Target Store Closings Show Limits of Pledge to Black Communities
BALTIMORE — When Target announced that it was opening a store in Mondawmin, a predominantly Black neighborhood in this city struggling with crime and poverty, it seemed like a ticket to a turnaround.
And from the start, it was a practical success and a point of community pride. The store, which opened in 2008, carried groceries, operated a pharmacy and had a Starbucks cafe, the only one in this part of Baltimore’s west side.
People came from across the city to shop there, helping to soften the Mondawmin area’s reputation for crime and the looting that followed protests over the 2015 death of Freddie Gray, who was fatally injured while in city police custody. As an employer, Target seemed to cater to the community’s needs, making a point of hiring Black men and providing an office in the store for a social worker to support the staff. Elijah Cummings, the congressman from Baltimore, was known to shop there.
But in February 2018, with almost no warning or explanation, Target closed the store.
Residents, especially those without cars, lost a convenient place to shop for quality goods. And a marker of the community’s self-worth was suddenly taken away.
“To open a store like Target in an African American neighborhood gave this area legitimacy,” said the Rev. Frank Lance, pastor of Mount Lebanon Baptist Church in Mondawmin. “When the store closed, it was like saying, ‘You are not worthy after all.’”
Three years later, the store remains empty, and its closing still stings Mondawmin residents and Baltimore officials, who had granted $15 million in subsidies to help develop the property.
Many national retailers have faced criticism in the past for failing to open in Black and poor communities, creating food deserts or a lack of access to quality goods. In Mondawmin, Target invested in a struggling area, but the outcome was almost more disheartening: The company ultimately decided that, despite its social goals, the store wasn’t financially successful enough to keep open.
The closing is a sobering reminder of the realities of capitalism in a moment when corporations are making promises to support Black Americans, saying their commitment to racial equity is stronger than ever.
This year, Target made a highly public pledge to help Black communities nationally in the wake of George Floyd’s killing in the retailer’s home city of Minneapolis, vowing to spend $2 billion with Black-owned vendors and other businesses.
In a statement in response to questions about the Mondawmin location, a Target spokeswoman said closing a store was a “last resort” and happened only after “it’s had a consistent history of underperformance, following several years of investments to help it succeed.”
The company pointed out that it has rebuilt and revamped stores in Atlanta, Philadelphia, Minneapolis and Oakland, Calif., that were damaged during protests last summer, and that it was opening stores in other diverse communities across the country.
In many of these new and refurbished stores, “we’ve seen early progress” in their performance, the spokeswoman said.
Like other big-box retailers, Target has closed numerous stores over the past few years, in both white and Black areas, as it has built out a wildly successful e-commerce business and cut other expenses.
But as in Mondawmin, closings in some of those Black neighborhoods have hit their communities particularly hard.
In 2019, Target shut two stores in predominantly Black neighborhoods on Chicago’s South Side as the company made plans to build a new store on the wealthier and mostly white North Side.
“They were like a thief in the night,” said Carrie Austin, who has represented parts of the South Side on the City Council for 27 years. “They were here one day and then, boom, gone the next.”
In Milwaukee, city officials only recently found a company to occupy the building vacated five years ago when Target closed its store in Northridge, an area with a large Black population. The building’s new occupant is a cold storage business, though, not another retailer as local leaders had hoped, said Chantia Lewis, a city alderwoman.
In the majority-Black city of Flint, Mich., Target closed one of its two stores in January 2016, around the time a state of emergency was declared because contaminated drinking water was endangering local children, and after years of disinvestment by businesses in the city.
Target has no immediate plans to open stores in those areas, nor in Mondawmin.
“This was supposed to be a public-private partnership,” Nick Mosby, president of the Baltimore City Council, said of the Mondawmin store. “To just up and leave the neighborhood like that was unacceptable.”
Crossing the tracks
The Mondawmin Target was built on the grounds of a former estate, perched on a hill, that once belonged to a Baltimore banker.
The estate was called Mondawmin at the suggestion of the poet Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, who, according to local legend, visited the property in the 19th century and observed the area’s bountiful cornfields. Mondawmin is derived from a Native American phrase for “spirit of corn.”
In the 1950s, the property was sold to a real estate developer, who turned the rural lot into the city’s first shopping mall.
The Mondawmin Mall featured a Sears, a five-and-dime, and eventually an indoor fountain and spiral staircase, advertised as the “seventh wonder of Baltimore,’’ according to Salvatore Amadeo, an amateur historian who makes YouTube documentaries about malls, including a segment on Mondawmin.
When the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. in 1968 sparked protests across Baltimore and caused “white flight” to the suburbs, the mall struggled. Over time, it ceased to be a big draw for shoppers outside the area.
The stores became more focused on Black fashion and neighborhood services. A large barbershop occupies the mall’s bottom floor, and there is an agency that helps formerly incarcerated people find jobs.
“Mondawmin became perceived as a Black mall,” said Pastor Lance, whose church is nearby.
For years, Baltimore had been working to develop the Inner Harbor, an upscale area that includes shops, sports stadiums and corporate offices, and officials were under pressure to spread subsidies into neighborhoods like Mondawmin. So the city approved $15 million in financing to help the developer of the Mondawmin Mall create retail space that eventually became the Target store.
Target seemed to recognize the area’s potential. Not far from the mall, there have long been pockets of wealth and spending power: tree-lined streets with large brick houses owned by Black professionals. Nearby Druid Hill Park is a lush 745-acre expanse of green fields, walking trails and the Baltimore Zoo. But even on some warm days, it’s only sparsely occupied.
This Target also promised to be a different type of employer that recruited heavily from the neighborhood, including hiring people who had never had steady work.
“We had a different paradigm for how we approached the work,” said Sadiq Ali, who was hired when he was 25 to be the store’s manager. “The store was providing a community service.”
When Mike Johnson applied for a job at the Target, he was “down on his luck,” having run out of tuition money to stay enrolled at Coppin State University, a historically Black college near the mall.
At 19, he got a position stocking shelves overnight and worked his way up to earning $16.50 an hour as a supervisor. It was the first time he had worked somewhere with Black people in leadership roles, he said.
“They helped me become a man,” Mr. Johnson said. “I grew up in that store.”
Carolyn Carey, 76, went to the store regularly to pick up snacks or browse for books — James Patterson and other thrillers. She walked there because, like some Mondawmin residents, she doesn’t drive or shop online much. This was not a Walmart or a dollar store, known for low prices. Target had a certain cachet.
Something else about the Target stood out. “A lot of Caucasians were shopping there,” Ms. Carey said.
Mr. Ali couldn’t help but take pride that his Target was attracting white shoppers who had previously steered clear of Mondawmin.
“When white folks started shopping in the store, it meant they felt safe enough to cross the tracks,” Mr. Ali said. “However backhanded that compliment was, it meant we were doing something right.”
‘They wouldn’t budge’
Four days after George Floyd’s death, Target’s chief executive, Brian Cornell, released a forceful statement, promising to reopen one of its stores in Minneapolis damaged in the protests against police violence.
“The murder of George Floyd has unleashed the pent-up pain of years, as have the killings of Ahmaud Arbery and Breonna Taylor,” Mr. Cornell said in the statement. “We say their names and hold a too-long list of others in our hearts. As a Target team, we’ve huddled, we’ve consoled, we’ve witnessed horrific scenes similar to what’s playing out now and wept that not enough is changing.”
One of the names on that “too-long list” is Freddie Gray. Mr. Gray was from Baltimore’s west side and was arrested a few blocks from the Mondawmin Mall in April 2015 for possessing a knife.
Mr. Gray died after being transported, handcuffed but not secured to his seat, in the back of a police van. After he was taken on what prosecutors described as a “rough ride,” his spinal cord was 80 percent severed.
One of the first big waves of protests over his death occurred at the Mondawmin Mall. Protesters began throwing rocks at police officers, and the mall was looted. Some students from Frederick Douglass High School, across from the mall and the alma mater of the civil rights giant Thurgood Marshall, the first Black man to serve on the U.S. Supreme Court, were caught up in the melee.
Target was spared serious damage. But for a time, many shoppers, both Black and white, stayed away from the store, recalled Mr. Johnson, who now works for the Postal Service.
“Mondawmin already had a bad rap with out-of-towners,” he said.
Shoppers eventually returned to the Target in Mondawmin, he said. But he noticed that the city’s other Target store, which had opened in a trendy area near the harbor in 2013, was getting more popular.
In November 2017, Mr. Mosby, then a state lawmaker, got a call from a resident whose family worked at the store: The Target in Mondawmin was shutting its doors in a few months. “I thought it was a just a rumor at first,” Mr. Mosby said.
Some residents and neighborhood leaders were told that the store struggled with high rates of theft, known in the retail industry as “shrinkage.” But Mr. Ali, the store’s former manager, said, “That was untrue,” at least while he worked there. The store met its profit and shrinkage goals during his four years as manager, which ended in 2012, years before the store closed.
Still, Mr. Ali, now the executive director of a youth mentoring group, acknowledged challenges that he said were unique to a store in a “hyper-urban area.”
A significant amount of inventory was once damaged in a fire in a storage area next to the store, and the company had to spend $30,000 a month for an armed Baltimore police officer to keep watch, he said.
There may have been additional considerations. “I think what happened after Freddie Gray spooked Target,” Mr. Ali said.
Other national chains reacted differently. TGI Fridays stuck with its plans to open a restaurant at the Mondawmin Mall, months after the protests. The restaurant remains one of the neighborhood’s only free-standing, sit-down chain restaurants.
Mr. Mosby and other officials tried to negotiate with Target to keep the store open, but the company said its mind was already made up.
“They weren’t interested in talking to us,” Mr. Mosby said. “They wouldn’t budge.”
An empty park and a vacant store
The temperature gauge outside Pastor Lance’s car registered 103 degrees as he drove through Greater Mondawmin and its surrounding neighborhoods. He was wearing a white shirt emblazoned with his church’s logo — a group of people, of all races and backgrounds, walking toward the sun, holding hands.
A Baltimore native, Pastor Lance used to work as a computer programmer at Verizon. He made “lots of money,” he said. “But I didn’t feel fulfilled.”
He became a pastor and took over a nonprofit company that develops park space and playgrounds and hosts a summer camp for schoolchildren with a garden surrounded by a meadow near the mall.
“But some days, I wonder if I made a mistake,” he said. “It’s great to have a park, but if you don’t have a good job, you aren’t going to be able to enjoy a park.”
He drove along a street with liquor stores and houses with boarded-up windows. A woman tried to flag him down for a ride. But the poverty he saw was not what made him most upset.
It was when Pastor Lance steered through an enclave of big houses and immaculate lawns, only a short distance away, that the anger rose in his voice.
“You are telling me that these people wouldn’t shop at Target for lawn furniture or school supplies,” he said. “I am not trying to gloss over the problems, but there is also wealth here.”
“If shrinkage was a problem, hire more security guards or use technology to stop people from stealing,” he added.
He circled back to the Mondawmin Mall, where families ducked into the air conditioning for a bubble tea or an Auntie Anne’s pretzel. He drove past the TGI Fridays and then past the Target, its windows still covered in plywood and the trees in the parking lot looking withered and pathetic.
Pastor Lance refused to accept that a Target could not succeed here.
“If you are really interested in equity and justice,’’ he said, “figure out how to make that store work.”
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