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Urbanism

Dollar Stores Are a Sign of Urban Decay. It’s Time to Stop Their Spread.

A new report shows how dollar stores become magnets for crime and perpetuate food scarcity

Drive around Dallas’ poorer neighborhoods, and you’ll find that there are three kinds of businesses that tend to survive amid urban decay: pawn shops, payday lenders, and dollar stores. Pawn shops and payday lenders often come under fire for the ways in which they move into challenged urban communities and exploit local residents. Dollar stores, on the other hand, often go unnoticed. But dollar stores are not merely symbols of urban blight. A new report shows how dollar stores serve as active agents of neighborhood deterioration.

An investigation by ProPublica and the New York Times finds that dollar stores are a magnet for crime, perpetuate food deserts, and depress neighborhood job markets. Since 2017, there have been more than 200 violent incidents at Family Dollar or Dollar General stores around the country:

The number of incidents can be explained in part by the stores’ ubiquity: There are now more than 16,000 Dollar Generals and nearly 8,000 Family Dollars in the United States, a 50% increase in the past decade. (By comparison, Walmart has about 4,700 stores in the U.S.) The stores are often in high-crime neighborhoods, where there simply aren’t many other businesses for criminals to target. Routine gun violence has fallen sharply in prosperous cities around the country, but it has remained stubbornly high in many of the cities and towns where these stores predominate. The glowing signs of the discount chains have become indicators of neglect, markers of a geography of the places that the country has written off.

The proliferation of dollar stores can also be linked with poor nutrition and increased rates of heart disease and obesity, and dollar stores also force local retailers out of business yet hire very few employees. And yet, if dollar stores are so bad for urban communities, can cities do anything about their spread? The answer is yes. In fact, many cities around the country, including a couple in North Texas, have already attempted to address their zoning laws and city code to slow the spread of these predatory businesses.

There are two general approaches. One is a formula business restriction, which limits the number of chain retailers that can open in a specific area of town. The other approach is to craft new policy that specifically limits dollar stores. Mesquite took this approach, creating a provision that defines dollar stores as a “conditional use,” meaning that the stores must undergo a review and receive a special permit to open, similar to how Dallas regulates some nightlife establishments. Late last year, Fort Worth passed a city ordinance that requires that all new dollar stores be at least 2 miles away from any existing dollar store. Dollar stores in Fort Worth must also dedicate at least 10 percent of their stock to fresh produce, meat, and dairy products.

As other large cities, including Cleveland, Oklahoma City, New Orleans, and Atlanta, have passed similar laws that restrict dollar store development, there has been expected push back. “Let Them Eat Whole Foods,” reads a representative piece by the Foundation for Economic Education, a libertarian think-tank, which argues that people in impoverished communities love that they have no choice but to shop at stores that have been linked to crime, malnutrition, and neighborhood job loss.

But the opposition to dollar store restrictions do highlight the need to find other ways to combat the spread of dollar stores that aren’t vulnerable to accusations of elitism, namely, offer communities viable alternatives. The south Chicago neighborhood of Englewood has received a lot of attention in recent weeks for a police killing that led to protests that boiled over into looting. Less known is that the neighborhood is set to open a new supermarket that is designed to address some of the underlying disinvestment that is fueling much of that anger.

The Go Green Fresh Market is the centerpiece of a neighborhood redevelopment initiative that is being hailed as an “urban Marshall Plan.” The grocery story is designed to double as a flexible community space, the heart of a multi-phase redevelopment project that will also add resources for public health, housing, job training, and community green space. A vacant elementary school will be transformed into a dorm for formerly incarcerated residents returning to the neighborhood. It is being built by community members who were formerly incarcerated and are now receiving construction job training through the project. The functionality, uses, and design of the development were all created not by some raging elitists looking to force Whole Foods down the throats of South Side residents, but through a process of grassroots community engagement.

We don’t know how well this approach will work once it opens, but there is some evidence that it is perceived differently by the community. During the recent riots, many of the buildings in Englewood were vandalized, but the under-construction grocery store wasn’t touched. To me this suggests that community members already see the project as something new and different, as something they are involved in creating and which they can consider their own. This is the inverse of the phenomenon that has made dollar stores crime magnets precisely because they appear as impersonal corporate outlets.

What would an “urban Marshall Plan” look like in Dallas? How could local activist and philanthropic organizations leverage the success of projects like Bonton Farms and examples like Chicago’s Go Fresh Green Market to create new models for addressing the root-causes of neighborhood disinvestment and disenfranchisement? Will the Dallas City Council have the vision and guts to take up an ordinance that can address the spread of predatory dollar stories in so many city neighborhoods?

Although these questions may not appear connected to the issue of police violence, they all stem from the alarm raised by the recent protests. The purpose of civil disobedience is to draw attention to problems that have become so commonplace they are no longer seen, and there are few ornaments on the urban landscape that fit the description of the silently unseen predator quite like the dollar store.

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