Inner-city neighborhood retail development often engenders vigorous popular and political debate about the scale, scope, and location of projects, as well as their intended and inadvertent effects for urban landscapes, residents, and consumers. The term commercial revitalization is frequently used to characterize the resurgence of retail activity in neighborhoods previously considered moribund and perilous areas to avoid. In most instances, however, the factors animating commercial revitalization are implicitly assumed, and as such, are conceptually and empirically underdeveloped. This article elucidates commercial revitalization and focuses on the agency of Black neighborhood-based small business owners as under-explored stakeholders.
Previous research indicates that urban neighborhood renewal has become increasingly dominated by conventional economic development. At the same time, many urban scholars have become increasingly critical of conventional economic development, particularly its narrowly defined goals, ideological biases, and the often limited social and economic interests shaping development outcomes. In conventional economic development practice, it is not uncommon for neighborhood insiders - residents, merchants, and community groups – to be relegated to positions of marginality during redevelopment discourse as outsiders – property developers and speculators, locally situated “international” institutions, corporate capital, and state actors - direct local planning and decision-making.
In view of popular power asymmetries, I apply a temporal lens to examine processes of inner-city neighborhood revitalization. In so doing, I expose what I call “merchant effects,” or the effects merchants have on the physical, social, commercial, institutional and communicative dimensions of neighborhoods. While merchant effects do not shift manifest power inequities associated with redevelopment, they emphasize the importance of reflecting on the type(s) of neighborhoods we hope to develop and the corresponding strategies we employ. Drawing on an extended case study of revitalization in Fort Greene, this paper complicates conventional understandings of economic development by first focusing on its antecedents and then on the myriad outcomes that are implicitly important for sustaining neighborhood improvement but often ignored or under-valued. I argue that in inner-city neighborhoods, minority merchants should be considered important insiders that influence revitalization processes in ways that go beyond conventional economic development contributions.