New Clear Vision

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Down on the Corner

September 19, 2011 By: NCVeditor Category: Community, Culture, Jay Walljasper

Neighborhoods Are Defined by What’s in Store

by Jay Walljasper

It’s undeniably fun to write each week about what’s happening in cities around the world, chronicling trends like bikesharing, cool new public spaces and crowdsourcing.  But it’s not all glamour.

A lot of what makes a great place to live is actually quite prosaic: sidewalks and sewer pipes, fire and police protection, effective public officials and dedicated citizens.

And, oh yes, corner groceries.

I’m serious. No neighborhood will be truly vibrant if you must drive a mile or two or more every time you need eggs and espresso beans. Commerce is the lifeblood of any community but even the best bookstore or a knock-your-socks-off vintage fashion boutique can wholly compensate for the lack of a food store. 

Grocery stores are central to our lives — a linchpin of convenience and connection — because we inevitably go there numerous times each week. Along with the local coffee shop, groceries function as the piazza of modern American neighborhoods — the place you’re most likely to see friends and make new ones. They are what the agora was to ancient Athens, what the market is in Asian, African and Latin American villages.

Our lives are directly affected by the proximity of a place to buy lettuce and yogurt, jalapeno corn chips and Korean bar-b-que chicken wings. When we are forced to climb into a car to fulfill our essential need for nutrition, it reshapes the patterns of our lives away from the walkable, tight-knit communities we crave.

It can even affect the quality of our food. Russell Shorto, writing in the New York Times about Amsterdam notes, “Cyclists can’t carry six bags of groceries; bulk buying is almost non-existent. Instead of shopping for a week, people stop at the market daily. So the need for processed loaves that will last days is gone. A result: good bread.”

That says it all. If neighborhood groceries foster both biking and good bread, what more do we need for a vital neighborhood?

Of course, neighborhood groceries in many cities offer food that’s far from wholesome.  Lots of candy, soda pop, snack foods, with everything else in tin cans or frozen packages. They feel like a museum from times before the dawn of organic, natural, local and healthy food — even in neighborhoods where these products have become mainstream.

Fortunately, there are new efforts afoot to improve the nutrition of what’s on sale at your corner grocery. In 2008, the city of Minneapolis passed an ordinance that “requires all stores with a grocery license to carry a certain variety of fruits, vegetables, meat or protein, dairy and bread or cereal, according to the local website The Line. The city is helping a number of stores, especially on the city’s lower-income North Side where there are few full-service groceries, comply with the law through the Healthy Corner Store Program.

Similar initiatives have been launched in New York, Cleveland, Oakland, Philadelphia, Louisville, Newark and other cities.

Jay Walljasper is co-editor of, and is the author of the new book All That We Share: A Field Guide to the Commons (The New Press, 2010). He is a Contributing Editor at National Geographic Traveler, a Senior Fellow of the Project for Public Spaces, and a Contributing Author for New Clear Vision.

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  1. Down on the Corner | Central Vermont Food Systems Council 20 09 11

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