Where Oh Where Have The Supermarkets Gone?

Let’s start off by saying that finding a decent supermarket in New York is like finding a needle in a haystack — regardless of how much money you make or where you live. However, it is no secret to the lower class citizens living in certain neighborhoods, like Harlem and parts of Brooklyn, that the quality of the food in the few supermarkets that exist are paltry at best.

When I lived in pre-gen Clinton Hill, Brooklyn, there was one very dark and disgusting Met supermarket around the corner from my apartment. The next closest store was quite a few blocks away. Eventually, the Pathmark at Restoration Plaza and Atlantic Terminal opened. While they weren’t convenient, they did offer a better selection than the little mom and pop (rodent infested) grocery stores in the neighborhood.

As the neighborhood began to change, so did the offerings in the local neighborhood supermarkets. Suddenly soy milk and organic offerings were making appearances where whole milk and greasy processed food once reigned. You can tell someone who has no background with struggling communities because they will be the first to tell you that “poor” folk don’t like to buy healthy food. Strange that the whole wheat bread and soy milk tend to fly off the shelves in the “minority” neighborhoods — blame it on the lactose intolerance many people of color tend to suffer from.

When I moved to Harlem I was a little concerned about the supermarket situation. There were three small chains near my apartment when I moved in. Shortly thereafter a brand new Pathmark opened and for a while it was relatively decent. Then the smaller stores started to raise prices, renovate and even close. This drove more traffic to the Pathmark which eventually also went down hill.

I regularly see residents traveling by subway with bags of Whole Foods (set to open on 97th Street next year) and Trader’s Joe’s coming up from 14th Street. The situation doesn’t seem to be getting any better either. The New York Times reports:

In East Harlem, six small supermarkets have closed, and two more are on the brink, local officials said. In some cases, the old storefronts have been converted to drug stores that stand to make money coming and going — first selling processed foods and sodas, then selling medicines for illnesses that could have been prevented by a better diet.

The supermarket closings — not confined to poor neighborhoods — result from rising rents and slim profit margins, among other causes. They have forced residents to take buses or cabs to the closest supermarkets in some areas. Those with cars can drive, but the price of gasoline is making some think twice about that option. In many places, residents said the lack of competition has led to rising prices in the remaining stores.

I guess the fact of the matter is that people in New York City shouldn’t even be concerned with grocery stores since the fallacy is that we all eat out every night in fancy restaurants, served by the country’s top chefs. Besides, with the advent of services like FreshDirect who even needs to set foot in a grocery store these days?

I’m curious to know what your personal experience has been on the grocery front in New York. Does your neighborhood have enough stores? Are the stores in your neighborhood clean and well-stocked? Do you have a nice selection of fresh foods and produce in your local store? Drop your thoughts into the comments section.

Related: The Lost Supermarket: A Breed in Need [NYT]

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5 thoughts on “Where Oh Where Have The Supermarkets Gone?

  1. The 125th/131st Fairway is my go-to spot when I need good, fresh produce. The last stop on the Bx15 bus that runs along 125th drops you at 12th Avenue, only a block away. To haul everything back, I get a car. It’s only 6 bucks and they’re always waiting.

    The Pathmark at 145th and ACP is basically processed food paradise. Now that I’ve accepted the fact that they exist to sell things in cans, bottles and bags, I’m not mad at ’em. The produce is garbage and the meat is hit and miss, but you can get everything else you need — and then some — from there. There are always $6 cars there too.

    All the other area stores are depressing and gross. That C-Town on Amsterdam b/t 145th and 146th? Who buys food from there?! Who eats it?! Nasty.

  2. The Fine Fair on 117th is clean and well stocked on standard items. However, the Fairway three stops down has much better produce and meat, plus the prices are better. My girlfriend and I made up an index of about 15 ‘standard’ items and compared prices at both places. Not only was Fairway the better deal overall, but the selection of variable goods like apples and chicken were of much better quality. We didn’t do the same for the Fairway on 132nd, and I would be interested to hear if anyone has.

  3. I’m a typical single young(ish) male that doens’t have the best food habits, but have been frustrated by the grocery store situation in the south-central Harlem. Fairway is a hike – and I’m too cheap to take a car over… Citarella is too expensive and the Met on Amsterdam is too far. FreshDirect has not been all that great (and wasteful – lots of unwanted packaging and idling polluting trucks).

    CTown on 116 is the most practical choice, but that’s still six blocks away and really not great in terms of stocking fresh items… or the variety you would find elsewhere. I admit that I end up shopping at the Rite Aid sometimes becasue it’s only a coupel blocks away… and ending up with a basket of junk food. (And can they please do something about the blacked-out storefronts?, I feel like I’m going into an adult bookstore!)

    Hopefully some of these new developments can bring a grocery with them, but the magic 10,000 sf ++ number the larger grocers are looking for is difficult… Trader Joes would be great as it is affordable and decent quality. I’m not too interested in ‘Whole Paycheck’ making it’s way up to Harlem… which is unlikely for a while since they will be opening a store at some point on 100th on the UWS.

  4. I hit Fairway once every other week – which is the greatest supermarket in the world. Great food, decent prices, although the delivery charge is way too high (7.95!). I then use Fine Fair on 117th and Lenox to supplement. I think it’s a great store. Clean, well stocked, reasonable prices. I wish their produce was better, but if we had the cart men like in mid-town, I would be ok with it the way it. C-Town on 116th is only good in a pinch. Pretty clean, but way to cramped and I don’t always feel confident with everything I buy their. Just something about it.

  5. Coming from out of the country I have been quite impressed with the variety of vegetables that you can find in smaller grocery stores. Its also nice when the farmer market stands start to appear around Harlem Hospital (although they could expand their offerings)

    Overall I just find the prices a bit high sometimes. But by and large you can get what you want.

    Of course though it would be nice to have a more delux store in the area like a whole foods or trader joes. But taking the subway to get to one when necessary is not that bad either.

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