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Buy Back The Block: Why business ownership is no longer enough

Milca Pierre

 // Jun 26, 2019

The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of any other agency, organization, employer or company.


The ecosystem of a sustainable and exclusively black-owned community certainly isn't a new concept in the United States. A step away from traditional public school textbooks will quickly reveal the precedent set by communities such as Bronzeville in Chicago, the city of Rosewood in Florida; and the Greenwood District of Tulsa, Oklahoma; immortalized as the "Black Wall Street." It was in the first half of the 20th century that these communities established the blueprint for a self-sufficient microcosm catering to black life, and nearly a century later, pockets of such sufficiency are growing above the surface throughout the country. But, perhaps none is as special as that of Atlanta's Castleberry Hill commercial district.

Recent times have seen a rise in prominence of the initiative to "buy back the block," a rallying cry for returning black communities to black operators who are then tasked with uplifting these communities, deterring the growing fears of gentrification and retaining black dollars. While Atlanta is certainly no stranger to the realities of gentrification, Castleberry is one area that remains steadfastly black -- from the business to the soil -- and according to 44-year-old Alphonzo Cross, the latter is the key. Together with his sister, Cross owns a strip of commercial storefronts that sit right in the middle of Peters Street, a famed hub in Castleberry that houses some of the most recognizable black-owned brands in the city.

Citing a mission of "culturally purposeful development," Cross along with other black landowners in the area have provided a strong sense of cultural and financial stability for black operators, creating a larger-scale home that hosts businesses that include Cam Newton's Fellaship, Kandi Burruss' Old Lady Gang and even 2 Chainz's Escobar. Beyond the glitz of celebrity-owned establishments, Castleberry Hill provides the foundation for staple offerings from celebrity tattoo artist Miya Bailey's City of Ink destination to the Zucot Gallery, which holds the title of being the largest black-owned art gallery in the southeastern area of the United States. All the while, the community continues to provide opportunities for younger black operators to bring to life their own projects in a safe space. Take for example FMM, a new streetwear storefront led by a group of college-aged friends breaking their lifestyle brand into the brick and mortar space.



Ultimately, what it all adds up to is the largest concentration of black-owned dirt, black owned businesses and black clientele in the country, making a strong case for the diligence of black ownership through and through. But for Cross, all this is only the beginning as he looks toward an ever greater push that will see the Castleberry Hill district revamping its own blueprint and creating an unmatched experience for black life.

While seated in an empty commercial space, Cross' unique bar and lounge -- which looks like it's ripped out of a 21st century Love Jones storyline -- the black owner details the beauty and significance of Castleberry, and gives advice on what others can do to recreate its magic elsewhere.

Castleberry Hill is the largest concentration of black-owned dirt, black-owned businesses and black clientele in the United States. What is the visible impact that you've seen with such a statistic?

The impact is a very obvious to me. It's just this really amazing display of cultural unity in this black neighborhood, recycling black dollars.

How familiar are you with similar communities like this in the United States?

They're all very similar. There is a lot of value in communities of color working together, living together, playing together and coming together. Oakland certainly has a lot of that. There was a lot of that in D.C. There are a lot of black communities and African-American communities stretched across the United States.

I certainly don't mean to give the impression that what's happening here in Castleberry Hill is in some way operating better or operating at some higher frequency. I think that being in a predominantly black city and having this community that has allowed for all of this black land ownership is something that feels very unique to Atlanta. Yes, there are larger swells of black communities across the United States. But, it's the dirt ownership that I think sets Atlanta apart —that this community is also owned by African-Americans. That's what's very special about what's going on here.



There are members of the community who can't fully grasp the significance of taking business ownership to the next step, and that's owning the actual land that the business sits on. How would you break down that significance?

What's happening here in this building is providing a culturally and financial safe space for African-Americans to ideate their businesses. When you're having this very black world of all these different black-owned business by having this community, it provides a lot of safety. A lot of cultural safety and a lot of financial safety, meaning that this is now an ecosystem that allows businesses to be successful in a much more efficient and more timely manner than they may be in other communities, especially for communities where the businesses are predominantly white-owned.

There are a lot of people going to get their hair cut and then going to go get pizza, and then maybe going to sit down to have a drink someplace else on one block. There's this wonderful cultural ecosystem that has happened here. While it may not be unique, it is very special to how the land ownership has allowed for that cultural expression to happen without the general fear of gentrification. As much as that may linger, I keep repeating that what's happening here allows for business owners to feel safer.

The community is fairly avant-garde because it's a relatively isolated occurrence. Now you are starting to shift gears a little bit in the offerings of your own properties. How do you see yourself and other landowners of the area taking the direction of this neighborhood, and pushing it to an even more modified model?

It is very exciting to be a part of these conversations. There aren't a lot of great blueprints for the dirt ownership translating to the operator proficiency and efficiency, and then that translating to commercial and business development in communities of color. That strings together what a lot of folks have been trying to figure out for a while. We're not the first ones doing this. I'm always saying that we are standing on the shoulders of those who came before us. I recognize that.

What we see as this wonderful bright future for this community is the fact that many of us are working toward developing operation proficiency, and a heavier design element. It's nerve-wracking, but it feels very powerful and impactful by way of creating an example for how to do this. That's what is very challenging in communities of color is that we don't have great blueprints. We're often like cats on a hot tin roof and at any given moment, the rug can be pulled from under us. It is very amazing and exciting to think that we can own the dirt and make sure there isn't cultural displacement. It's, 'How do we push the envelope? How do we develop? How do we design? How do we operate in such a way that we are wonderful, and shiny great and the best at what we offer and provide, while at the same time being very cultural sensitive and aware of all the wonderfulness of black community, and all of the challenges that we are faced with?'



You are currently working on the development of a new model that will highlight your new space Parlor, as well as a new boutique hotel: The Cato Hotel. How do you hope that businesses like these will influences all of Castleberry Hill?

Our building is undeniably the heartbeat of the commercial viability of this neighborhood. By increasing the density of this property, it allows for that conversation to remain sustainable. Folks are going to be coming into this community, but also branching out. The Russells (H.J. Russell & Co. is the largest minority-owned real estate and construction company in the U.S) are developing a new commercial development just a block away.

You have all these wonderful black-owned businesses that are happening at the north side of the neighborhood: Yolanda Owens' Iwi Fresh, Zucot, you've got Ming Lee's Snob Life. At the south end of the neighborhood, you've got what Miya Bailey is doing over... City of Ink. So, when you start to talk about the density here in the middle and these book-ending components, now you have a neighborhood that is very attractive.

What is your advice on what someone or a group of people can do to start a similar infrastructure?

It can get tricky because buying dirt is expensive. Commercial land isn't cheap. The number one thing is the commercial density. That's the biggest thing. It's hard being an island and there's a lot of value in an ecosystem. There's value in multiple businesses that are providing diverse products and services. If you've got three units, you don't want three pizza places. You want there to be something that is service-based, something that's food-and-beverage-based, and something that's retail-based. The doing of this is around diversity: diverse products and services, and making sure that we can put an infrastructure in place for businesses to also be financially viable and sustainable. It's easy to get a business in, but it's very hard to keep a business. Anybody can get open, but can you stay open? That's what can be very difficult from a land ownership perspective.

In rural America, there's something that's happening with land ownership and that is the phenomenon of the demise of the black farmer, largely attributed to ongoing discrimination that is pushing landowners away from what is essentially their birthright. There are plenty of parallels between rural and urban black land ownership. In your experience, what have been the most blatant forms?

One of the similarities with regard to the discrimination standpoint is the financing side. On the one hand, if you own dirt in communities of color that are disenfranchised, the person you are trying to rent out [to] will be a person of color. Black operators have a hard time getting financing than white operators. This is just a fact. Parallel to that when you're talking about black farmers and what they're wanting to accomplish, it is equally as difficult. From the financing perspective, there is a similarity. Often times in these conversations, you'll have white developers say we can't "find" black operators in order to be diverse... The challenges that black operators have is that we're an amazing people, who can accomplish all the things that are necessary to be accomplished in business. But, having access to all the tools and resources that allow you to be attractive to a developer or landlord can sometimes be very difficult. While someone may cook very good food, the business side of having all of the resources necessary to have a restaurant, that's really hard.



Parallel on the black farmers side is that black farmers are hard to "find" or they're not as organized. When you're talking about the resources that allow you to be organized and sustainable, we have less access to those resources. We're the original farmers, so it's not that black farmers are somehow less than. A lot of times, we have less access to the resources that allow us to have the tools and equipment to do what we need to do. These are general ways of looking at this. But, there are certainly similarities between black operators in communities of color and black farmers in rural settings because it really comes down to the fact that you can't work on your business if you're working in your business. If we don't have access to resources, we have to work in our business and that means we cannot work on our businesses.

As black farmers get pushed out of that scope, what is your honest outlook on the future of black operators in major urban settings?

In major urban markets, it's very difficult because the price point is so high. Atlanta is really the last affordable major geographic that black folks can still buy into commercially. You can get into smaller markets like a Birmingham, but the trend I see is that it is harder and harder for us to get in on the action. That's just economics.

I don't have a tremendous amount to say about the invisible hand of economics, but it's important that we work as hard as possible to purchase commercial land in the urban settings that may not be as desirable. But, if we keep [our] eyes on the prize, we can certainly get that land to a particular value and get our communities to a place that we want to live, work, and play in.

What we're focusing on is that there are a whole bunch of black folks with a whole bunch of money. The black middle class is a rising middle class, but no one talks to that middle class. So, what we get is the short end of the stick around development. What we're saying is you can have a lot of these luxury experiences and appeal to a large demographic.


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