Keitra Bates and Other Black-Owned Food Businesses Are Banding Together to Survive—and Thrive

Of course, notes Iyengar, there are drawbacks to any major development, no matter how good its intentions, and some local organizers in Pittsburgh have doubts about the project’s long-term benefits. “Any time you create value in a neighborhood, property prices go up, and when property prices go up, that’s usually a signal for displacement,” she says. And because private developers will profit from Pittsburgh Yards, the project does not challenge traditional ownership structures in a way Iyengar believes to be radically transformational. (Iyengar herself is working on a smaller mixed use development in South Atlanta’s Capitol View neighborhood called Groundcover, which through a unique collective ownership structure will put equity entirely into the hands of local residents, rather than any developers at all.)

But still, considering how large and ambitious Pittsburgh Yards is, Iyengar feels cautiously optimistic. “In an ideal world, we’d completely dismantle capitalist systems, and maybe that’s possible in the future,” she says. “But a lot more intentionality and thought has gone into this project than any other development I’ve seen. It paves the way for a better kind of development.”

Only time will tell how Pittsburgh Yards fares in the coming months, years, decades, and what changes it will bring in the long-term. But the seeds it has planted—the very idea that Big Development can have a conscience—paired with its interest in partnering with grassroots organizations, is not insignificant. “The Casey Foundation is a behemoth,” says Bates. “You can’t ignore their power or their presence, and they’re in a position to work with partners like Marddy’s that are not willing to be quiet about displacement or gentrification or disrespect for what our ancestors have done.”

V’s Taste of 700 Islands mini tarts come in coconut and pineapple, and will soon be sold on grocery store shelves.

Photo by Emma Fishman

Since the pandemic hit last spring, Marddy’s, like most businesses, has been forced to adjust. Gone are the large-scale catering gigs that once brought significant income to their vendors (Bates is now planning to install a carry-out window at the original West End location so vendors will have a safely-distanced retail space). Negotiations on the Pittsburgh Yards expansion are taking longer than expected, though Bates is hopeful that the new space will open by early summer. 

But in the wake of challenges, new opportunities have sprung up.

This past summer, Marddy’s partnered with an urban farming initiative for the low-income community of Thomasville Heights. Students there, in partnership with students from a wealthy private school called Paideia, harvested vegetables together from a collection of Black-owned urban farms. Marddy’s chefs then took the produce and turned it into healthy boxed meals not just for Thomasville Heights students but for their families as well. 

“We were producing 1,800 meals a week out of 1,600ish pounds of local fresh produce from Black farmers,” says Bates. “It was by far one of our proudest moments. Our vendors could earn money while helping families that needed it.”

In a changing world, where inequity is a constant yet ever-moving target, perhaps there is no better illustration of what Marddy’s is all about than this: tackling systemic problems with mutually beneficial, small-but-scalable initiatives that just make sense. Being the connective tissue that bends but does not break.

“It proves that it’s possible to get past bureaucracy and red tape when people are really determined,” Bates says. “When people are really determined, we can do anything.”

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