Tuesday, July 29, 2008
I often suggest to my students that the success of re-urbanization depends on the “white sock” test. How far does a central city dweller have to travel to buy a pair of plain white socks? (And no, one sock doesn’t count.) Yes, the question is about socks and the city. If the answer is that the urban dweller has to take some form of transportation to buy a pair of plain socks, then re-urbanization has still not met its potential.
Even more essential than clean socks is food –- grocery food, not restaurant food, which almost every city has in abundance. In Sam Francisco, one of the city’s poorest districts –- the Tenderloin –- is trying to bring a full-service grocery store to the neighborhood. Although it lies just beneath tony Nob Hill and just to the west of the affluent shopping mecca of Union Square, the Tenderloin is more famous for its cheap residential hotels and large homeless population. Although it holds dozens of liquor stores, it has no real groceries for sale, other than at a few understocked corner convenience stores. Despite the efforts of a local citizens groups and personal appeals of Mayor Gavin Newsom, no grocery firm seeks willing. High start-up costs, taxes, and the threat of crime perhaps are dissuading factors. But also at play is the sad fact than many poor residents simply aren’t in the habit of (or are physically incapable of) preparing a square meal for themselves, which further dissuades groceries from locating in very poor neighborhoods.
The absence of grocery stores is –- like the absence of white socks for sale –- another reason why life in the central city remains different, and not in a good way, from life in other sectors of America.