A movement is growing in the U.S. that seeks alternatives to traditional banks, replacing their total focus on profit with a devotion to community and justice.
Gregory Jost noticed the first two bank branches close in the Bronx about six months before the pandemic. They were right next to each other: a Chase and a Bank of America, about three blocks from his son’s school in Norwood, and one day, he walked by and saw they were gone.
When COVID hit, the trend accelerated. “We kept getting more and more updates: Oh, this bank is closing. Oh, this bank is closing. Oh, this bank is closing,” Jost recalled when we talked on the phone in September. He is a community organizer and researcher who works with the Banana Kelly community improvement association. Branches were disappearing right and left, and the reason bank officials gave Banana Kelly was both simple and maddening: It just wasn’t profitable for them to stay. This was happening around the country: 4,000 bank branches shut their doors between March 2020 and October 2021, many in rural areas or low-income communities of color.
Though it is replete with check cashers, pawn shops and other “alternative lenders” profiting off the fact that poor communities of color generally have difficulty accessing their own money, the Bronx was already severely underbanked before the pandemic. To Jost, one Bank of America outpost at the Hunt’s Point subway stop perfectly captures this imbalance — a massive sign visible from blocks away advertises its presence, but it’s just an ATM. And not even a working one: It has a laughable 1.7 stars on Google, where people complain that you can barely get through the door, that it is rarely open during normal business hours, and sometimes when it is, the machine has no cash.