by Nevin Cohen, Associate Professor, CUNY School of Public Health
November 25, 2015
The shuttering of East Harlem’s Pathmark, a 60,000 square foot supermarket that was a source of affordable food to local residents for more than 15 years, served as the backdrop for last week’s Food Policy for Breakfast. Pathmark’s rise and fall (discussed in another article in the November edition of our e-newsletter) illustrated the role of planning and zoning in shaping a neighborhood’s food environment, helping to frame the topic addressed by our panelists.
Pathmark was born in 1999 when community activists demanded what people in more affluent neighborhoods take for granted: a full-service supermarket big enough to carry a wide variety of fresh, affordable food. The store was the product of public policies, built on city land with public subsidies, and was vetted through a highly charged public review process.
The causes of Pathmark’s demise are complex, but the planning, zoning, and development policies that have reshaped East Harlem over the past 15 years were a contributing factor. City policies created a nearby shopping center that houses food retail giants Costco, Target, and Aldi. New supermarkets like Super Fi Emporium have opened by taking advantage of city zoning and financial incentives. And zoning changes throughout the community have spurred new housing occupied by higher income tenants more likely to frequent Whole Foods or Fresh Direct than Pathmark.
But the Pathmark closure is about much more than the replacement of a supermarket with a much bigger and more lucrative development. It is about the pace and direction of change in East Harlem, and the fears, shared by residents of low-income neighborhoods throughout the city undergoing planning and rezoning, that new development will lead to gentrification and displacement of people and businesses. These changes can result in wider, not narrower, disparities in wealth, income, and health. These broader topics of equity, planning, and development were addressed by our panelists.
Javier Lopez, Deputy Director of the NYC Department of Health and Mental Hygiene’s (DOHMH) Center for Health Equity, began the session by quoting Health Commissioner Mary Bassett: “Inequities in health are unfair, unnecessary and avoidable. New York City is the most unequal city in the United States and one of the most segregated. It is no surprise that these everyday realities are reflected in our health.” Lopez then described several approaches DOHMH is taking to address health inequities:
Lopez reflected on the potential for city agencies to incorporate health equity in the neighborhood planning and rezoning process:
Daniel Hernandez is the Deputy Commissioner for Neighborhood Strategies at the Department of Housing Preservation and Development (HPD), a new office created to facilitate the Mayor’s Housing New York, which aims to create 200,000 units of affordable housing through preservation and new construction. Hernandez identified ways in which HPD can support healthy food environments and reduce health inequities as it develops neighborhood plans and rezoning proposals, and finances new housing:
Shai Lauros oversees the development and management of affordable housing, community facilities, and commercial and manufacturing space for the Cypress Hills Local Development Corporation, as well as Cypress Hills Verde, a neighborhood-wide sustainability initiative advancing food access, urban agriculture, and energy efficiency throughout Cypress Hills and East New York, two low-income communities in the process of being rezoned.
Lauros described a project in construction at 2501 Pitkin Avenue — a 60-unit multifamily rental housing unit with a supermarket on the ground floor and backyard gardens for residents and community members — to highlight the opportunities and obstacles to incorporating food and healthy design in new development:
The breakfast was the start of what we hope will be an ongoing effort to engage communities more effectively with city planners, public health professionals and private developers to help shape the physical, economic and social landscapes of their neighborhoods. Improving the food environment to improve access to healthy food and reduce the incidence of diet related disease is one important objective of this process, but it is connected to a broader goal of community empowerment and control.