As of the moment of this piece’s publishing, it appears that the FoodPort project is dead and the Walmart project is in a suspended limbo deep coma where the plug is going to be pulled on that as well. Two considerable opportunities for economic stimulus in the West End looks to be Gone Baby, Gone.
So what now? What happened?
To get a grip and an idea of what is going on, first we have to understand that this is not a problem unique to Louisville and West Louisville. Black communities are dealing with these challenges in other places around the country as well. Every circumstance is not exactly the same, however there are enough similarities where we can extract teachable moments and implement better, wiser, more strategic moves in the future that will lead to community successes.
Let’s start with Portland. Not Louisville’s Portland…Portland, Oregon!
Two years ago, Trader Joe’s announced that they would build a grocery store in the northeast section of Portland, off Martin Luther King Drive (which automatically alerts you that it’s a Black neighborhood) and Alberta. The original plans were for Trader Joe’s to build a grocery store on a huge vacant lot to serve a community that people considered a food desert. After Trader Joe’s canceled the project, there was media fallout that blamed an African American community organization called the PAALF. Media reports claimed that Black people in Portland feared that Trader Joe’s would bring to many whites to the area.
Let's pivot quickly to another American city from two years ago, an urban area, predominantly African American, with a similar problem. Let's take a look at a vacant lot snapshot from two years ago of 63rd and Halsted Streets in Chicago:
Now let's look at 18th & Broadway here in West Louisville/California:
See the similarities? It's not just us! As you look over the different scenarios, you've got three different corporations: Portland (a Trader Joe's project), Chicago (a Whole Foods grocery) and West Louisville (Walmart). That said, you can see the way things roll out yet say "damn...this is the same script!" It is. However, we're also going to look at the aftermaths of Portland and Chicago and make this a teachable moment opportunity.
Let's start with a breakdown of the different actors because there are multiple moving pieces at play.
Trader Joe's/Whole Foods
Trader Joe's and Whole Foods are boutique supermarket franchises that markets to the suburban and middle-class and above. Both franchises embrace a bohemian vibe that draws and markets to alternative types. Both franchises embrace both the concept of grocery store as fashion statement, and they both are establishing themselves as bedrocks in upscale urban communities in the U.S.
Back to Northeast Portland
I embedded a StreetView map for this Mo'pinion so that you could check out the general area and take a virtual walk around the community. Given that Portland only has a 2 percent Black population (78,727 people as of 2013), it's a stretch in calling the area a Black neighborhood, but as you navigate, you will see cultural markers that you will be familiar with.
The Portland Development Commission
Do not let yourselves be fooled by the faces of people of color in this video. See: way too often American urban development corporations engage in projects to make their cities urban destinations attractive to only whites, and these efforts increasingly fail. Despite all of those people of color in the video above, PDC promoted white privilege and Standard Operating Procedure (SOP) in their urban renewal efforts. It can and should be argued that the FoodPort project was guilty of the same – the cart was placed before the horse and community stakeholder input was brought in after the fact during the development process. Until urban community development corporations make a better effort to attract diversity, whether it's Portland, Oregon or Louisville, Kentucky or anywhere else – you are going to continue to see failures and setbacks.
The Portland African American Leadership Forum
The PAALF presents as a Black-identity advocacy organization focused on demanding affordable housing and resisting economic gentrification of Black neighborhoods. The efforts toward affordable housing is considered one solution to keeping Black folk in the communities that most have known for their entire lives. This is a losing battle, frankly speaking. Many communities in urban, predominantly Black communities across America have lost total population and have increasing numbers of vacant and abandoned properties. Organizations like PAALF strive to have a voice in these medium-to-large scale development projects in trying to leverage influence in deals for affordable housing for "oppressed people."
TIFs (Tax Increment Financing)
Now we pivot to the most important part of this conversation. If nothing else from this Mo'pinion sinks in, do not ignore this discussion about tax increment financing (TIFs). This is the most important part of all of these stories that connects everything.
Simply put, Tax Increment Financing is where your politicians finance private enterprise developments with your real estate tax dollars. Understanding this, it follows that you should also understand that your real estate taxes should be paying for your local school system and neighborhood schools, your parks and recreation in your community, as well as other focused community efforts.
You must be watchful and vigilant towards attempts to have TIFs used to finance projects for political cronies and acolytes to construct projects with the cheapest material, overcharge TIF projects, and take the money and run. The next bad effect is that the cheaply-built business that was started on the TIF shuts down after the TIF expiration and the Black community is left footing the bill and then have their real estate taxes averted to pay TIF debt, sucking more needed resources out of communities that desperately need wise targeted capital. So what winds up happening to schools in these Black communities? Look at all of the drama around school closings in Chicago, because of "funding issues." Beware of similar traps in Louisville.
Check out this quote from Ben Joravsky of the Chicago Reader on TIFs (links to other relevant articles also provided):
When the City Council—at the mayor’s urging—creates a TIF district, it freezes the amount CPS takes from property taxpayers in that district for up to 24 years. If CPS was getting $100 in taxes when the TIF was created, that’s all it will get for as long as the TIF exists. That forces taxpayers throughout the city to pay more in property taxes to compensate for the tax dollars CPS isn’t getting from the 160 or so TIF districts the mayor and City Council have felt compelled to create.
In effect, a TIF is a tax hike where the mayor raises property taxes in the name of something you presumably want—like schools or parks—so he can spend it on something you don’t need. Like a basketball arena for DePaul University, to cite one recent example.
Looking at the Yum Center downtown, it looks frighteningly familiar, doesn't it?
Teachable Lesson from Portland
Honestly and realistically speaking, the reason Trader Joe's—and Walmart also with an objective look—pulled out has nothing to do with the PAALF (and in Louisville's case, the lawsuit filed by Steve Porter and number of other community defendants), that is a conservative and/or establishment smoke screen. There is nothing wrong with Black people wanting their tax dollars invested back into the communities and having a say-so in how the tax dollars are spent. Isn't that one of the reason how the Tea Party came to be in the first place?
The PAALF, as well as West Louisville Talks, were made convenient scapegoats by anti-Black media, and when these companies pull out of and cancel projects, these Black-led organizations lose leverage and some media outlets add insult to injury by presenting these same organizations losing face and passing misdirected blame.
That said, it is my belief that the narrative around "affordable housing" is a misguided one that I wish such advocates would pivot from and drop. To quote Dream and Hustle, "There is no such thing as “affordable” housing, just cheap housing that gives some politically connected building developer a fat contract to build cheap homes for single moms to keep having more babies out of wedlock. Because they damn sure don’t give those affordable housing to young Black men, do they?" Valid question. The model of "affordable housing" as it stands just feeds into an economy and social structure that does not build up and develop a community, it just maintains a survival level for the victims and encourages SOP, while developers and politicians gain benefit and profit from the process. If Section 8 and the like were to be designed as a legitimate program to help Black people and Black families achieve a real come-up, how come affordable housing is not provided to single young Black men or young two-parent Black families?
Systems don't reform themselves, the reason they're "systems" is because somebody benefits from their current configuration and operation.
For reform to happen, those beneficiaries have to have their benefits negated, and rerouted to others.
There is a razor's edge that Black organizations have to walk when dealing with larger governmental structures, and it takes strategic thinking, planning and implementation to widen that razor into a walkable bridge. Organizations and institutions that are Black-owned and -operated have to emphasize the imperative of the issues at hand without emotional racial jawjacking. When your organization lacks leverage, demands winds up coming off like emotional appeals where the parties are all up in their feelings as opposed to having the ability to bring effective attention to the legitimate social and economic needs of Black communities.
Why am I talking like this? This is what it comes down to people: What are you going to do if you make demands that will not be met? Not a damn thing, and that's the trap that too many Black grassroots organizations allow themselves to fall into. Black community organizations must better think things through and leverage land acquistion around sites around vacant lots to create economic development centers to attract more Black businesses. We have real urban issues that demand intelligence and strategy – you can be about and for the Black community without jawjacking divisive rhetoric that stifles the work that you’re trying to do – you can present cultural and community pride, but it can and must be done without division.
With all of the vacant and abandoned properties in West Louisville neighborhoods, economic stimulation and efforts gives more Black people and West Louisville residents more righteous income in their pockets, and such economic stimulation will attract property purchase and housing renovations on these vacant and abandoned properties. Those are the homes that righteously employed West Louisville residents can move into. More people will have a greater stake in their neighborhoods and communities because they work here and are in a better position to thrive in having righteous income and a decent home.
More real talk – all of the rhetoric, whether it be from spokepeople from the corporations, various community organization leaders, or even from the Mayor's office itself – about wanting to open up businesses in areas where they are welcomed is the absolute biggest pile of bullcrap-filled garbage. These are corporations with market researchers who do full analyses of an area and potential income and if there was initial interest, that is the indication that there is something to building and developing in a predominantly-Black urban area. The real issue is that corporations like Trader Joe's and Walmart want all of the goodies – they want cities to provide TIF funding and millions in other subsidies to build inner-city stores. It's a leverage move to milk cities of all that they are worth.
How Chicago Avoided The Traps and Now Getting It Done
Just look. The Whole Foods project has started up. See the name of the "Ujamaa" contractor sign on the first picture? They're getting it done, the Whole Foods opens in September.
They embraced a different approach – to split the land into four parcels, where "development (could) happen organically." More from the article:
Englewood Square relied on $15 million in New Markets Tax Credit Program subsidies, bringing home to Englewood the national economic stimulus program President Bill Clinton launched in 1999 — at the corner of 63rd and Halsted.
Then, $500,000 came via crowdfunding, the first time that’s been used to finance new commercial construction in Chicago. And both developer and general contractor Ujamaa Construction are African American-owned; as is Power Construction, a contractor doing the Whole Foods build-out.
It can be done. Finding a brand-name retailer as the economic attractor, and building out Black business and entrepreneurship around and throughout.
We have urban economic issues that require coalitions of people from the community and other areas and people of good will to address the TIF. Big box corporations do not need TIFs to build. You have to avoid a media narrative that attempts to portray your efforts as a “Black organization that hates white people coming in raising the land value.” That is a move of consistent failure that keeps West Louisville neighborhoods ass-out and underdeveloped.
It is vital that there are subsidies embedded in these projects that allow for smaller enterprises to be able to open up shop in a targeted area. Not just boutique shops – I’m talking real space to accommodate an enterprise or enterprises that can employ 25 to 50 brothers and sisters. Some level of micro-manufacturer. Affordable housing is a red herring. Stop asking for it, that is not a revenue producer. The most important things that Black communities must focus on is job creation and the cultivation of entrepreneurs, everything else is literally secondary.
Young Black men and women need the means to make money legally. Elitism and "inspiration social media" are not going to get Black people to where they want to be. If you want empowerment, real Black empowerment, Black people need ownership and/or a vested stake in their community and asset-producers within them.
Stacking on that concept, you can also begin to address other Black community social problems like violence through using macro-clusters of smaller-clusters that come together for a self-interest that young sisters and brothers can be interested in. Here's the key: you share and provide resources of interest to Black people through appealing to their individual self-interest. Young people want to earn, and differences will be put aside because they all will have a self-interest in making money (and in our desire and intent: righteous money). When you provide information that people can effectively use, that information, driven by self-interest, will be stronger than any nebulous appeal to external factors because it addresses their real concerns.
You, we create information channels and foundations that cater to the ego and self-interest of individuals to create a base-superstructure framework. You create guiding principles based on this self-interest: the first ten amendments of the Constitution, the Bill of Rights are a clear example of this...that will guide Black folk to struggle and fight for freedoms and liberties. This is a construction of liberty and empowerment, not appeals for rights and ineffectual cries with no leverage for things that turn out to be scraps.
Chicago and the Englewood neighborhood are getting it done. We can as well and never let any voice tell your otherwise. Narrow The Gap!