The Real Reasons it’s hard to Run a Business on the Near Westside

On September 12, the Post-Standard reported that Nojaim Brothers Supermarket, a 98 year old grocery store located in one of the City’s poorest neighborhoods, planned to close up shop. Within a week, the paper published several pieces analyzing effect on the neighborhood and Nojaims legacy in the community. Since that time, nothing has been put out, and it seems like Nojaims really might be on its way out.

That’s a shame. It’s a shame because the store is a good community member. It’s a shame because it’s well known throughout the county, showing people that good things happen in poor neighborhoods like the Near Westside. And it’s a shame because the people living in one of the poorest neighborhoods in the entire metro area should be able to walk to a store where they can buy healthy food for themselves and their families.

It hasn’t been enough for some people to note that this is a shame. Local luminaries have asked, sensibly, whether or not the community’s elected representatives could have done something to avoid this problem.

The Post-Standard mentioned competition from the recently opened Price Rite on South Ave when it broke the story. Within minutes, EJ McMahon of the Empire Center blamed Price Rite and the tax breaks it received from the City. The Post-Standard published a follow-up article developing this case. Republican mayoral candidate Laura Lavine agrees with this assessment, and says that it’s independent mayoral candidate Ben Walsh’s fault for helping make the deal that brought Price Rite to South Avenue. Every other news outlet that has reported on Nojaims closing has mentioned competition from the South Ave Price Rite and the tax exemptions that it received.

This is all very small thinking. Anyone seriously interested in the effects that local government policies have had on the ability of a business like Nojaims to make it on the Near Westside can’t just look back a few months. Local government made it difficult to run a business on the Near Westside 62 years ago when it built the James Geddes Rowhouses to concentrate poverty in the neighborhood. Local government made it difficult to run a business on the Near Westside 53 years ago when it turned West Street into an expressway and demolished the neighborhood’s business center. Local government made it difficult to run a business on the Near Westside 42 years ago when it cut corners and built Fowler High School to be structurally unsound. Local government made it difficult to run a business on the Near Westside 23 years ago when it wasted the opportunity that Ontrack provided to connect the neighborhood to major employers via rapid transit. Local government made it difficult to run a business on the Near Westside 9 years ago, and again this year, when it declined to renovate Blodgett Elementary. Local government made it difficult to run a business on the Near Westside a year ago when it built a police substation in the neighborhood but neglected to staff it with officers. Local government made it difficult to run a business on the Near Westside over, and over, and over again when it’s called for a grocery store to serve Downtown’s new residents even though Nojaims is less than a mile away from Clinton Square.

When you’re dealing with a history of government abuse and neglect that stretches over seven decades, it takes some severe myopia to just see back as far as April.

There are a lot of good lessons to learn from Nojaims difficulties. The grocery store got government help to build an expansion, but the associated mortgage payment was too expensive–government might have pushed the store to grow too big too fast. The City of Syracuse put in a signalized cross-walk at Otisco Street, but couldn’t do enough to slow the traffic coming down West Street to make the crossing feel safe–maybe NYSDOT’s plans for the corridor will have more success. Syracuse University had been doing a lot to bring investment to the area, but the new chancellor is less interested in community outreach and has pulled back–maybe we shouldn’t rely on private institutions to do the necessary work in our communities.

With all of those lessons worth learning, it’s too bad that the Post-Standard and the Empire Center and Laura Lavine have learned a worthless lesson instead. They see the bad thing happening in the Near Westside and have blamed it on the good thing happening on the Southside. They think that it’s too hard to get healthy food in two adjacent poor neighborhoods, so we might as well not even try. They see the status quo as unfortunate but intractable–worth talking about but not worth fixing.

That’s not good enough for this City. Syracuse is facing some big challenges, and it needs a Mayor committed to making life more liveable in all of its neighborhoods, a press that calls for the changes that will make that happen, and it needs critics capable of showing the real causes of the City’s problems as well as actual solutions. If the leaders of the community understand what’s really going on and act intelligently, the City can fill the hole that Nojaims is leaving in the Near Westside, and it can build neighborhoods where people can find healthy food within walking distance.