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Whole Foods Is the Lewis and Clark of Gentrification

Someone has to explore a place first and put it on your mental map.
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The Whole Foods Market in New York City's Bowery is the largest grocery store in the city. (PHOTO: DAVID SHANKBONE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

The Whole Foods Market in New York City's Bowery is the largest grocery store in the city. (PHOTO: DAVID SHANKBONE/WIKIMEDIA COMMONS)

"Can you tell an up-and-coming neighborhood by its ‘emergent energy’?" So queries the New York Times while drooling over world-class pork chops found, in of all places, Brooklyn. Brooklyn?! Uh, yes.  By the scent of great cooking we should have smelled the gentrification coming:

It was April 1999, and he was turning a corner himself, puttering up Clinton from Rivington, where he lived. Dufresne, a middle-aged man, sometime chef and general handyman (''I do odd jobs'' is how he puts it) is a staple in the neighborhood, having moved there in 1993 when many considered it rough. He was walking that day with his old friend Janet Nelson, who used to work with him at a restaurant and who lived in his building. As they strolled up Clinton, they talked about opening a new restaurant. But the economy was booming; landlords in lowly Hell's Kitchen were asking upward of $10,000 in rent, and the East Village was even more expensive. That's when Dufresne saw it: the abandoned restaurant at 71 Clinton, a building he had passed a thousand times. It looked pathetic -- the greasy, gutted remains of Ray's Chirpin' Chicken. But the space was empty, a blank slate. ...

... The people who turn neighborhoods hip these days -- the more pioneering restaurateurs and boutique operators -- tend to smell change in the air simultaneously. They walk the same forgotten blocks of the city at the same time, sensing something actionable. Sure enough, just as the 71 Clinton crew were designing their space, many of the key players who would shape Clinton Street were already moving in and around the neighborhood.

These players -- you might call them early scouters -- were a relatively small lot. In the months before the fall of 1999, a handful or so of people were looking at the neighborhood in a unique way, appraising its potential, sometimes without even knowing they were doing so. The scouters had a few things in common: many had run a shop or restaurant before in other, once-forsaken parts of the city. They liked being on the edge of things, being the first on the block and having others follow them. And, on a more subtle level, they were able to sense something -- an emergent energy. It was almost subarticulate. ''If you'd heard about the Lower East Side, you might think: Oh, no, not there,'' says Juan Carlos Rodriguez, a Spaniard who began construction on his tapas bar, 1492 Food, just as the people across the street were building 71 Clinton. ''But as soon as you went walking, you felt something. The street was very particular.''

"Early scouters" and "pioneers" into the urban terra incognita ("blank slate") sounds like a Lewis and Clark expedition. You go where you know. Someone has to explore a place first and put it on your mental map. Speaking of walking the same forgotten blocks:

Over the past four years, William Helmreich, a sixty-seven-year-old professor of sociology at CUNY, has walked almost every street in New York City: a hundred and twenty thousand blocks, or about six thousand miles. He’s written a book about the effort called “The New York Nobody Knows,” which will be published next month. One recent morning, I met him at the corner of 170th Street and Grand Concourse for a tour of the Bronx. Helmreich is tall and fit, with an unlined face and a crescent-shaped grin. On the phone, he’d asked me to dress inconspicuously—“We’ll be going to some gang-related areas,” he said, “so wear muted colors, shorts, and sneakers”—but the plan backfired, and we dressed identically, in khaki shorts, black sneakers, and washed-out green shirts. “Hey,” he said when we met, “you look great!”

Helmreich is extraordinarily energetic and voluble. “The New York Nobody Knows” is his fourteenth book (he’s also written about ethnic stereotypes, Holocaust survivors, and black militants). “I love the city,” he said as we began walking. “I love to read about the city, to live the city, to walk the city.” During his four years of research, he walked almost every day. “I did it in the morning. I did it in the evening. I did it on the weekends. I did it in the rain, in the snow, in the summer. It came to about thirty-five, forty miles a week, a hundred twenty a month, fifteen hundred a year.” He has a near-photographic memory, and can envision with ease landmarks and parks, the shapes of buildings, the curves of streets.

Helmreich is a great advocate for the Bronx, which he says could be the next Brooklyn—a target, or perhaps a beneficiary, of gentrification. We walked along Grand Avenue near 180th Street, a cheerful neighborhood of small, squared-off row houses, each with a gated driveway and a neatly kept garden. Many of the houses were flying Puerto Rican flags; more Puerto Ricans live in the Bronx than in any other borough. We passed a shady green park. “Is this a war zone?” Helmreich asked. “Is that a disgusting park in the slums? When people get it into their heads that the Bronx isn’t as dangerous as they think it is, everything’s going to change.

Emphasis added. Where we won't go is more telling than the most desirable zip code. We think the next big neighborhood has to have something, an emergent energy, an "it" factor. Our hubris is that we can design such spaces, engineer a sense of safety. Meanwhile, young families still flee to the suburbs with the best school reputations. The urban pioneer has to survey where hipsters fear to tread and survive the mean streets. Game on, gentrification.

An unlikely urban pioneer, Whole Foods would appear to be leading the charge to remake city neighborhoods into dens of conspicuous consumption. What did this upscale supermarket smell in East Liberty (Pittsburgh) way back in 2001? Earlier this year, I started to figure out this puzzle. What I'm looking at may be a novel location strategy on par with Walmart's innovative logistics-driven approach. Whole Foods keeps popping up in the damnedest places, most recently in the "poverty-stricken Englewood neighbourhood on Chicago’s south side." Back to Pittsburgh, the diamond in the East Liberty rough:

All of this is happening in an important city neighborhood that for many years has been struggling with poverty, unemployment and urban blight. Yet East Liberty has a promising foundation on which to build -- a reasonably busy commercial strip, thriving, strong, social activist churches and well-known businesses and agencies.

A market analysis of East Liberty conducted for the city's office of planning in June, 1999. It discovered that there are 153,000 households within 2.5 miles of East Liberty, and among those headed by persons 25 to 64, over a third have incomes close to $50,000.

Moreover, East Liberty is close to the affluent neighborhoods of Shadyside, Point Breeze and Squirrel Hill. There is decent public transportation to the neighborhood, and getting there by car is bound to get easier as the city completes its plans to remove the disastrous street pattern and Penn Circle that was part of an ill-conceived plan to "pedestrianize" the neighborhood.

Bingo. Whole Foods is analyzing what I term "ironic demographics." Hidden among the depressing numbers, you might find brain gain. Graham Weston, chairman of Rackspace: “Going into it, I thought the data would show we were losing brain power and we were experiencing a brain drain. As it turns out, San Antonio is a prosperous and exciting place.”

Our place-centric fixation and standard metrics gloss over tremendous opportunity. Many "bad" neighborhoods we try to fix aren't broken. Instead, we should redd up the lens we use look at the city. The nose doesn't always know.