It began with a humble message delivered as small clusters of National Guard soldiers stood watch from the distance in a North Philadelphia shopping center, where storefronts remained mostly covered in wooden planks days after looting sparked by George Floyd civil unrest.
“I don’t have the words to fix the problems we have at this moment,” ShopRite supermarket owner-operator Jeff Brown said from a lectern in front of a damaged entrance to the store he was now reopening in Nicetown. It was Friday morning. People were inside shopping already.
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I had covered the grand opening of this full-service supermarket back in 2013. Brown pioneered building stores in communities that corporations had written off and left for dead. Food deserts, these neighborhoods were called before Brown. Now the store was reopening five days after being ransacked as part of protests around the killing of yet another unarmed black man by police. This time, in Minneapolis.
Brown asked some of the maybe 100 people there to come to the microphone and pray. Pray for his store. Pray for everyone.
“My family defines our success by what we do for people,” Brown said. “... I believe our only path forward is through faith and unity with each other.”
Brown passed the wireless mic to a procession of devotees. Customers who inevitably became friends because Brown’s store has taken care of the people it serves. It employs them. It feeds them. It boosts their property values. One woman whose seafood salad is sold inside said she had helped elect too many politicians who then went on to do just about nothing for her low-income neighborhood.
Brown? This store? They are the exception. They are the rare example of resources joining will and the needs of a neighborhood in a city with a quarter of its people living in poverty far from Center City.
“I love Mr. Brown,” said seafood salad maven Saudia Shuler of Country Cooking. “I don’t see color when I see him.”
“Brown’s ShopRite represents the place where we get our bread," said the minister who introduced those who’d come to pray, Reginald Johnson of Holy Nation Baptist Church. “Not only the bread that we put on our table — but the bread that we put into our bank account.”
Brown had pleaded with Gov. Tom Wolf and the Kenney administration for National Guard troops after this store on Fox Street was looted two nights in a row coming out of last weekend’s protests. Another damaged store of his, a ShopRite in Parkside, will reopen Monday.
The local African-American community had pulled together a group of men to stand guard at Fox Street. The National Guard’s arrival by midweek, however, preempted them.
“We developed a plan to get 300 men to come to ShopRite to stand guard," Pastor Johnson told Brown. "But as of this morning, there were 3,700 people ... to stand in solidarity with you.”
Brown is a rare figure. He does not just donate stock, or give money to a church or synagogue, or get his name on a building and call it charity. Brown sells food — one of the hardest industries to be in. He employs the people he serves at six city-area stores. And on Friday, while sweating in stifling humidity, he even wiped down the microphone himself with antiseptic cloths between each speaker, a gesture amid the COVID-19 pandemic that has forced us all into masks.
“We thank Almighty God,” said Rahima Abdullah of Masjid Allah in West Oak Lane. “We are grateful to Almighty God Allah that Jeff and his family has come upon this community to love us.”
How is it that investing in our city’s lower-income neighborhoods is so rare that the very people suffering the greatest racial injustices must applaud something as simple as their lone neighborhood supermarket rising from the ruins?
But this is Philadelphia: a gilded core portrayed in glossy annual marketing and corporate reports as a Land of Plenty whose highest skyscrapers are sources of alleged community reinvestment. Meanwhile, low-income neighborhoods far from the high-income buzz are grateful for the one store that, if located a few miles into the suburbs, would be a dime a dozen.
“George Floyd’s daughter yesterday, guess what she said?” Abdullah said of Thursday’s televised memorial service for Mr. Floyd. “She said, ‘My dad has changed the world!’”
Others in the crowd repeated the phrase and cheered. Abdullah was not satisfied, however, with the righteous cry about yet another dead, unarmed black man in these United States.
“My dad has changed the world?” she said. “Do we have to die to change the world? No. We, as a community, must stay alive, stay awake. and make a difference today. Not when we’re dead.”
As a second grader, Mr. Floyd dreamed of one day becoming a Supreme Court justice. So said a former teacher who appeared on TV this week with a paper the child had written years ago.
Floyd was killed by a Minneapolis police officer responding to a call about a counterfeit bill. The cop had pinned Floyd’s neck under his knee for nearly nine suffocating minutes.
Too many people who live far away from our nation’s cities have no concept of reality beyond their own bubbles. Beyond what their priests or neighbors tell them. Beyond what they believe to be true about life in our cities, vs. what actually is true.
“We want to pray,” Pastor Johnson said, “because we know that prayer is the language and the heartbeat of God.”