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When Donta Rose hosted the opening of his new Sharswood grocery store, the day marked more than his own triumph. The August opening of his Grocery Outlet at 21st Street and Ridge Avenue represented the latest salvo in a six-decade battle to bring full-service supermarkets to the city’s poorest communities.

For Rose, 28, it was personal, too. He spent part of his childhood living with his family in the neighborhood. “As a kid,” he recalled, “there was never any grocery stores where you would buy fresh produce nearby.”

Two decades later, Rose’s venture represents the hope of reversing the century of racist development and investment practices responsible for that void.

A century ago, small mom-and-pop grocery stories dotted every Philadelphia neighborhood. One analysis out of the University of Pennsylvania counted one store for every 54 families, according to Temple professor Ken Finkel.

But that would all change by the 1960s, as grocery executives opted to follow middle-class white families on their flight pattern to the suburbs then growing outside city limits.

Citing advantages such as large lots for parking and lower crime rates, these store operators left urban neighborhoods to create a winning business model in the form of the suburban supermarket. As the decade ended, they were selling food to 70% of the nation.

By 2019, 25% of Philadelphians lived in neighborhoods with high rates of poverty and no or limited access to stores with high-quality produce, according to a report by the city’s Department of Public Health.

Across the city, stores selling mostly unhealthy food outnumber stores with healthier offerings by nearly 10-1, according to the report.

Grassroots activists call the phenomenon abandonment, or retail redlining, a term the National Institutes of Health uses to describe a major chain supermarket’s disinclination to operate in inner cities or low-income neighborhoods.

As healthy, affordable food became less available for those in these underserved communities, eating poorly became a public health crisis and bringing supermarkets to neighborhoods a rallying cry.

About 6.2% of the country has limited supermarket access, according to a 2017 USDA food access research report. While retail redlining is a national problem, Philadelphia’s Black community has been on the front lines fighting for solutions.

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Seeding a vision with Progress Plaza

A local charismatic Baptist minister, the Rev. Leon H. Sullivan, an adherent of economic justice, undertook one of the city’s earliest efforts to lure a supermarket in the late 1960s.

Sullivan painted a picture of Progress Plaza, now Sullivan Progress Plaza, on North Broad Street and encouraged his members to pool their money to seed the vision. They raised $400,000 (equivalent to $3.4 million today) to create the first shopping center in the United States owned and operated by African Americans.

“The aim is to keep some of the money at home instead of seeing it flow out, week after week, into the suburbs, making the wealthy wealthier from the earnings of black folks,” Sullivan wrote in his 1969 autobiography, Build Brother Build.

When Progress Plaza opened in 1968, it housed the country’s largest supermarket chain, A&P, as its anchor tenant. It was the first large supermarket in North Philadelphia and, by 1974, the store ranked as one of the chain’s top five grocery stores in the Delaware Valley.

“It was very difficult [to build Progress Plaza],” said Wendell R. Whitlock, chairman emeritus of Progress Investment Associates Inc. “Rev. Sullivan had to use every trick in his bag in order to get financial support for the building of Progress Plaza. [He called in] every favor that was owed. Big business is reluctant to get involved in the inner city. There is blanket prejudice.”

A jubilant throng, estimated at 10,000 people, celebrated the dedication of the plaza on Oct. 27, 1968, and Sullivan fashioned himself a commercial development consultant to help Black communities across the country build retail shopping centers.

But no one then could have known that the storied A&P, like other legacy traditional supermarket chains, would fail to remain competitive and would start a decades-long slide from which it would never recover. A national study showed that Philadelphia by the 1990s had the second-lowest number of supermarkets per capita of any major city.

After 30 years in Progress Plaza, A&P refused to renew its store’s lease, which it had renamed under its Super Fresh banner. Workers were given four days’ notice of the closure. An Inquirer article at the time said that the “next closest supermarket, a Thriftway, is 19 blocks away, at 22d Street and Lehigh Avenue.”

“Big business is reluctant to get involved in the inner-city. There is blanket prejudice.”

Wendell R. Whitlock

“The irony of Super Fresh is it was the most profitable store in the state, but they still closed the supermarket as they did all their inner-city stores,” recalled Whitlock. “They didn’t have to give a reason, or if they gave one, I never heard it.”

It would be a decade before another supermarket, Fresh Grocer, would open at Sullivan Progress Plaza.

But during the heady days when getting supermarkets back seemed possible, Sullivan tried in 1979 to replicate his Progress Plaza success by building Strawberry Square Shopping Center at 29th and Dauphin Streets.

By then supermarkets had all but divested from the urban market and he could not lure an operator or lock down commercial financing. He pulled out of the project three years later.

Another local minister stepped in and built the shopping center but was still unable to snag a supermarket as an anchor tenant and finally agreed to rent to an untested owner-operated market cooperative. It, too, failed and was evicted from the shopping center in 1987.

A dire food situation

A chain supermarket didn’t come to Strawberry Square until 1991.

In 2013, a Bottom Dollar grocery store finally opened at 3000 Grays Ferry Ave. but was shuttered after a year. Bottom Dollar’s parent company sold all the city’s 66 stores to Aldi, which in turn planned to reopen only half of them.

The Pathmark across the street then closed in 2015, creating a dire food situation in the area. That’s why Mayor Jim Kenney, State Sen. Anthony Williams, and Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson were all on hand when a Fresh Grocer opened in 2016.

Talmadge Belo Jr., the cofounder and now emeritus vice president of the Brewerytown Sharswood Community Association, started the Brewerytown Task Force when the Shop N Bag at 27th and Girard Avenue first shut down in 1996. A quarter of a century later, the group is still trying to get a replacement full-service supermarket, not just the discount Aldi (a former Bottom Dollar) at 31st and Girard.

“Yes, I was surprised that it’s taken so long,” Belo said. “The resistance is large. [Supermarket owners] say that there is not enough square footage available, and it won’t be profitable. That is a ridiculous excuse. They are resisting us for I suspect another reason — that we are the inner city.”

Getting supermarkets in neighborhoods

Public money is needed to push private owners to operate supermarkets in ”undesirable” locations. The Pennsylvania Fresh Food Financing Initiative (FFFI) was developed by U.S. Rep. Dwight Evans when he was a state representative, The Food Trust, and the Reinvestment Fund to grow supermarkets in underserved communities across the state.

The public-private initiative funded 88 projects and gave $73.2 million in loans and $12.1 million in grants between 2004 and 2010. Beneficiaries included the Brown’s ShopRite in Eastwick, the Fresh Grocer in the rehabilitated Sullivan Progress Plaza, and Weavers Way Co-op for a new store in West Oak Lane, the only source of produce within two miles.

FFFI’s footprint in Philadelphia helped make it a national program, but it alone hasn’t been a panacea. Weavers Way shut its store after four years and turned operation over to the Ogontz Avenue Revitalization Corp. Today it’s a corner convenience store.

This story has been updated to correct the name of the Reinvestment Fund.

The work produced by the Communities & Engagement desk at The Inquirer is supported by The Lenfest Institute for Journalism. Editorial content is created independently of the project's donors.