequitor, at worst it dampens the entrepreneurial impulse in low income areas. And the contribution of rich dilettantes like Laurie M. Tisch is certainly not welcome in this quarter.

It seems that, according to the NY Daily News, the wealthy Mrs. Tisch is donating $1.5 million to the fruity peddlers: "The $1.5 million donation from the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund will pay for everything from designing the carts to helping vendors buy them once the city grants them a license. Although the carts have not yet been designed, Thomases said he expects they'll become a piece of city furniture that is easily recognized as a city trademark for healthy eating.
"The goal in the long run is that the carts will have a modern and appealing look that's comparable to the bus shelters," Thomases said."

Once again, we must respectfully disagree. Supermarkets are shutting very day it seems, and smaller produce outlets are being driven out as well; yet the most proactive policy is a retrograde increase in street peddlers. And by proceeding in this manner, the city is placing a heavy obligation on itself to come up with a meaningful supermarket retention and promotion policy.

In the absence of such a policy we can do without the grand gestures of Mrs. Tisch, and the sad irony that she has the same surname as the great retired Howard Tisch; a man who spent the better part of two decades protecting the rights of supermarkets in this city. You can't have a sustainable city when many neighborhoods are rapidly becoming "no store zones" for affordable food.

We're waiting to see how fast the city moves when one of its favored developers, Vornodao Realty and Trust, seeks to evict the Key Food store on Bruckner Boulevard in the South Bronx. Maybe Laurie Tisch can come up with the bucks to bridge the rent gap when Vornado seeks a new lease at $50 a foot?