MSU project maps the traces of long-gone grocery stores
Few experiences connect us like food. It sustains life, inspires art and builds business.
“For me, it’s not only those biological relationships we have with our food, but then our social and cultural opportunities to get to know each other,” says Julie Cotton, an academic specialist with the Sustainable Agriculture and Food Systems program at Michigan State University.
Mapping the markets
This spring, Cotton led a class that documented the history of a handful of small Lansing stores that for years stood as neighborhood touchstones.
“I thought that defining a history of Lansing food systems would give us something to share back with the greater community,” she said. “After investigating it more, we realized there wasn’t really a history that was made. So, we decided that we would create that ourselves.”
The class scoured libraries and social media in search of data.
Providence Weatherwax looked for former store owners or their families and friends.
She recently graduated from MSU with a degree in economics.
Weatherwax says her team found some records nearly as old as Lansing itself.
“I think it went all the way back to like, the 1850s, was the oldest record that we were able to find,” she said. “We used advertisements for food deals in the newspaper and so we would try to look up those grocery stores and map out where they would’ve been located using some older maps of Lansing.”
One of those places stood at what’s now a popular Lansing greenspace.''
‘Nobody knew what pepperoni was’
In 1921, Paul Fata opened a small Italian grocery store in a shabby building at the corner of Grand and Shiawassee.
Within a few years, Fata built a new store. By 1933, his property had doubled.
Fata sold items that are mainstream today but seemed exotic back then.
“When I was growing up, nobody knew what pepperoni was,” said Fata’s grandson, Bill Castellani.
When I was growing up, nobody knew what pepperoni was.
Castellani grew up around the market, taking his place behind the counter in 1967 as an MSU freshman.
That’s where he learned the ins and outs of the specialty import business.
“So, anybody who was an Italian-American or maybe even a Greek-American, where our foods overlapped; they would come to that store practically every week,” he said. “So, if you wanted that kind of food, you’d have to go to the specialty store.”
Urban renewal helps create food deserts
But by 1970, Fata sold his store to the city of Lansing; a casualty of eminent domain.
The building came down and the city later built Adado Riverfront Park nearby.
Urban renewal had come to Lansing, perhaps most dramatically marked by the completion of Interstate 496, which cut a swath through the city’s historically Black neighborhood.
Castellani remembers the feeling of reluctant acceptance.
“I think people kind of mourned the passing of some of those buildings, but most people thought, 'Well these people must know what they’re doing; these buildings are old,'” he said. '“So yeah, and then they’re going to bring some new stuff in? OK, yeah, that’s fine with us.' So they went along with it.”
Castellani kept his family’s tradition.
He opened his own market on Michigan Avenue in 1978. He moved to East Lansing a decade later. He closed his store in 1993. Over time, as big grocery chains grew in the suburbs, food retail options in Lansing shrank.
Feeding the inner city increasingly became the burden of farmers’ markets and grassroots groups like the Allen Neighborhood Center.
Each summer, executive director Joan Nelson surveys between 100 and 300 households on Lansing’s Eastside.
Her team’s “front porch conversations” are an invaluable tool for taking the community pulse.
One year, Nelson recalls, the staff asked a pointed question: “Do you have enough to eat?”
“And 29% of the people identified as food insecure,” said Nelson. “We knew there was hunger … but that really startled us.”
29% percent of the people (surveyed) identified as food insecure. We knew there was hunger ... but that really startled us.
An interactive tool for the community
Julie Cotton hopes her class project will shed light on how public policies, however well-intended, have led to inequalities in the Lansing food system.
They’re building a website featuring an interactive map of past and present businesses, and oral histories like that of Bill Castellani.
Cotton says it will be a site where everyone can learn from and contribute to its content.
“It’s a great way for us to say thank you to the community that’s hosted us and given us their time and their energy through things like these interviews and to share that back with the community and allow for community engaged research and interaction with the materials we’ve created,” Cotton said.
The project's website is expected to be online by August.