Thursday, January 13, 2011

Green Grocers, Walmart, and Neighborhood Entrpreneurship

In today's NY Daily News there is an interesting Op-ed on the pioneering role of Korean green grocers in neighborhood commerce-and their demise as a force says a great deal about the assimilating power of the immigrant American Dream: "A few short decades ago, Korean green groceries were legion in New York City. Seeking opportunity in America, enterprising South Korean immigrants opened up small markets across the city, selling fruit, vegetables, candy, cigarettes and anything else they could fit on their shelves. Today, the Korean Produce Association reports that it has 2,500 members in the New York-New Jersey area, down from 3,000 a few decades ago - and Pyong Gap Min, a professor of sociology at Queens College, puts the number in the greater New York City area much lower, at fewer than 1,500."

Put simply, Korean merchants went into all of those neighborhoods that are now called, "underserved," and provided access to fresh produce for the residents-often in spite of great hardship and obstacles that would have daunted less intrepid and determined entrepreneurs. And these Korean pioneers came into the very same neighborhoods that had watched all of the food chain stores flee in the 1970s: "Korean immigrants came to dominate New York's greengrocer business more by chance than by design. Although Korean culture has not historically embraced entrepreneurs, small grocery stores made economic sense in New York. They required minimal capital to open, particularly for those brave enough to rent storefronts in areas that other merchants, spooked by the city's skyrocketing violent crime in the 1970s and 1980s, were fleeing."

The Koreans' success was a continuation of the NYC immigrant business model-and dramatizes why it is so important for the city to not throw out these creative incubator environment because of the lure of chain store dollars: "The businesses generated cash fast: You can't store a banana long, so people shopped often. The same factors had made groceries appealing to Jewish and Italian immigrants a generation earlier. Sometimes, in fact, Korean immigrants bought their businesses from retiring Jewish or Italian families."

One of those obstacles was the hostility of local activists in the African-American community: "That dream, at times, seemed like it might end in a cold sweat. Starting in the early 1980s, longstanding mutual distrust between Koreans and blacks, coupled with campaigns that encouraged blacks to shop at black-owned businesses, culminated in a series of black boycotts. Notorious activist Sonny Carson sent demonstrators out with signs reading, "Don't shop with people who don't look like us."

But the activists overplayed their hand and, with a strong self help component, the Koreans overcame the hostility: "But the Korean community rallied, and the Korean Produce Association provided cash assistance, saving at least some of the stores. And the racial tensions that characterized the 1980s and early 1990s ebbed, in part because New York neighborhoods became more ethnically diverse, so that the "us" on Sonny Carson's signs no longer made much sense."

The Korean success story is, however, ebbing-victim in part to the city's growing chain store massacre, one that may soon include the Walmonster: "New York's economic evolution drove some of this change. The city once had few chain stores, but as the Giuliani-era crime turnaround made the city feel safe for shopping, pioneering national retailers moved in. Today, commercial properties are increasingly rented by chains: CVS, Starbucks, fast-food franchises and the national banks. Even Walmart is poised to come to town."

This is only part of the story, though-the Korean green grocer movement is also the victim of its own success: "More fundamentally, there's the Korean narrative in America. As Americans debate immigration policy yet again, Korean-Americans have shown exactly how the process ought to work. Duke professor Jacob Vigdor's 2008 report for the Manhattan Institute, "Measuring Immigrant Assimilation in the United States," found Koreans economically indistinguishable from native-born Americans. The children of Korean immigrants aren't manning cash registers late at night; they're in lines of work that pay more and that their parents see as higher-status: medicine, academia, civil service. Those who do go into business for themselves tend to start more glamorous or higher budget enterprises. It's a story of economic enterprise, evolution and, ultimately, assimilation, that can serve as a lesson to all who come to America today in search of a better life."

So the immigrant sucess story in NYC has historically been built on the basis of neighborhood economics-which makes the platitudes spouted by the mayor on this topic appear, well, lame. That's because, while Bloomberg talks about the importance of immigration, he is at the same time enacting policies that devastate neighborhood economies-the life blood of the immigrant success story in NYC.

It is, of course, not only the Koreans. The Dominicans are also a big part of the current wave-as are Mexican, Caribbean and Arab-American immigrants. The fight to keep Walmart from inundating the neighborhoods of New York, then, is part of the effort to stem the chain store proliferation that is squeezing out independent store owners-on balance, an economic exchange that NYC's economy loses from.

We need a mayoral administration that is sensitive to these immigrant and small business factors. Unfortunately, for the past nine years, insensitivity has been the operating principle when it comes to supporting neighborhood stores. The Walmart battle is a fight to turn this around-and it is being fought for the soul of the city.