What can you buy within a 10-minute walk of your home? If you’re lucky, there’s a store down the street. And if you’re very lucky, that store stocks real food and useful items like bread, apples, carrots, dish soap, and toilet paper. According to a recent Walkscore analysis, Philadelphians are 11 times luckier in this respect than residents of Oklahoma City. Almost 2/3 of them live close to a food store. Only 5% in Oklahoma City enjoy that convenience. The percentage is equally low in Albuquerque, Indianapolis, Tucson, Charlotte and countless suburbs. But in early-mid 20th century, residents of most American cities could find many of life’s necessities on the nearest street corner.
This was certainly the case in Burlington, VT, where groceries, hardware stores, creameries and other businesses sprouted on the ground floors of houses on streets where high foot traffic created a steady market for small scale retail. Many stores could be found in the city’s Old North End, a densely populated home to generations of immigrants. Selling goods and services to one’s neighbors through a home-based business offered one pathway to prosperity for recent arrivals.
In 1948, 85 food stores were located in an area of roughly 5 square miles. But as the century unfolded, the market for small retail tapered off in Burlington, as in most other U.S. cities. Groceries and other stores consolidated and followed their customers to the suburbs. Essentials like meat, dairy, produce and staples disappeared. Beer, soda, candy, and chips appeared on the shelves of local gas stations. As the market for retail space receded, store owners sold to landlords and homeowners, transferring many of those early storefronts to residential use.
Retail has changed profoundly in the last 50 years. In Burlington, some of the small stores had vanished by the end of the Depression, others grew into IGAs (Independent Grocers’ Association) and persisted until they were put out of business or bought by regional chains like A&P (Atlantic and Pacific Tea Company) and later Grand Union, which eventually fell to Price Chopper, Hannaford’s and other more recent superstores. Each consolidation placed groceries and everyday supplies a step further away from the old neighborhood. By 1986, 25 neighborhood groceries remained, and now, nine corner stores serve a developed area three times its 1948 size.
In an era when the butcher and the baker are as rare as the candlestick maker, the remaining corner stores may seem like a quaint echo of history. A few of the older stores remain in Burlington’s Old North End.
And recent waves of immigrants have breathed life into the district’s commercial street, offering an eclectic array of goods like halal meats, curry pastes, banh mi, queso fresco, and ginger beer in small locally-owned stores. These small businesses offer familiar staples and other everyday items to recent arrivals who, like earlier residents, live close together and don’t own cars.
Large chains offer greater efficiencies and lower prices, which is why residents of urban neighborhoods go out of their way to shop in them. But if the full service supermarkets are out by the interstate, requiring people to go an inconvenient distance, it helps to have plenty of mom and pop stores scattered throughout the neighborhood. Retail diversity makes life easier for people who don’t have a car, or don’t want to drive. Walkable, sustainable, and vibrant cities have neighborhoods where groceries and household items are as common as chips and soda.