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The evolution of a food desert: How a Detroit neighborhood lost its stores

The evolution of a food desert: How a Detroit neighborhood lost its stores
The evolution of a food desert: How a Detroit neighborhood lost its stores 04:11

(CBS DETROIT) - Mack Avenue on Detroit's east side was once a lively road in the city.

Along the avenue, from East Grand Boulevard down to St. Jean Street, homes that used to shelter families are now gone or abandoned.

Sidewalks that used to be walkable paths are now overgrown.

"This neighborhood, one of the oldest, have gone through all of these waves," said Detroit's official Historian Jamon Jordan.

"They've gone through white flight, they've gone through black middle-class flight. They've gone through the period of time when houses were being burned up on Devil's Night. Many times because homeowners themselves are burning their own houses up because they have to get some kind of equity out of their homes and the only way they can get it is through insurance."

"You also have the crack epidemic of the 1980s and 90s," Jordan continued.

"This neighborhood sees that and of course, it sees the housing crisis of 2008, 2009. That crash of course affects this neighborhood. So this neighborhood seen all of these different levels of decline in Detroit's history because its old enough to have seen all these levels of decline."

Jordan says it's a reflection of what happens to a neighborhood when homeowners move their families out.

"Working class, low-income and poor African Americans, many of which can not afford to sustain the homes, without some help because the banks and federal governments redlining policies have been going on for decades," Jordan explained.

"Many of the working class and low-income African Americans that move into this neighborhood aren't eligible to get bank loans, and home-equity loans, and loans that will help them fix up their neighborhoods and fix-up their homes and get pipes fixed and new roofs. And so they're really struggling to maintain their homes."

The city historian attributes the population decline to the closing of schools and neighborhood businesses, including grocery stores. 

"And so now you have a food desert," Jordan said.

"People have to travel miles away from where they live if they want adequate food, healthy food, and culturally appropriate food. And so if they're looking for those things, they can't in many cases go to their own neighborhoods. What's left are fringe businesses. Liquor stores, party stores, gas stations with a little convenience shop inside of the gas station."

Whole Foods in Midtown is located on Mack Avenue, but aside from a Save-A-lot at the Gratiot Avenuce near the Mack interchange, you have to travel approximately five miles down before you get to the next store, Aldi.

According to Zip Data Maps, it affects approximately 20,000 residents in the 48214 zip code, where 12% percent account for the senior population. 

Antoine Bryant, Detroit's director of Planning and Development, says although they can't force market retailers to set up shop in certain neighborhoods, they're working to strengthen neighborhoods to attract stores.

"When Whole Foods, located in the middle of the Detroit, people thought that's never going to work," Bryant explained.

"And if you ever been there, the place is packed on a daily basis. That's easily some of the most expensive grocery in the country, but people will go there because it's an option that they need. If you put a grocery store in a neighborhood, it will do well."

"And so those are one of the things we're looking at when we engage all businesses is that we have a resident base across the city that are looking for amenities and fresh food is easily one of the most important ones that we can provide to our residents," Bryant continued. 

Bryant says city officials understand that 33% of Detroiters don't have access to vehicles, which poses a problem for residents living in food deserts.

He says plans are underway to address food insecurity by providing essential options.

"It might be something like a food co-op or a food commons and so we're trying to diversify as many different ways that we can provide fresh food to our residents," Bryant said.

"We're looking at more than a food desert. We're looking at a prospect of a whole neighborhood desert if something's not done," Jordan concluded. 

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