Like many Bronxites, borough president Rubén Díaz Jr. was disappointed when the Yankees lost to the Astros in this year’s playoffs. The reason extends beyond his own fanhood: One of the most significant images of the Bronx came from the 1977 World Series, when a camera looking down on Yankee Stadium captured a building that was on fire. The scene stigmatized the borough, which was experiencing a spate of arson among other symptoms of poverty. Today, crime in the Bronx is at an all-time low, billions of dollars are being invested in real estate development, and its population is growing. The last time the Yankees were in the World Series was 2009, and Díaz Jr. believes another one would give the borough a chance to showcase its recent prosperity.
Maybe then it could even get an Apple Store.
New York’s northernmost borough is the city’s most diverse, has the lowest income per household, and is the only borough without an Apple Store after one opened up in Brooklyn’s predominantly white neighborhood of Williamsburg last year. This trend holds true on a national scale. That means 251 of the 270 stores, or 93 percent, are located in majority-white ZIP codes. Of the 19 that are not located in majority-white ZIP codes, eight are in ZIP codes where whites are still the largest racial bloc.
For context, Garden City, New York, a city with a population of around 22,000 that is 94 percent white, has an Apple Store. Lake Grove, New York, which has a population of around 11,000 and is 89 percent white, has an Apple Store. By comparison, nearly 1.5 million people live in the densely-packed Bronx, which is only 21 percent white. Bronx residents must travel either north to Ridge Hill or down to the Upper East Side to get to an Apple store.
“The bottom line is that there’s so many black and Latinos and other minority groups who purchase their products, depend on their products, and depend on services that only the store can provide,” Díaz Jr. said. “When my wife has to get serviced by Apple, she goes all the way to Ridge Hill, which is a 20-minute drive north of the Bronx,” a schlep compared to someone living in Manhattan.
Apple told me it couldn’t comment on the record about what criteria it uses to decide where new stores are built or the demographics of its stores’ neighborhoods, but USC Marshall School of Business professor Ira Kalb reasoned that the company is “going after the high-end of the market, so their store location choices typically go after areas that are considered upscale.” Thus, it’s likely that the racial disparity is a consequence of locating stores in wealthier neighborhoods — note how there’s no Whole Foods in the Bronx either. Apple Store neighborhoods have a median household income of about $73,475 per year; black American households earn a median average of $38,555, according to the ACS estimate for 2016. The median household income in the Bronx is $34,299.
Aiming for consumers with more disposable income isn’t at all a new strategy, but Apple has made a point to emphasize its commitment to diversity, naming Denise Young Smith as its first-ever vice president of diversity and inclusion in May. At Apple’s fall keynote, the annual event where it announces the latest iPhone, the company announced that it is rebranding its stores as “town squares,” with more space for sitting and lingering, “boardrooms” for local entrepreneurs, and events for kids, teachers, and artists. “We don't call them stores any more,” Angela Ahrendts, Apple’s senior vice president of retail, said on stage. “We call them town squares, because they're gathering places for the 500 million people who visit us every year… We think of Apple retail as Apple's largest products.”
People in communities of color may have easier access to Apple-authorized third-party resellers including cell phone retailers, Target, and Best Buy, but these stores lack the personalized customer support of the Genius Bar and the full range of Apple products. In the Bronx, people have easier access to MetroPCS, a comparative hole in the wall that’s far away from the customer care experience that Apple prides itself on.
Kalb dismissed the idea that Apple needs to put stores in communities populated predominantly by people of color, since customers can buy the same products online. “In most cases, the color or ethnicity of the people near where the store is located is not the relevant issue, and certainly should not be the issue,” he said. “The relevant issue is that the location is selected to match the positioning of the brand.” But if Apple is putting its stores in white neighborhoods, what message does that send about how it wants to position its brand?
Apple has certainly tried to position itself as a higher-end brand. Back in 2015, it debuted a line of Apple Watches designed by Hermes, a move that prompted Gartner analyst Brian Blau to tell Mashable that it’s “a continuing strategy by which Apple positions themselves as company that appreciates the same level of quality that is oftentimes associated with luxury brands.” Apple gave the luxury market another go by dropping the exorbitantly priced iPhone X earlier this month.
But part of what sets Apple apart from other luxury brands is that it is the standard. You aren’t expected to have a Hermes watch in the same way you ought to have an “i” or “Mac” prefixed onto one of your devices. In other words, Apple products aren’t simply another fancy signifier of wealth — they’ve become a necessity in many creative and software-based professions and as well as in a gig economy that centers on mobile connectivity. Wired wrote that “the smartphone has become the lifeblood of social interaction and upward mobility.”
“It also signifies and illustrates our inequality.”
Apple’s diversity initiative can at least been seen on the surface level. The Verge noted that 44 percent of Apple’s retail employees are non-white. That’s important — retail employees are the brand’s face, after all — but so is the fact that it is the default for people in communities of color to have to travel to a whiter neighborhood in order to get to an Apple store.
This is a pattern that plays out again and again, said Derek Hyra, author of Race, Class, and Politics in the Cappuccino City and associate professor at American University. “It’s not just Apple: Starbucks used to not have a lot of their outlets in African-American communities,” he said. “If you really want to get a diversity of consumer products in all communities, we’ve got to systematically think about how we close income and wealth gaps along racial lines in the United States.” And he’s not so optimistic about that. “We would think in this country that we would be making progress along these lines in closing wealth gaps,” he said. “But wealth and income gaps have gotten worse. And as they get worse, we’re probably going to see more segregation among our neighborhoods, and maybe even the retailers targeting the neighborhoods.”
Even if its calculus is based purely on wealth, Apple is effectively avoiding putting its stores — or “town squares” — in communities of color. This happens over and over again with different brands, meaning people in communities of color have to travel farther to get nice things. “The fact that Apple Stores are disproportionately in white communities means people of color don’t have the same access to quality products and services,” Hyra said. “It also signifies and illustrates our inequality.”
Sometimes, these communities are shut off from services completely: A 2016 Bloomberg report that studied Amazon Prime showed that predominantly black ZIP codes were excluded from same-day coverage. The Bronx was once again the only borough without the service; a representative from Amazon told Bloomberg that it’s difficult to reach since the company’s warehouses are in New Jersey.
Amazon did end up extending its services to the Bronx after the furor following that study. Last year, Díaz signed a letter to Apple CEO Tim Cook urging the company to build a store in his borough: “Few brands are as recognized and admired as Apple, and an ‘Apple Bronx’ location would be another signal to the world that the Bronx is open for business.” Díaz said he’s yet to receive a response.