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Shopping Is Still Segregated

As gentrification spreads in midsize cities, the divide between shoppers grows even greater.

Racked is no longer publishing. Thank you to everyone who read our work over the years. The archives will remain available here; for new stories, head over to, where our staff is covering consumer culture for The Goods by Vox. You can also see what we’re up to by signing up here.

You need a bra.

Your youngest kid has weaned at 13 months, and now your sagging, milk-drained breasts need some support. You want a bra that is sturdy and well made. No underwires stabbing your flesh after poking through a shoddily made cup. You need something that will lift firmly, support and cover the side boob, and give you smooth, seamless lines underneath the clothes you also have to buy for work. You also want the back support a good bra can provide. And you can’t order it online because size variations are so wild you don’t know what numerical category your body is slated for anymore. You have to be measured properly and look at yourself in the mirror.

But you live in a midsize Midwestern city — one of those cities that white people fled during the mid-20th century because they feared sending their kids to school with black kids. People of color with economic resources left these cities too, essentially leaving behind people with incomes sometimes averaging less than $20,000 per year, who were living in historically redlined neighborhoods.

Myriad urban issues, including retail development, were negatively affected by that designation. The major retailers followed the money to the suburbs. Some of those suburbs were inner-ring, still located near municipal or county transit lines; some were more than 10 miles outside the city’s borders, only accessible by personal vehicle. The shops left behind in the cities had some affordable price points for the people who remained — those who didn’t have the money or access to transportation to get to the suburbs — but the clothes there tend to be cheaply made and need to be replaced soon after purchase.

It’s easy to believe that the city and federal officials who codified this disinvestment, and the retailers still sitting imperiously on their hundreds of acres outside these cities, believe that people who are low-income don’t deserve things that are affordable and also of good quality.

When these same cities start to gentrify and hypergentrify, and white people start returning, new businesses spring up with twee merchandise, like $5 doughnuts or artisanal grooming products, and names that sometimes play on offensive or racist stereotypes of urban areas. These new businesses are generally touted as being inventive or interesting, but few of them sell things that you need day to day. There are hipster clothing boutiques that sell extremely expensive dresses or silk-screened organic cotton shirts. Almost no one sells good bras.

You will have to drive to the suburbs.

This means first checking your calendar. Ideally, you would go on a day and time when you don’t have to bring your kids. Taking them shopping when you live in this kind of city always means disrupting nap times, which guarantees a tantrum or three. You could go after work, which means an even longer drive because of rush hour, or you could go on a weekend and ask your partner, if you have one, to watch the kids. You’re really trying to avoid paying a sitter just to go buy these bras. If all else fails, that means loading up tablets, snacks, diapers for the baby and underwear for the one who is potty training, milk, and toys —everything to keep them occupied while you’re searching for decent underwear.

If you’re lucky and it’s not rush hour, you can get there in about 25 minutes, but it can sometimes take nearly an hour to get out there if traffic is bad. Once you make it to the mall, your head spins with all the options. All the major department stores, like Macy’s, Boston Store/Carson’s, or Nordstrom are there. The elevated basic retailers are there too: Gap, Banana Republic, Bed, Bath & Beyond, T.J. Maxx, Victoria’s Secret, J.Crew, MaxMara, H&M. Now that you’re here, you have to make a day out of it, because it’s so much of a hassle to get out here, you don’t want to have to come back for a while.

So now it’s the bra; the new shoes you need because your feet stretched out a half size after pregnancy and nothing fits anymore without pain; it’s underwear; it’s pants that have to be tried on. It’s shoes and clothes for the growing kids, things that also can’t be bought online because little feet need to be put in the little shoes to make sure they’re not too cramped and size 4 jeans in one store are size 10 in another.

You recognize that even with all the considerations that brought you out here, you are incredibly privileged. That unlike some of your neighbors in the city, you have access to private transportation and gas, you can afford to buy food and clothes for yourself and your family and pay the higher price point for clothes. But ...

If you are also black, your shopping experiences in the suburbs are often tinged with racism or bias. Some of these suburban stores and the people who work at them have very little regular interaction with black people. Or if they do, it’s through a lens of stereotypes.

You understand after years of shopping malls, and even working at malls, that staff don’t care about your privileges. Staff might call the police on you or you might be followed by police while driving there; staff or private security guards might follow you around stores or condescendingly assume that you cannot pay for your items or that you have stolen credit cards to pay for them. That is, if you are even being acknowledged as a shopper at all.

Mall operators will take the added step of enforcing age restrictions and curfews in locations that have seen an influx of black teenagers. If there’s a movie theater at the mall, the teens might stand outside and beg you to pretend to be their parents so they can get in. It all adds stress to what should be a relatively simple excursion.

Rutgers University Africana studies professor Dr. Naa Oyo Kwate, who has studied “retail redlining” — the phenomenon that mutually reinforces segregated communities and tamps down retail development in mostly black or brown communities — commented on the stress of segregated shopping in a 2013 article in the Journal of Urban Health. Kwate and her co-authors said the stress related to segregation actually causes poor health outcomes, especially when neighborhoods are denied businesses that serve key human needs like food or hygiene.

“A lack of … places to shop are associated with impaired health and lengthy travel to needed resources often at higher prices, is a significant stressor for many residents in Black neighborhoods,” the article said. In an interview, Kwate clarified that “having to travel farther distances consumes valuable time, money, and other resources that could be better spent and that support health.”

So what can be done? You and millions of people like you just want equitable access to options, and not just for clothes but for food, jobs, schools, and housing. And gentrification means waiting until a tipping point of affluent, usually white people return to a city before development begins in earnest. It says that the people who have always been there don’t deserve options. That if you don’t make an average of six figures, you’re not worthy of having a store where you could be measured for a bra that will fit you properly.

What makes the segregation of retail location so persistent, even with the reversal of white flight in certain cities? According to Brooklyn College sociologist Sharon Zukin, who has studied gentrification for more than 20 years, it’s a pattern of “the historical underserving of nonwhite urban areas” in Northern and Western US cities. “Gentrification is not the major phenomenon; housing segregation and poverty are,” she said. “Gradually from the 1950s to the ’80s, the retail businesses that had been located in those areas decreased dramatically and new retail businesses did not open up, so you had neighborhoods that were starved of opportunities to buy the necessities of life.”

Unfortunately for you and me, and the millions of other women in these cities, reversing the trend is not straightforward, even for policymakers or retailers committed to finding solutions for their communities.

“When you talk to a traditional retailer, whether it’s a restaurant or a clothing chain, they have their metrics relative to dollars per household density, but we always say those things don’t apply in the city,” said Mark Denson, executive director of the Detroit Economic Development Corporation. In Detroit — and similar cities like Cleveland, where I live, Milwaukee, and Pittsburgh — Denson said multigenerational families are more likely to share one home, pooling their resources in a way that makes them strong consumers but also makes them and their disposable income invisible to retailers. “When the tradition is simply about dollars per household, that model doesn’t typically fit well in an inner-city environment if you understand how people live,” he said.

Denson says Detroit has focused on smaller specialty retailers that offer something unique to the city. To its credit, the city has a downtown lingerie retailer that carries bras and underwear for women of all sizes — including lots of plus-size options — where you could definitely get measured for a good bra, but there are no national clothing retailers in the city. You would need a passport to get to the Gap store that’s closest to downtown Detroit; based on Google Maps, it’s in Windsor, Canada. Busted Bra Shop’s owner Lee Padgett says on the website that she started her lingerie business after her frustration of not being able to buy underwear locally.

In my city of Cleveland, the national clothing retailers in the city’s borders are K&G Fashion Superstore, Rainbow Apparel, Marshalls, Burlington Coat Factory, Target, Old Navy, and Walmart. These exist in a retail area called the Steelyard Commons, near the heart of the city’s formerly formidable industrial center. None of those stores offer the opportunity to be sized for underwear, though once you were sized at a department store, you could certainly pick up bras at any of those places for a lower price point. Most of the elevated basic retailers and department stores where you could get that service exist in westside suburbs like Westlake, 13 miles beyond the edge of the city, or Beachwood, 10 miles east of Cleveland, past two other inner-ring suburbs.

The glacial pace of change among large retailers relative to how quickly neighborhoods’ populations shift is another reason retailers are sticking to the burbs. Some commercial leases were in place before the cities became desirable for the moneyed masses. Other large retailers have experienced economic woes that make it hard for them to expand or even keep open the urban locations they had.

These challenges point to how hard it is to undo the legacy of segregation nationwide with regard to shopping. The problems created by segregation are not easily undone and additionally subject to the whims of evolving markets, tastes, and stock prices. All these factors add an extra tax on simply living, feeding, and clothing ourselves. Everything, even underwear, has a hidden cost.


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