I’ve been personally and professionally interested in 99-cents stores for a long time. Growing up in New York City, 99-cents stores were part of my retail ecosystem. It was a place to pick up everything from duct tape to candles to random cleaning supplies. There’s a ubiquity to them (75% of Americans live within five miles of a Dollar General), but I didn’t know much about them. As part of an art project I started in 2021 with my collaborator Gloria Lau, I mapped 99-cents stores in New York City to visualize a kind of place that’s often invisible.
As an urban planner, I’ve spent many hours in GIS/QGIS trying to figure out the best way to display information about neighborhoods, land use, climate change impacts, the list goes on. There’s a formality to maps that are created out of necessity: They have to be legible to a variety of users regardless of the person’s level of data literacy or map savviness. Maps also need to be visually consistent. Whenever I made a land use map, my color palette was limited to the standard colors used by the New York City government.
Working on this art project, I got to merge my urban planner/mapmaker brain with my art-making brain to think about visualization outside of traditional mapping. Part of what made this project possible was my ability to access hard-to-find datasets through the Brooklyn Public Library and through free data visualization tools like QGIS and resources offered by BetaNYC, a civic data organization based in NYC.
Defining a 99-cents store
Compared with much of the United States which have discount stores that are franchises, 99-cents stores in New York City are majority-independently owned businesses. Therefore, the stores don’t follow a consistent naming convention, and a simple Google search doesn’t produce an irrefutable list. To map these stores, I had to create a working definition of these places to parse through all the different kinds of retail in the city. I defined 99-cents stores as businesses that market themselves as discount stores (ex. “Midwood Discount”, “Discount Deals”) or that have “99 cents” or some variation explicitly in the name (i.e. “Dollar Tree”, “99 Cents and Up”). After doing a quick search of the North American Industry Classification System (NAICS) and Standard Industrial Classification (SIC) codes most commonly used for dollar stores, I used a business search engine through my library to find stores in the city.
With my rough list of 99-cents stores I used a NYC batch geocoder tool from BetaNYC to spatially locate all the results from the search engine. I used Google Street View to spot-check addresses and confirm that the retail spaces were discount stores. When all was said and done I had a list of about 1,300 stores using 2021 data.
Translating data into art
The map provided a straightforward view of 99-cents stores in the city. It also revealed what neighborhoods had the highest concentration of stores. In New York City and nationwide, there’s a documented prevalence of discount stores in communities of color and communities that are in food deserts or food swamps, so much so that some communities have organized to stop their proliferation. Looking at the data, I started thinking of the hills and valleys of 99-cents stores across the boroughs and how I might be able to represent them in 3D form. As part of a larger exhibit, my collaborator and I wanted to present items from 99-cents stores in such a way to have visitors critically look at objects they may not otherwise pay attention to.
Using materials sourced from my local discount store, I created a 99-cents store contour map. After converting my point data into a heat map, I used a contour line tool in QGIS to create a topographical-like map of 99-cents stores. Using the map as a template, I then cut out individual plastic elevations.
The final map was roughly 3-feet by 3-feet using placemats for elevation, a vinyl carpet runner for boroughs, and contact paper as a base layer. My goal in doing this project was to represent dollar stores in an unconventional way, but it also turned into a lesson on data storytelling. I didn’t have to present a perfect dataset but rather share my findings in a way that might make a viewer curious about 99-cents stores in their neighborhood. The barrier to playing with this data was low thanks to my library and open source tools that made my analysis possible. The project has made me more curious about the possibilities of blending data and art and ways to make opaque institutions or systems more transparent through art.
To learn more about 99-cents stores in NYC and nationwide:
- “Commodity City” : A documentary exploring China’s Yiwu International Trade Market, the world’s largest wholesale market and major supplier for 99-cents stores.
- The New York Times : A 2017 article highlighting the stories of immigrant owned 99-cents stores in New York City.
- “God’s Garage” : An essay covering the history and expansion of 99-cents stores in the United States.
Daphne Lundi is an urban planner, policymaker, writer, and artist. She is an inaugural Public Scholar at The Moynihan Center at City College in New York where her work explores the intersections between science fiction and city planning. She is also the co-creator of Laudi CoLab an arts-based collaborative that seeks to amplify community stories in the built environment that have been erased or undervalued. She is a founding member and board member of BlackSpace, a collective of Black urbanists who work to bridge the gaps between policy, people, and place to address inequality and injustice in the built environment. She also serves as an Advisory Board Member and visiting teacher for the Octavia Project, a science-fiction summer program for teen girls and non-binary youth that uses the lens of science fiction to explore computer science, writing, and city-making.