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Is Food The Secret Ingredient To Revitalizing Neighborhoods, Commercial Districts?

August 17, 2010 Neighborhoods, Planning & Design 15 Comments

I’m a foodie! So much so I started a second blog, The Budget Vegetarian Foodie, to express my thoughts on food. But lately, I’m starting to think about the roll of food in revitalizing neighborhoods, commercial districts and entire inner cities.  Hear me out.

Although independent restaurants do exist in the far suburbs, those areas are known for ubiquitous chains.  The core of any major metropolitan region you have far fewer chains but lots of locally owned establishments.

Recently I was in the Walgreen’s at North Grand and ML King when the guard asked out loud if anyone knew where Crown Candy was located.  I responded, “14th & St. Louis Avenue.” As I reached my car he asked if I had time to show someone where it was located.  I did so I agreed. When we got to the intersection I pulled over to chat with the two women — in their Social Security years and from out of state — they had a list of 5-5 restaurants and wanted to know where they were located. One seemed to know the region a bit.  I love food tourists!

ABOVE: Chef at the North City Farmers' Market prepares summer rolls
ABOVE: Chef at the North City Farmers' Market prepares summer rolls

Farmers’ markets are gaining in popularity throughout the St. Louis region. The chef above also made an awesome ratatouille entirely from

Sidewalk cafes work great in walkable neighborhoods where sidewalks exist — much different than sitting in front of a Qdoba facing the parking lot of the Walmart Super Center. The process of bringing in food, I think, will bring people:

As the rate of obesity, diabetes and other nutrition-related health problems rise in the U.S., focus is again turning to low-income neighborhoods that have few healthy food options. Food co-ops are stepping in, in some underserved communities. (NPR)

The NPR story features the recently opened Old North Grocery Co-Op (a non-profit I donate advertising space on this blog) but mentions the model is being used throughout the country.  While proving healthy food options for those without access outside a small area, these efforts are also a draw for the middle class. We all eat and for many who desire living in a walkable urban environment seek local places to buy food – grocery stores and restaurants.

ABOVE: Vendor sells Mexican grilled corn at the downtown farmers' market.

From my observations I’d say the following need to be considered when looking to revitalize a neighborhood:

  1. A grocery store(s) within a 1/4 mile walk of most residents. A place where a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits can be purchased with few processed foods offered.
  2. A seasonal farmers’ market, with actual farmers.
  3. A community garden.
  4. A variety of locally owned cafes, bakeries and restaurants so that someone has a choice for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night on weekends.
  5. An open policy toward food vendors with carts & trucks.

In short, attract the foodies and you will create a buzz for your commercial area.  Once you’ve got a commercial district with a positive buzz people will want to live nearby.  Of course revitalization is more complicated than I presented here. We should discuss over a good meal at a sidewalk cafe.

– Steve Patterson


Currently there are "15 comments" on this Article:

  1. Jason Stokes says:

    While I'd personally like to live in a neighborhood with the amenities you describe, I think it's more “gentrify” a neighborhood than “revitalize” it. How about some industry that hires people and pays a living wage first, then work on farmer's markets and cafes. The poor don't have the ability to shop at farmer's markets, locally owned cafes, or afford fresh fruits and vegetables at the grocery store. Of course there are like 2490828 issues with this.

    I agree with your concept, Steve, but think it's a long term desire for neighborhoods once they've been lifted out of poverty.

  2. Chris says:

    Another issue is the simple lack of knowledge that has been lost in the last generation on how to cook fresh food. I witnessed a cooking demonstration at the Old North Farmers' Market, and it was very well done. They cooked turnips, which were also for sale. I had no idea how to cook turnips! So there is plenty of fresh produce available in Old North this summer, but I'm afraid that a lot of people are intimidated from buying it due to a lack of cooking education.

  3. Fluffer says:

    How do you keep a farmer's market from eventually pricing out the people in a neighborhood that needs 'revitalizing'? A lot of farmer's markets are pricey and tend to offer products that can fetch higher prices and are beyond the conventional tastes of the average budget food shopper.

  4. JZ71 says:

    I'd use the list as a way to define a good neighborhood, new or old, not just as a way to revitalize old ones – the same concepts are used by New Urbanists. That said, I agree with Jason, that viable employment opportunities are critical, as are good schools, safe streets, “fair”, if not “low” taxes, and some confidence that my investments will be rewarded through appreciation over the long haul.

    As for your list itself, my observations are a bit different:

    1. A supermarket, preferably a chain, offering a range of fresh, frozen and prepackaged foods, with an in-store deli and adequate parking.

    2. A variety of cafes, bakeries and restaurants, both locally owned and chains, so that someone has a choice for breakfast, lunch, dinner and late night on weekends, at multiple price points.

    3. A policy toward food vendors with carts & trucks that works for both the residents and the vendors (NIMFY is appropriate here).

    Farmers markets and community gardens are an interesting challenge. I don't object to them, but both are relatively inefficient, labor-intensive ways to put food on one's table. Simply put, when a farmer goes to market, he's no longer farming, he's become a retailer. It may make sense to go to a good market one or two days a week and sell $200 or $500 worth of produce. It makes little sense to go to a smaller market and sell only $50 worth – your time and gas can be better spent elsewhere. Bottom line, a good, thriving farmer's market can be a great neighborhood asset; one with only a handful of booths and only 1 or 2 actual produce stands is an insipid waste of time and effort, for all involved.

    The same goes for gardening, individual or community, The land is available around St. Louis, it's the labor part that's hard to sustain. No one needs to look any further than the medians on S. Grand – for the first few years, it was apparent that a group of people were committed to keeping them looking good; now they're overgrown. I've got space for a garden in my yard, but I don't see the value of raising my own corn, tomatoes, zucchini, peppers, herbs, whatever, when I can go buy better stuff for less money and a lot less effort at the store.

    I don't care if other people want to be be urban micro farmers, I'm just not interested, and I don't think they either add to or detract from a neighborhood. I'm more interested in the overall look and feel of a neighborhood, one that shows that most residents care and are working to make things look good, in whatever vernacular or style they each choose, and rundown, overgrown and trashy don't cut it!

  5. St. Louis Public Radio says:

    The NPR story you reference was done by St. Louis Public Radio's Science Reporter Veronique LaCapra.

  6. MadGardener says:

    To Jason's and others' comments: The poor deserve healthy food. This is a social justice issue. The fact is that calorie-dense, high-fat, nutrient-poor foods are far cheaper than healthy fruits and vegetables–unrealistically so due to agricultural subsidies–and these foods lead to heart disease, one of the biggest killers in the U.S. High rates of obesity and its related diseases raise health care costs for everyone and take lives. The poor deserve healthy food. The co-op in Old North is a huge step in the right direction for getting healthy food to that area. In low-income areas where many don't have cars but corner stores with only junk food, cigarettes, and liquor for sale are aplenty and a few dollars will buy a super-size meal at McDonalds, gardens where people can grow food themselves for free, or less expensive options like the co-op are vital to the health of those neighborhoods.

    I did a research study on this topic for a graduate-level class and it's been proven that people of lower socio-economic status are more likely to be obese and suffer from type II diabetes. They also have the least access to fresh vegetables, in terms of both cost and distance. It's not about gentrification, it's about equal access and the health of the people. If you want a vital neighborhood, you have to have healthy people first.

    Also, urban farming creates new jobs. This is revitalization! Our own Gateway Greening just got a huge national grant from the Today Show that hundreds of thousands of people all over the country voted on. Their City Seeds program employs homeless clients of St. Patrick Center and provides them with future job training and mental health care while providing healthy food and vegetables for neighborhood residents at several farmer's markets throughout the city.

    To Chris, you're obviously not a vegetable gardener! The vegetables a person can grow oneself are far superior in both taste and nutrition to vegetables found at most grocers. Those vegetables are primarily bred to last through shipping and look good on the shelf.

    Also, to another comment: The beds in the median along S. Grand are gorgeous! They are lush and full, not weedy. I live in the neighborhood and see them every day and they really beautify the area, making it more attractive to businesses and their visiting patrons.

    • Guest says:

      Funny, but every 7-11 I've been in has sold fruit. If enough people are actually interested in purchasing fruits and vegetables, then the stores will carry them. So nothing is stopping the poor from getting healthy food… IF they so choose. Heck, ask Kacie, she wants to give them pizza.

      • Madgardener says:

        Not sure which 7-11s you're going to, but there's an excellent nationally published study of the food landscape in St. Louis by some dietetics professors at SLU. They actually assessed the amount of fruits and vegetables available in convenience stores and corner markets throughout the city. There are truly “deserts” where access to fresh fruits and vegetables is very limited for people of low socio-economic status.

    • Chris says:

      Actually, I do grow vegetables in my garden in my backyard. My point is that cooking fresh food is a dying art form, and even if presented with fresh vegetables, many Americans, rich and poor, wouldn't know what to do with them. Education of the benefits of fresh vegetables is critical to the success of improving people's diets; we can't just plop them down in front of them and walk away. I don't know how to cook turnips, so I don't buy them.

      • Madgardener says:

        Chris, I meant to reply to JZ71, sorry I typed your name instead. I agree with your point that people have to be educated on how to cook with vegetables. Not always easy. I don't like turnips either. 🙂

        • JZ71 says:

          I agree, we all should eat our vegetables. I'm not sure if it's a “social justice” issue, or not, though. I think it's more of a chicken-or-egg issue, where the poor buy and eat more crap because it's cheaper and/or easier, and because that's what sells, that's what's stocked in the stores in lower-income areas. If there were more buyers of grilled chicken salads in their stores, Church's, Rally's and/or the corner bodega would have them on their menus or on their shelves. But much like the McLean, if it doesn't sell, it makes no sense/costs money/reduces profits to be throwing rotting, overripe vegetables into the dumpster every day. The real issue is (re)educating the consumers in poorer neighborhoods about why buying tomatoes is better than buying tobacco, why buying apples is better than buying alcohol, why buying cranberry juice is better than buying Coke, and why buying collards is better than buying chips. Life is full of choices . . .

          • Douglas Duckworth says:


            It could be that black people are stereotyped to only purchase those things, as Laura Ingram said in her recent book that Michelle Obama only eats ribs all day long? I've seen quite a few poorer looking people purchasing vegetables at the South Grand Schnuck's. Of course income plays a role, but you don't see middle class or even poor white areas with virtual food deserts lacking alternative options. Their grocery stores, even the Walmart's in St. Charles (where you will find poor white people shopping), have lots of vegetables. It's not exclusively tied to income. There are racially-based assumptions about consumer preferences which also come into play. While some African Americans might be predisposed to eating unhealthy foods, at least poor whites in suburban or South Side areas have the option to purchase other things. That isn't the case in all areas of our Region.

          • JZ71 says:

            Doug – there was nothing racial in my comments. I'll repeat, food deserts exist because retailers haven't been able make (as much? enough?) money selling “good”/better food in certain neighborhoods. Blame poverty, ignorance or crime (shoplifting), but if few are buying, then little will be provided. Conversely, if there's a market for Marlboros, Mt. Dew and chips (a favorite diet of poor whites), then guess what, the stores in their area will stock what sells. You and others may see some grand conspiracy at work, but retail is actually quite simple – buy low, sell high, and if it doesn't, mark it down until it does, then don't repeat the same mistake over and over again – give the customer what they want, not what you think is best for them (because your competitors will if you won't) . . .

  7. Sean says:

    Great post, Steve – and thanks for the plugs for the North City Farmers' Market and the Old North Grocery Co-op, both of which accept EBT and both of which are making it easier for all residents of the neighborhood to have access to affordable and healthier food options. It's worth noting that the Missouri Foundation for Health has provided financial support to both of these initiatives as a way of promoting community health. Part of that funding pays for vouchers that get distributed at area food pantries to make it possible for people who are struggling economically to get fresh fruits and vegetables from the market.

  8. Shannon says:

    I agree with your premise, Steve. In fact, I recently presented a marketing plan to the city of Ferguson that includes strategies to recruit small local food producers to vacant storefronts. Supported by the success of the Ferguson Farmers Market, the proximity of EarthDance (the oldest organic farm in MO), and the fact that several Ferguson restaurants are now using locally grown ingredients, I see food playing a big role in the community’s continuing revitalization. Downtown Ferguson is a TIF district, and the city can potentially offer start-up funding to any local food producer who decides to open up shop there.


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