Planners and urbanists love to come up with technical terms. For example, growing up in Hawaii, I lived in a house with a small cottage on the property. We called it our “ohana” unit. Many years and one planning degree later, I now recognize that as an accessory dwelling unit (ADU). I can’t imagine a more technocratic shift, from ohana, meaning family in the Hawaiian language, to the robotic and jargony idea of a “dwelling unit.”
Likewise, there has been renewed discussion of accessory commercial units (ACUs) recently. A hundred years ago, these were simply referred to as neighborhood groceries.
Admittedly, there are technical reasons for talking about ACUs. Most cities around the U.S. have outlawed commercial buildings in residential neighborhoods. Maybe the easiest way to bring them back would be to assure people that any commercial use is secondary (i.e., accessory) to the primary residential use. Perhaps there would then be less pushback than if a city simply allowed a corner lot in a neighborhood to become home to a grocery store.
Putting aside use designations, lot lines, and other concepts that you can’t actually see in the real world, small shops used to be allowed in residential neighborhoods. As Euclidean zoning was born and disseminated, there was an obsession in the planning profession around separating uses. The motives behind such separation are well covered in books like The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein and Arbitrary Lines by M. Nolan Gray, but the result is still striking: Neighborhoods had less direct access to amenities.
Today, academics and community advocates alike talk about “food deserts.” These conversations often revolve around why big supermarkets don’t choose to locate in a particular area. They rarely discuss the neighborhood grocery store that has been outlawed across the country.
In essence, this means that in most residential neighborhoods, people don’t have a choice. They are forced to drive to get their groceries. What’s more, thanks to zoning codes, residents have been stripped of any avenue to come up with solutions to the problems facing their neighborhood. They have no agency over whether or not a large supermarket chooses to locate in their area.
What if, instead of being at the mercy of the workings of a giant corporation, headquartered hundreds or thousands of miles away, residents were allowed to open a produce stand? More broadly, what if residents were allowed to respond to the needs of their community? Wouldn’t that be a more equitable landscape?
It used to be possible. It isn’t anymore.
Beyond issues of equity, neighborhood shops that existed decades ago provided another benefit, one that a sterile term like “commercial unit” doesn’t capture. Those business owners were an important part of the community.
These days, it’s easy to think of neighborhoods as solely comprised of residential community members. In fact, many neighborhood associations have a specific mandate to have a certain level of representation not just from residents but from homeowners specifically. There is rarely such a mandate to have renters or the business community represented.
I recently found out that my neighborhood of Lakewood Park in Durham, North Carolina, created a community association in the 90s. Founding member Ethel Simonetti recalls that the association was meant to “include all stakeholders in the immediate area. Because of this declared organization composition—to include renters, homeowners, landlords, and business managers: representatives—LPCA was not welcomed nor was it permitted to join the Durham Inter-Neighborhood Council,” an organization that advocates on behalf of neighborhood associations across the city.
Conversely, those who recall a time when neighborhood grocery stores were allowed in Durham remember both the places and the business owners fondly. Just visit the website Open Durham, which documents historic buildings, including many of the neighborhood grocery stores that were once in operation. Residents are able to add comments and memories to the website. Here are just a few about the groceries that used to be a part of the local community:
“I was going to this store in the mid- to late ’70s. There was a blind man operating the store back then. His name was Big Dave. The store was called Big Dave’s Grocery. He had a helper to ID anything larger than one-dollar bills.”
“This store, Riddle’s Grocery, was a three-generation-run store. They always hired the local kids to work Saturday and deliver groceries.”
“When I was in preschool/first grade, my grandmother lived at the diagonal opposite corner of this block. We loved to walk around the corner to this store for comic books, candy, and a soft drink, spending a nickel on each. That would have been about 1954.”
“It was so cool to have a neighborhood store where kids could go in and not worry about being hassled. He was real nice to us growing up.”
“My grandmother lived on West Knox Street and kept kids all the time. She would let us walk to the store and get smiling Jack’s cookies from Jesse. He was a nice old guy. He and his wife lived across the street in the house on the corner of Alabama. My grandmother and grandfather actually lived in that house before Jesse while their house on West Knox was being built.”
Embedded in those stories are access, community, safety, and economic opportunity. The last quote strikes me in particular. The author speaks of a deep neighborhood connection that remains vivid to this day. It’s impossible to imagine a community talking about a large supermarket with such reverence.
For all these reasons, we need to allow small, residential neighborhood shops once again. If we call them ACUs, so be it, but I hope the actual communities refer to them as the neighborhood grocery store.
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