It's fine to redline -- when there's a clear risk

Aug. 26, 2002

Residents of two predominantly black Tarpon Springs, Fla., neighborhoods are claiming that racism is at the root of two pizza stores' refusals to deliver to their homes after dark.

Operators of the stores -- a Domino's Pizza franchisee and a Pizza Hut franchisee -- believe the Union Academy and Mango Circle neighborhoods are unsafe because, over the past seven years, at least three of their drivers have been robbed (one, a 62-year-old, was severely beaten, and cost Domino's $250,000 in worker's compensation), and several others report being harassed while delivering there.

Steve Coomes, Editor

The hullabaloo has made headlines in multiple newspapers, and TV talk-news shows "Hannity & Colmes" and "The O'Reilly Factor" recently held on-air debates over the issue of pizza delivery redlining.

But perhaps most noteworthy was an Aug. 25 editorial in the St. Petersburg Times titled, "Pizza delivery as a moral obligation."

At first glance, some questions leapt to mind: Since when is ensuring free and equal access to pizza delivery more moral than ensuring a driver isn't clocked and robbed? And is it moral -- much less legal -- to force an employee to work in a potentially dangerous situation?

The editor(s) called Pizza Hut's recent decision to redline Union Academy "a ridiculous overreaction," and former Tarpon Springs city commissioner Glenn Davis dubbed it "racism, plain and simple."

Well, let's forget about such caustic and inflammatory language for the moment and have a look at the available facts.

Tarpon Springs, located about 30 miles northwest of St. Petersburg, has a population of 20,000. According to the Times, since 1995 (the year the Pizza Hut store first redlined part of Union Academy following a robbery), of the 174 robberies in the city, 45 have occurred in Union Academy. That's 25 percent of all the town's robberies, and an average of about six per year.

I don't know about you, but I'd be worried if someone were robbed every other month in my neighborhood.

Interestingly, the Times editorial also called Union Academy "a place where drug dealers feel free to approach vehicles passing through, even in the daytime." And it volunteered that the Mango Circle neighborhood has one way in, one way out, and is poorly lit.

OK, drivers, who wants to deliver there at, say, 11 p.m.?

The interests of a few

The Times' editorial and residents of both neighborhoods say that the law-abiding majority shouldn't be punished for the offenses of the minority.

Fair points.

But that notion cuts both ways. Pizza companies shouldn't have to risk so much -- driver well-being and potential losses from financial compensation -- to serve such a small number of patrons.

And as if the editorial writers have been outside the U.S. for the past year, perhaps they've not noticed that the country is now a place where, in the interest of safety, millions of air travelers (the majority) now arrive at airports two hours before a flight to endure tedious security checks because 19 goons (the minority) hijacked and crashed three jetliners.

But I digress.

Responding to accusations of racism, Domino's franchisee John Paulette told the Times, "It's a safety issue. Period." The fact that both pizza stores deliver to both neighborhoods in the daylight and sell pizzas to black customers at night, supports his statement that it's not about skin color.

But despite Paulette's concerns, city commissioner David Archie, a Union Academy resident, along with three other residents, filed discrimination suits against the local Pizza Hut. And in early August, some attendees of a city commission meeting suggested that both pizza stores' occupational licenses be suspended until delivery was reinstated.

I'm truly concerned that residents of both neighborhoods are denied pizza delivery; it's their right to have it, and it's a wonderfully affordable privilege. And in low-income neighborhoods where some residents may lack cars needed for pick up, it's even more important.

Interestingly, the Times editorial also called Union Academy "a place where drug dealers feel free to approach vehicles passing through, even in the daytime." And it volunteered that the Mango Circle neighborhood has one way in, one way out, and is poorly lit.

Not bad, eh?

But I have a hard time believing this is "racism, pure and simple," as Davis said. I'm no sociologist, but I'd guess that, were these operators truly racist, they'd thoroughly enjoy milking every dime they could from their objects of hatred. In fact, they'd likely price-gouge those same customers. The facts, however, indicate the opposite.

Seek a solution!

If residents of these neighborhoods want pizza delivery, then it's incumbent upon them to change their neighborhoods for the better. The residents of Union Academy and Mango Circle must not tolerate crime in their areas and should summarily throw out the bums who make it unsafe for everyone, not just drivers.

Civic representatives should install and maintain good lighting in those areas and petition for increased officer patrols at night.

Pizza companies also must become proactive by pooling resources to commission a crime study that demonstrates definitively:

1. whether pizza delivery-related crimes are on the rise (as their number and the violence of those crimes appears to be);

2. that for the safety of drivers, certain neighborhoods in certain cities must be avoided;

3. and that by doing so, operators are fairly protecting their employees first.

Without statistics to prove their case, pizzeria operators will face accusations of racism and unfair redlining ad infinitum.

At the local level, every operator who either redlines or is considering redlining, should also collect his/her evidence. Collect every report available (both newspaper and official police records) about crime in an area of concern to establish your case. As proven by the Tarpon Springs disputes, you'll need all the evidence you can get.

Lastly, operators, when concerns over safety and crime arise, attempt to diffuse the situation by meeting with civic leaders first to see if those matters can be corrected before it all winds up in court. Such a gesture will serve as a strategic olive branch that states your desire to serve every customer safely rather than sever ties to a neighborhood.

Topics: Commentary , Crime

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