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Smash-and-grab robbery epidemic, economic development, and grant writing

There seems to be a growing smash-and-grab flash mob phenomenon, which is being widely reported in the media, with the practice starting in California, New York City, and Chicago and now spreading to other places like Minneapolis. These highly organized attacks are presumably being instigated by gangs of some sort; while most media accounts discuss police action or inaction, this post focuses on the likely disastrous outcomes for low-income communities—while offering a glimmer of hope for nimble nonprofits.

Before I set up Seliger + Associates in 1993, I worked for about 15 years in redevelopment, mostly in low-income African American neighborhoods, starting as a community organizing* college intern for the Minneapolis Housing and Redevelopment Authority in North Minneapolis, and later for four years as Economic Development Manager for the City of Lynwood and eight years as Redevelopment Manager for the City of Inglewood** in South Central Los Angles. I know first hand how hard it is to get developers to build retail facilities in low-income communities, and it’s harder still to get large chain retailers to open stores and operate them over the long term. You can ignore the social justice slogan virtual signaling of large corporate tweets or marketing, and pay attention to what they do in the real world, which is to largely avoid investing in low-income communities. Corporations work to appeal to their customers’ sensibilities, and most customers aren’t closely following the minutia of what a corporation really does, as opposed to what its marketing implies.

While it’s been interesting to read stories and watch videos of dozens of masked looters descending on high end stores like Nordstrom’s and Louis Vuitton, one smash and grab incident hit home to me: the CVS drug store in the Vermont-Slauson Shopping Center in South Central Los Angeles. I think this was the first shopping center built anywhere in South Central after the Watts Rebellion in 1965, and it was a remarkable achievement, because the few retailers that existed in South Central in 1965 fled as part of the overall “white flight” phenomenon after the rebellion. The Vermont-Slauson Economic Development Corporation, the nonprofit that developed the Center, was one of Seliger + Associates’ first clients, and I spent many afternoons in the office of then-Executive Director, Marva Smith Battle-Bey, a wonderful and dedicated woman who passed in 2016.

When I worked in Lynwood and Inglewood from 1978 to 1990, there was not a single chain drugstore in either city, and I wasn’t able to recruit any—despite years of trying and dangling huge redevelopment incentives. With the exception of making a deal in Inglewood for the first Price Club in the LA area (Price Club later merged with Costco), it proved impossible to attract national retail brands. In Lynwood, I reached out to the national real estate manager for K-Mart, then the dominant US big box retailer, to see if K-Mart would take over a vacant department store in the city. This guy listened to my pitch and said: “We know Lynwood. You could build the store, give it to K-Mart free, and we wouldn’t operate it.” When I was in Inglewood, the now now-defunct company Circuit City popped up as one of the first national “category killer” retailers. I found their national real estate manager and again made my pitch. He said: “We’ve already looked at Inglewood. You don’t have the demographics for a Circuit City”—meaning, too many poor black residents. That’s how hard economic development and redevelopment can be. Arguably, online delivery has alleviated some of these challenges, much like Uber and Lyft alleviated the some of the risks of trying to hail a taxi while black, but they’re still present and with us.

If this smash and grab epidemic continues, CVS and other national retailers will close their stores (Walgreens has already closed 18 stores in San Francisco, which, for the most part, isn’t low income, but it also doesn’t enforce or prosecute shoplifting) in low-income communities and flee to the suburbs, exurbs, and cities perceived as having strong law enforcement. This will especially hurt low-income folks in places like California, New York City, and Chicago that have effectively legalized shoplifting, or, in its organized form, flash mob looting. The stage is being set for the emergence of “pharmacy and retail deserts” to join the food deserts that we often include in our grant proposal needs assessments. Grant writers, take heed.

Still, the rapid assault on retailers may have some positive impacts for nimble nonprofits and grant writers: as drug stores and other retailers flee, the shopping centers and stand-alone stores will remain. These will present opportunities for nonprofits to seek grants for adaptive reuse as affordable housing, lower end retail (flash mobs are less likely to do a smash and grab at a Dollar Store or Old Navy), or community centers/human services providers like FQHC satellite sites (we wrote a funded grant years ago to convert an abandoned shopping center into a youth center in Milwaukee).

Also, anyone seeing the videos knows the looters are what we call in the grant writing biz, “at-risk vulnerable youth and young adults.” This presents a great needs assessment argument for any youth services project concept, including workforce development. For example, the DOL just issued the FY ’22 RFP for YouthBuild and we’ll include the smash and grab trope in the needs assessment for any urban YouthBuild proposals we write this year.

This situation also illustrates the importance of nonprofits and grant writers paying attention to emerging bad news in American society. Before opioid funding for medication-assisted treatment (MAT) became common from HRSA and SAMHSA, for example, news articles began describing what was happening on the streets. Most disasters, natural or manmade, mean new grant opportunities on the horizon. The feds, states, and large cities/counties will soon respond to the smash and grab crisis by issuing RFPs for both economic development (likely through the recently passed Infrastructure Bill) and youth supportive services. The lyrics of one of the great songs in West Side Story will give you the outline for your needs assessment for a youth services proposal to counter flash mobs: “Gee, Officer Krupke, we’re very upset; We never had the love that ev’ry child oughta get. We ain’t no delinquents,We’re misunderstood. Deep down inside us there is good!”


* Like President Obama, I was trained as a Saul Alinsky community organizer and worked as a community organizer for a year.

** This was not the gentrifying “new Inglewood” of a billion-dollar stadium for the Raiders and Chargers; this was the old Inglewood of Tupac’s “California Love:” “Inglewood, always up to no good.”

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