Amid a Pandemic and Racial Reckoning, Atlanta’s Corner Stores Are Community Cornerstones
Illustration: Derrick Dent

Amid a Pandemic and Racial Reckoning, Atlanta’s Corner Stores Are Community Cornerstones

When Carver Neighborhood Market was vandalized earlier this year, patrons rallied to support the grocer that offers fresh produce in one…

Illustration: Derrick Dent

When 2020 is said and done, it’ll likely become known as the year of massive uncertainty. But with so much instability (from Covid-19 to crimson skies on the West Coast), corner store culture remains familiar. LEVEL’s “Corner Store Chronicles” series pays homage to the power of the store that delivers the warmth and care that ACME will never replicate. Whether known as bodegas, tienditas, or another term of endearment where you’re from, our hoods would be nothing without them.

Days after protests broke out in June over the death of Rayshard Brooks, South Atlanta’s Carver Neighborhood Market became one of several sites of collateral damage. The shop — located half a mile from where Brooks was killed by police outside of a Wendys — had its windows smashed and walls tagged with graffiti deriding the shop for gentrification, destruction that epitomized the injustice-fueled tensions that engulfed the city in the spring and summer months.

“I would hesitate to say that it was an outgrowth of the actual protests there,” says Jeff Delp, director of economic development for Focused Community Strategies (FCS), the organization that owns Carver Market. “But it was a symptom of attention being on our neighborhood.”

The community hub bounced back quickly, though, thanks to help from local residents, who rallied around the nonprofit shop by boarding up the store’s windows and painting a mural that depicts a brown-skinned person wearing a “Let Me Breathe” mask. It was a show of appreciation for an establishment that launched five years ago to bring a grocer to a neighborhood sorely in need of one. Previously, the closest was three miles away, making the area one of many “food deserts” in Atlanta. With its windows boarded, the market remained open for business, selling groceries and employing a dozen locals, some of whom worked next door at the Community Grounds coffee shop before the Covid-19 pandemic.

“When people complain about gentrification [regarding] the grocery store, what’s the alternative? Do you want to not have a grocery store? I just don’t know what to do with that.”

Traci Cameron is a native of the area who understands the challenges of living in a food desert. “Our community is transitioning, so we have a lot of different income levels represented here,” says Cameron, who helped with the store’s painting and repairs. “Carver Market has done such a good job with balancing organic, higher-end finds along with more value finds so that it really can service the community.”

According to Delp, FCS initially hoped to convince a grocery store chain to come to the area. When that pitch failed to come to fruition, the organization opened Carver Market, which has become a resource to the community. Nearby high school students purchase snacks there and hang out at Community Grounds. Through donations, the market offers food stamp recipients a chance to double the value of their benefit, so they can purchase fresh produce that might otherwise be too expensive. During the early months of the pandemic, Carver Neighborhood Market made necessities accessible to locals when supermarkets were scarce on supplies like toilet paper and paper towels. On average, Carver serves about 300 customers per day, although patrons are down to about a third of that figure since coronavirus has hit. The shop fundraises about $100,000 each year to remain open.

Amy Girard, Assistant Professor at Emory University’s Rollins School of Public Health, says before the 1940s, there were small, independent grocery stores that served segregated communities. With White flight in Atlanta in the ’60s, there was a “disinvestment in urban areas” that coincided with the rise of grocery store chains in the suburbs. As a result, many small grocery stores in urban areas closed, and the rise of convenience stores began.

In Kirkwood, about a 12-minute drive from Carver, L&C Food Mart went viral on Twitter upon opening its doors in June, touting preferable prices and Black ownership. The early buzz spoke to the need in the area for the one-stop shop that carries everything from hair products to smoking paraphernalia. On Sundays, patrons can buy a catered soul food plate with turkey wings or meatloaf for $15. While convenience stores such as L&C have traditionally stocked up on food items such as beans, pancake mix, and canned meats and other nonperishables, but most don’t sell fresh produce.

Produce options are crucial for people like Jenna McMullan, a resident of East Point who struggles with celiac disease. She remembers being frustrated with the lack of fresh foods in nearby grocery stores when she moved to the area a few years ago. She now serves as the chair of the board of Market 166 Grocery & Kitchen Cooperative, which hopes to secure enough owners to launch a community-owned grocery store within the next year.

“That idea of ownership is really important for people who may not feel like as Atlanta changes they have as much of a grasp on the community,” says McMullan. Still, she acknowledges that paying $100 to obtain ownership might not be affordable to everyone. As such, Market166 has payment plans and a scholarship. The cooperative model has worked for Sevananda Natural Foods Market, currently Atlanta’s only co-op grocery store and one of a few vegetarian co-ops in the nation, which celebrated its 45th anniversary last year.

As Atlanta faces rapid gentrification, independent grocery stores have returned throughout the city. “When you have disposable income, you have the opportunity to act on your values that might be related to things like buying organic, buying local [and] buying produce that’s not made with exploitable labor. People capitalize on that,” Girard says. Still, she points to Carver Market as an example of a “community-focused” grocer.

In its early years, Delp says FCS spent time pushing back on framing that referred to Carver Market as “organic,” a label that he worried might signal the store as trendy to White residents and inaccessible to the working-class Black community in the neighborhood.

Still, while Carver has received praise for servicing a neighborhood in need, it has also been met with critiques — like the claims of gentrification that was sprayed on the building’s exterior in June.

In the ’90s, FCS, an urban ministry which describes its mission as “gentrification with justice,” worked in the East Lake community alongside Cousins Properties Inc., the Atlanta Housing Authority, the Housing and Urban Development agency to raze the East Lake Meadows housing projects and build a mixed-income community. Today, in addition to owning Carver Market, Community Grounds coffee shop and a recently-purchased gas station, the organization owns homes in the South Atlanta neighborhood, working to “rehabilitate homes or construct new residences in order to transition renters to homeowners.”

Delp says he struggles to respond to the gentrification critiques, especially when it comes to the market. “To say that we are somehow perfect and don’t cause any negative side effects would be inaccurate, but I would hope that the good the store brings far offsets [that],” he says. “When people complain about gentrification [regarding] the grocery store, what’s the alternative? Do you want to not have a grocery store? I just don’t know what to do with that.”

“You could write a story on the fact that someone wrote, ‘[Fuck] gentrification’ or ‘gentrification sucks’ on our wall,” Delp continues. “Someone’s mad at us, right? But you see so many other people come out and paint murals. It’s just got to be an entire story.”

Read more: Long Live the Bodega