Skip to main content

How Wendell Pierce is remaking a slice of the Big Easy

By John Bare, Special to CNN
June 28, 2013 -- Updated 1322 GMT (2122 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Actor Wendell Pierce opens a new grocery store in New Orleans neighborhood
  • John Bare says Pierce's approach involved steps to help create a real sense of place
  • He says the grocery provides nutritious fare in a food desert, helps with transit
  • Bare: Others around the nation are engaging in the art of "placemaking"

Editor's note: John Bare is vice president of The Arthur M. Blank Family Foundation and executive-in-residence at Georgia Tech's Institute for Leadership and Entrepreneurship.

(CNN) -- When Wendell Pierce opened a new grocery store in a tough neighborhood in New Orleans, what he did not put on the outside -- bars on the windows -- was as important as what he did put inside -- fresh fruits and vegetables, affordably priced.

With his Sterling Express convenience store and Sterling Farms supermarket, Pierce, who portrayed Bunk Moreland on "The Wire" and Antoine Batiste on "Treme," is turning food desert neighborhoods into food oases.

While Pierce is a hit in the food-access movement, the stores, and his style, are also manifestations of a commitment to place. Spending an afternoon with Pierce in New Orleans, his hometown, it's easy to see Pierce's larger purpose. In the language of the Project for Public Spaces, Pierce's work is about placemaking.

John Bare
John Bare

Through his neighborhood inquiry, Project for Public Spaces founder Fred Kent crafted a definition of placemaking: "Turning a neighborhood, town or city from a place you can't wait to get through to one you never want to leave."

So it's magical to have fresh papaya, melons and bell peppers in Pierce's supermarket, but it's not enough.

Pierce's team set up a technology-driven security system that lets the supermarket operate efficiently, without bars on the windows.

He saw neighbors walking home, loaded down with grocery bags in the New Orleans heat, and imagined an amenity. Now Sterling Farms offers free rides home for customers spending $50 or more. The branded SUV is a rolling reminder that the store is sensitive to neighborhood needs.

In his Sterling Express convenience store, the fresh bananas by the register signal an interest in healthy customers. The restrooms, which Pierce wants to show off, are about making the neighborhood a better place. They are brightly lit and spotless.

Pierce's passion for placemaking shows up when he extends our supermarket tour to visit Columbia Parc at the Bayou, a mixed-income development that replaced the old St. Bernard housing project.

Part of the Purpose Built Communities network, Columbia Parc is a national model for neighborhood transformation. Housing, education, workforce training, recreation and wellness programs are integrated into one place. Pierce is bringing a supermarket.

St. Bernard was dangerous. Columbia Parc is safe. It's the same dirt underneath. Somehow the place changed. Warren Buffett believes in the approach and is backing Purpose Built.

Columbia Parc is a good lesson for charitable foundations that often parse life into a list of simple check-boxes, one for education, one for transit, one for arts and so on.

Actor talks New Orleans recovery

Placemaking recognizes that all these things, and more, are tied.

With a community kitchen, Columbia Parc can offer cooking classes to families that get new access to fresh produce, thanks to Sterling Farms, which is also generating jobs. The fitness center makes regular physical activity the norm, not the exception, and the design invites residents to walk, not ride, to school. The community garden lets kids put their hands in the dirt, which reinforces the science being taught from preschool through high school.

Around the country, the allure of placemaking is evident.

New York's High Line is more than an elevated walkway. Its arrival ignited recreation, environmental inquiry, congregation, arts and romance.

The Atlanta Bicycle Coalition draws thousands of people to its Streets Alive events, modeled after Columbia's Ciclovia. There is attention to better biking, but mostly it's residents coming together to make a better place.

In Denver, the FasTracks Program is re-shaping residential life,.Featuring 122 miles of new commuter and light rail lines, FasTracks promotes "a pedestrian-oriented environment that allows people to live, work, shop and play in places accessible by transit."

Dan Gilmartin, author of "The Economics of Place: The Value of Building Communities Around People," is an expert on placemaking.

Communities that figure out placemaking, Gilmartin believes, will see greater economic growth and improved quality of life. He's developing 25 case studies on the best placemaking ideas from U.S. cities.

Perhaps a key to placemaking is the ability to see the potential for beauty in situations where others see a tangle of bad. Or, as Project for Public Spaces encourages, "start with the petunias."

This is how an abandoned rail line, a nuisance and a danger, becomes a space famous for its sunset views.

Pierce's vision for placemaking is rooted in recollections of the places of his youth. He grew up in Pontchartrain Park.

"It's the memory of that Friday night grocery trip that I used to take with my mother," Pierce told NPR. "It was the town square, you know, men and women getting off of work and you would see them at our neighborhood grocery store. For, you know, a little 8-year-old boy that was, you know, the fishmonger in the butcher, these were, you know, common people in my life on the beginning of my weekend, and I felt as though that was something culturally that everybody should have in their neighborhood."

It's one thing to see a supermarket as a great place to get healthy food.

It's even better to imagine how the supermarket can help make a place great.

Follow us on Twitter @CNNOpinion.

Join us on Facebook/CNNOpinion.

The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of John Bare.

ADVERTISEMENT
Part of complete coverage on
September 21, 2014 -- Updated 0730 GMT (1530 HKT)
John Sutter boarded a leaky oyster boat in Connecticut with a captain who can't swim as he set off to get world leaders to act on climate change
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2322 GMT (0722 HKT)
Is ballet dying? CNN spoke with Isabella Boylston, a principal dancer at the American Ballet Theatre, about the future of the art form.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 2147 GMT (0547 HKT)
Sally Kohn says it's time we take climate change as seriously as we do warfare in the Middle East
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1302 GMT (2102 HKT)
Dean Obeidallah says an Oklahoma state representative's hateful remarks were rightfully condemned by religious leaders..
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1922 GMT (0322 HKT)
No matter how much planning has gone into U.S. military plans to counter the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria, the Arab public isn't convinced that anything will change, says Geneive Abdo
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1544 GMT (2344 HKT)
President Obama's strategy for destroying ISIS seems to depend on a volley of air strikes. That won't be enough, says Haider Mullick.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1303 GMT (2103 HKT)
Paul Begala says Hillary Clinton has plenty of good reasons not to jump into the 2016 race now
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1501 GMT (2301 HKT)
Scotland decided to trust its 16-year-olds to vote in the biggest question in its history. Americans, in contrast, don't even trust theirs to help pick the county sheriff. Who's right?
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0157 GMT (0957 HKT)
Ruben Navarrette says spanking is an acceptable form of disciplining a child, as long as you follow the rules.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1547 GMT (2347 HKT)
Frida Ghitis says the foiled Australian plot shows ISIS is working diligently to taunt the U.S. and its allies.
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 1958 GMT (0358 HKT)
Young U.S. voters by and large just do not see the midterm elections offering legitimate choices because, in their eyes, Congress has proven to be largely ineffectual, and worse uncaring, argues John Della Volpe
September 19, 2014 -- Updated 0158 GMT (0958 HKT)
Steven Holmes says spanking, a practice that is ingrained in our culture, accomplishes nothing positive and causes harm.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1831 GMT (0231 HKT)
Sally Kohn says America tried "Cowboy Adventurism" as a foreign policy strategy; it failed. So why try it again?
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1427 GMT (2227 HKT)
Van Jones says the video of John Crawford III, who was shot by a police officer in Walmart, should be released.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 1448 GMT (2248 HKT)
NASA will need to embrace new entrants and promote a lot more competition in future, argues Newt Gingrich.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 2315 GMT (0715 HKT)
If U.S. wants to see real change in Iraq and Syria, it will have to empower moderate forces, says Fouad Siniora.
September 18, 2014 -- Updated 0034 GMT (0834 HKT)
Mark O'Mara says there are basic rules to follow when interacting with law enforcement: respect their authority.
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1305 GMT (2105 HKT)
LZ Granderson says Congress has rebuked the NFL on domestic violence issue, but why not a federal judge?
September 16, 2014 -- Updated 1149 GMT (1949 HKT)
Mel Robbins says the only person you can legally hit in the United States is a child. That's wrong.
September 15, 2014 -- Updated 1723 GMT (0123 HKT)
Eric Liu says seeing many friends fight so hard for same-sex marriage rights made him appreciate marriage.
ADVERTISEMENT