Film highlights need for a renaissance

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Ed Whitfield of the Fund for Democratic Communities in "A Community Solution to a Community's Problem," about the Renaissance Center co-op grocery.

by Sayaka Matsuoka

One by one, they filed into the empty theater at RED Cinemas, close to 50 people of all ages and backgrounds, to view the film that captured everything they had worked towards for the past three years.

“A Community Solution to a Community’s Problem” outlines the events after the Winn-Dixie grocery store on Phillips Avenue closed 16 years ago, creating a food desert in northeast Greensboro. Years went by but a new grocery store never materialized in the derelict strip. Tired of waiting, residents banded together in the summer of 2012 to open and operate their own store. And thus the Renaissance Community Co-op was born.

As mentioned in the short film, which supporters screened on Monday night to drum up support for increased public funding for the store, Greensboro is tied for second in the nation for food insecurity while poverty in the city continues to rise. The film was created in three parts — “The Problem We Face,” “The Cooperative Solution” and “We All Have a Role to Play” — with a runtime of approximately 25 minutes. Filled with interviews of the different participants, from funders to organizers to city employees and council members, “A Community Solution to a Community’s Problem” is a thoroughly detailed look at the seriousness of this problem plaguing northeast Greensboro.

Women including former councilwoman for the area and co-op organizer Goldie Wells, speak about the vibrancy of the shopping center before Winn-Dixie closed.

“The shopping center used to be the hub of our community,” Wells said. “We had a grocery store, a pharmacy and even a Laundromat.”

“And one by one they all closed,” resident Hazel Jones continued.

Shots in the film span across the deserted shopping center that now is an “eyesore in the community,” according to Ed Whitfield of the Greensboro-based Fund for Democratic Communities. The faded red letters that once spelled out “Winn-Dixie” vaguely remain, reemphasizing the need for a revival. A scene later in the film captures the Bessemer Shopping Center sign, shattered and missing two of its letters.

Although the Winn-Dixie brought in profits, the store closed due to the company’s repositioning throughout the southeastern United States and, without an anchor tenant, the other shops in the center soon followed. This left a two-mile food desert in the area surrounding the Bessemer Center, forcing many families without cars to patronize the sole remaining store in the center, Family Dollar. Without a place to buy nutritious food, residents resorted to eating meals consisting of instant ramen, frozen food and snacks found on the dollar-store shelves. The need for a real supermarket grew intensely with every passing year. The emptiness and desolation of the once bustling center is felt strongly throughout the course of the film, yet many of its interviewees speak with glowing optimism.

“One day, there will be a renaissance,” Wells says in the film.

“As I became more and more involved with the RCC, I thought ‘This might be possible’ and then it was ‘Hey this is possible!’ and now we’re at the point where it’s gonna happen!” Jones exclaims.

The community banded together to create the co-op to make this grocery store a reality. Watching the film, it is obvious how much time and effort has gone into achieving this. Folks recounting their memories of shopping in the once bustling strip mall to dreaming of its resurgence in the future is hopeful and captivating. Every one of the interviewees talks with clear enthusiasm and passion. Many stepped in to support the community-driven grocery store early on and have been instrumental in organizing support.

“Cooperatives begin and end with the people,” Whitfield said at the film screening.

A presentation that followed the film screening by Marnie Thompson of Fund for Democratic Communities, explained that if this co-op is successful, it would serve as an exemplary model for the rest of the country on how to eliminate food deserts. The community is getting closer to meeting their funding goals and now waits for the city to help complete the project. Both people inside and outside of the Phillips Avenue area pitched in to fund the venture, showing that the Renaissance Community Co-op is a true testament to what can happen when passionate people come together.

Many of the audience members had made their way into the film, too, which was shot by local photographer and filmmaker Kevin Smith. Giggles and laughs ensued when they saw their faces, but the air in the theater was filled with the same hope and serious aspiration as the messages played throughout. They all want to see the day when they can shop in a shiny, new grocery store and it’s no longer just a dream portrayed through a film.