TULSA, Okla. — On a recent Friday afternoon, in the parking lot of a Dollar General in the North Tulsa neighborhood of Greenwood, Jessica Faulk loaded a frozen pizza and other snacks for her grandkids into her car. This was her first trip to the store, which sits near an elementary school and a housing complex for seniors. Though she lives nearby, she’d been avoiding the retailer for more than a year out of principle, and usually shops at a Walmart in the suburb of Sand Springs.
It’s not necessarily this dollar store that’s the problem. It’s the sheer number of them. The City Council district where Ms. Faulk lives already has nine dollar stores and not a single high-quality grocer. This one actually does carry a small amount of produce, but it’s not nearly enough. “All you see is these types of stores over here,” says Faulk. “It’s a Band-Aid or a pacifier for the lack of an actual grocery store.”
Here and in communities across the country, the dollar store has supplanted the grocery store as the place where many Americans buy their food. Dollar General and its rival Family Dollar (which was acquired by Dollar Tree in 2015) have scattered 24,000 stores across urban and rural landscapes, more than 8,000 of them opened in the last decade alone. The chains draw an ever-growing percentage of their sales from food, much of it high in calories and low in nutrients, like the Doritos in the central aisle at the store on Pine Street. Stores that were once conveniences are now the only places to buy food in some communities.
Cities often accept this fate. In fact, they encourage it. Since 2001, Dollar General and Dollar Tree have received more than $130 million in tax breaks and other financial incentives around the country, according to Good Jobs First, an organization that tracks government subsidies.
Tulsa decided to fight. “When you let the market dictate, that’s how you end up with poor, disenfranchised communities,” says Vanessa Hall-Harper, a councilwoman representing this largely black area of the city. “Because if the market is dictating, then there’s no soul in that process. It’s whatever makes money.”
North Tulsa is a fitting place for a dollar store backlash to begin. The area’s Greenwood district was once a thriving neighborhood filled with small businesses owned by African-Americans, known as Black Wall Street. Greenwood was burned to the ground in a race massacre by white rioters in 1921, an episode that has resurfaced in popular culture in the new HBO series “The Watchmen.” After the violence, Black Wall Street rebuilt itself. Dozens of grocery stores populated the neighborhood, including the black-owned Mann Brothers Supermarket, which took up half a city block and prospered well into the 1950s. Plaques for some of these businesses adorn the neighborhood’s sidewalks today.
But the small businesses of the midcentury were no match for the retail restructuring that was coming. In 1968, Walmart began its nationwide expansion with the opening of a superstore in Claremore, 30 miles from Tulsa, one of its first stores outside Arkansas. It siphoned off customers from Tulsa who could hop on the new interstate highways, which cut through black neighborhoods like Greenwood, to chase cheaper prices. The mom-and-pop shops of North Tulsa were replaced by grocery chains that were better equipped to compete with Walmart. But they, too, eventually folded. The Albertsons store turned off the lights in 2007.
Into this vacuum stepped the dollar stores. Dollar General and Family Dollar are among the rare brick-and-mortar retailers to thrive after the Great Recession. Historically, Family Dollar has been popular in cities, while Dollar General has focused on rural areas, and they have expanded aggressively. “The Dollar General customer is in a permanent recession, and we want to help them,” the company’s chief executive said last year. By 2016, there were seven dollar stores in the northern City Council district and in early 2017 the Tulsa Development Authority approved another one, on the northern edge of Greenwood on Pine Street.
Ms. Hall-Harper, a longtime employee of the Tulsa County Health Department, ran for City Council in 2016 vowing to bring better food options to North Tulsa. None of the stores offered fresh fruits and vegetables, and she feared they would undermine the prospects of any grocery store that might come to the area. “I’m driving around in my community and I see families walking home from these stores with 8 or 10 bags,” she says. “You know that there’s nothing in there healthy.” According to a 2018 Gallup poll, only one in 10 North Tulsa residents say they have very easy access to healthy foods, compared with 74 percent of residents of certain south Tulsa ZIP codes.
She made defeating the new dollar store a priority. The proposed site of the new Dollar General on Pine became a staging ground for public protests. Picket signs attracted news camera crews, and at the church next door, a large yellow-and-black sign, blaring “Don’t Shop at This Dollar General,” was propped by the front wall for months.
She also developed a legal strategy. After learning about the retail restrictions in the small California town of Coronado, where the number of national chain restaurants within city limits is limited to 10 or fewer, she advocated for similar legislation against dollar stores in Tulsa. The effort initially met opposition from the city planning commission, the local newspaper’s editorial board, and many of her fellow city councilors. But she persisted, and the Council passed a six-month moratorium on dollar store construction in September 2017. In April 2018, the Council went further, requiring “small-box” discount retailers in most of Ms. Hall-Harper’s district to be built at least a mile apart, unless they carry at least 500 square feet of fresh fruits, vegetables and meats.
It wasn’t a total victory. The Dollar General on Pine opened as planned, and a boycott proved ineffective. But a few weeks after opening, the store added a small produce section, citing a “focus to best serve our customers” as the motivation.
Although every Dollar General store carries milk, eggs, bread and other staples, the one on Pine Street is one of only about 450 stores (3 percent of the company’s locations) that offer fresh produce. Family Dollar doesn’t offer fresh fruits and vegetables at all. “We are disappointed in the recent zoning restrictions in North Tulsa, which restrict our ability to serve an even greater number of residents,” a Dollar General spokesman said.
It may seem like a small change, but the mere presence of healthy food in a store has a direct impact on nutritional outcomes. Researchers at the University of Minnesota found that customers were three times as likely to buy fruits and vegetables in stores that carried at least 90 pounds of those foods as opposed to stores that carried 30 pounds or less. Food placement on shelves and location within the store can also have an impact. “Dollar stores are really designed to incentivize the purchase of high-calorie foods,” says Marianna Wetherill, a researcher at the University of Oklahoma-Tulsa.
While Tulsa’s law was unusual when it passed, other cities have begun following Ms. Hall-Harper’s lead. In August 2018, Mesquite, Tex., required that new dollar stores be built at least 5,000 feet apart and dedicate 10 percent of floor space to fruits and vegetables. “The underlying concern is competition with the grocery stores,” says Cliff Keheley, Mesquite’s city manager. “At the end of the day, one of these variety stores is not going to provide the services that a grocery store would to a neighborhood.”
Birmingham, Ala., adopted a similar ordinance in July, and New Orleans followed suit in November. Other cities from Cleveland to Fort Worth are currently considering restrictions. Such legislation offers poor communities the same protections that wealthier ones often obtain through petitions or through pressure on local development boards. “Just because we’re poor and communities of color doesn’t mean that we can’t demand quality,” says Blaine Griffin, the Cleveland city councilman who is pushing for a citywide dollar store moratorium.
With the dollar store debate settled, officials in North Tulsa are now hoping that a high-quality grocery store will be an anchor for a new era of small business growth. “It’s way overdue,” says State Representative Regina Goodwin, who can trace her heritage in North Tulsa to the early days of Black Wall Street.
Ms. Goodwin and Ms. Hall-Harper have recruited Eco Alliance, a vertical farming company, to run a North Tulsa grocery store with help from the Tulsa Economic Development Corporation and a $1.5 million grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development. The store is scheduled to open in 2020.
Still, the shadow of past failures looms. Just steps from the construction site of the new store sits the husk of the old Albertsons. Another independent grocer abruptly backed out of building a North Tulsa location earlier this year. And to sustain itself, Eco Alliance will have to offer products and prices that are appealing to customers who are now accustomed to the convenience of dollar store shopping.
Ms. Hall-Harper stresses that her goal isn’t to eliminate dollar stores, only to limit their runaway growth. Nevertheless, she has become part of a vanguard of city leaders pushing back against America’s winner-take-all economy — from New York City’s protests against Amazon to new laws in California and Boston limiting the expansion of app-based services like Uber and Airbnb. Capitalism might not be going anywhere, but the residents of North Tulsa will have it on their own terms.