Wednesday, June 09, 2010

New Grocery Solution Points to Larger City Woes (Or, Our Right to Grocery Stores at the Center of Sustainable Communities)

Yesterday, I read the surprising news that the Strip District grocery store, Right By Nature, has started a delivery service in order to address the lack of grocery stores available to Downtown and Hill District residents. Don't get me wrong, I find the action by Right By Nature very kind, in a very Pittsburgh way--they're stepping up to provide a service to help their neighbors. But as a city, aren't we all sufficiently ashamed of the Hill District's situation (as Vanessa German quipped in her show "Testify," "If you live in a black neighborhood in Pittsburgh, you have to get on a bus to find a grocery store"), and as a city, isn't this a very outdated solution to an embarrassingly long-running problem (the Hill has gone decades without a real grocery store)?

When I say outdated, I'm talking about delivery service. I'm talking about individual cars on the road, and the oil we use to power those vehicles, and how that oil is getting more and more costly. I believe, and I'm not the only one, that the writing is on the wall for the car. No amount of electric power or corn oil is going to do; the car thing is just not sustainable for too much longer. We've got to start turning our cities into places of walkers and bikers and public transit riders.

The humane and green solution to this grocery problem is to provide grocery stores in neighborhoods. Period. Places we can each get to on foot, if we choose. But for that, we need to create and sustain neighborhoods that can support grocery stores, which brings me to my real fear for Pittsburgh: density. Will the city of Pittsburgh ever re-acquire enough density to do what cities do best--concentrate living and working and services in areas connected by real sidewalks, safe bike paths, and viable public transit? Just because we lost population in the steel industry downturn, doesn't mean we can afford to turn our city into a suburban carland indefinitely. Paul Krugman writes of a middle-class Berlin full of trains, bikes, and close local shopping, versus an "America stranded in suburbia — utterly dependent on their cars, yet having a hard time affording gas." What would it take to fill many more of Pittsburgh's beautiful old houses with residents, to make frequent, appealing light rail service reach many more outlying areas, to convince Southwestern Pa. to put less effort into maintaining the lifestyle of its suburbs and spend more effort to populate the energetic city those 'burbs revolve around?

Again, kudos to Right by Nature for their neighborly action. But in the larger picture, grocery delivery must be seen as a stop-gap solution to a problem of low-density, which threatens the long-term future of our city.


Bram Reichbaum said...

Talking about solving our density problem -- if only there was something we could install in the city center which would attract TENS of THOUSANDS of job seekers in one fell swoop --- something demanding high-tech, cutting-edge knowledge workers, yet at the same time lots of security, clerical and service personnel... hmmm.

The reason Pittsburgh once existed as the high density metropolis it was designed to be is because Pittsburgh once produced those monumentally important things which the country needed in great quantity. We can't bring that back with department stores. We need to get that bold can-do, or should I say CAN-MAKE spirit back. That's clean energy.

John Morris said...

Getting to specifics, one of the ideas Bram threw out on his blog was building a Nuclear Power Plant on the Lower Hill.

Bram, this is a very unique idea. That's about all I can say about it.

I actually did respond a bit on his comments. By the way Bram, it doesn't employ that many folks but Braddock actually has a very active working mill that produces a whole lot of steel.These are good jobs. Do any of those people choose to live in Braddock?

Stephen Gross said...

It's very difficult to introduce true urban density into an area that lacks it. Generally speaking, urban density in America was usually created in the pre-automobile era, and persists only in regions where the economics of density make it preferable.

As for Pittsburgh, it's unlikely to recover its former density. With that said, it's possible to attract low-income grocery stores. Back in Cleveland, Dave's has a very strong presence in poor areas. City leaders can certainly work to attract options such as this.

Karen Lillis said...

Yes, why is it that Braddock was once a "company town" and now none of the workers in the last working mill in Pgh live there? Why does everyone want to live so far away from their job? Are we ashamed of work? And can we sustain this nonsense as a culture? It's really a luxury we can no longer afford, isn't it?

Anonymous said...

I think that delivery services are extremely useful in cities, particularly for the elderly or those who are sick or injured. This is certainly not an adequate replacement for an actually grocery store with healthy food options in the Hill District, but I think it is a great potential resource.

One way that this could be really useful is if neighbors coordinated efforts to save on the delivery costs as well as delivery trips.

I think that Pittsburgh does have hope for increased density which can support excellent transit and great local businesses. There is so much space available at affordable prices here both in housing and commercial properties that there is tremendous possibility for innovation and creativity.

John Morris said...

Stephen, whether Pittsburgh can recover it's former density (and I think it can--check out the population of San Francisco, which is great comp to Pittsburgh in terms of size and geography) the point is that many places in the city could be pretty easily more dense and centered than they are now. Interestly, the same folks who say Pittsburgh has no demand for density are eager to hang out in The South Side, Shadyside, Squirrel Hill, Bloomfield (the very reasonably dense mixed use neighborhoods thay say nobody loves anymore)

As far as supporting supermarkets in poor areas, Cleveland is likely not a good comparison in that most of the town is flat and that kind of geography makes it somewhat easy to get around. Pittsburgh is filled with small or tiny poor communities separated by hills, rivers and hollows.

Sadly, the easy flat parts of the town are now often taken up by parking lots and Sports Stadiums.

John Morris said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
John Morris said...

Laura, I can't fully agree with you and be as optimistic.

Of course Pittsburgh has all kinds of potential (that's why I'm here) but the city is also in a very fragile financial state. I also doesn't have that much good flat land to play aroud with or waste, particularly near it's two main job centers. This where the synergistic relationships with the schools and low hanging fruit of easy walk or bike to work commutes should be starting. (Downtown, The Strip, East Liberty, Oakland, Uptown, The Hill, The North Shore)

Also, what we have going on here is a destructive cycle. Ask a Pittsburgh homeowner what their biggest problem is and they will likely say the high property taxes. But these very taxes are largely a result of single family homeowners and local businesses bearing the load of all this untaxed or underdeveloped property used for parking lots,money losing stadiums or low density single uses. (Suppose, there were more people and fewer boxes in the buildings in the Strip)

It's a the destructive cycle that has gutted most American cities.

Believe it or not people actually move from Long Island into NYC to lower their property taxes and this isn't because NY has a super efficient low cost city government. It just has had the kind of pound for pound high density development that maximizes revenues from it's land.