Frenchtown business owners discuss changes in community

The Rev. Ervin Omega Gilliam and young brother Melvin Gilliam stand outside their family owned business, Gilliam Brothers Barber Shop. 
Photo credit: Jessica Gardner​


Frenchtown is one of the oldest neighborhoods in Tallahassee that has been a site of change and development. Business owners of the predominately African-American neighborhood are hesitant on if changes in the community will be suitable for current residents.

Located at 319 North Macomb Street, the Economy Drug Store has been in the heart of Frenchtown for more than 60 years. The daughter of the drug store’s founder and its store manager, Alexis Roberts McMillan said she watched Frenchtown change right before her eyes.

“It was a neighborhood. People living here, shopping here, walking in the neighborhood and supporting their neighborhood,” McMillan said. “Now what I see is the denigration of a neighborhood.”

McMillan attributed some of the Frenchtown’s fluctuations to the “proliferation of drug use” on the 400 block. According to McMillan, this resulted in residents moving away in search of better opportunities in drug-free neighborhoods.

McMillan said the contributions to Frenchtown mom-and-pop establishments failing is because of the bigger businesses. “People like malls and shopping centers. They don’t want to necessarily walk to where they go or come to the neighborhood they grew up in,” she said.

Another business that is still standing in the Frenchtown community is the Gilliam Brothers Barbershop, that is on the same corner as the Economy Drug Store. The barber shop is owned by Rev. Ervin Omega Gilliam Jr. and his younger brother.

“We’re the last ones left. We’re standing because of the funeral business, hair business and church. That’s why we survived so well because of those three things,” Gilliam said.

Some of the changes to Frenchtown include the Renaissance Community Center, the new student housing complex, and the re-opening of the Frenchtown Heritage Market.

The last block still standing of Frenchtown local businesses. 
Photo credit: Jessica Gardner

Maryann Moore is a resident who visits the Frenchtown Heritage Market, which has locally grown produce and original handmade jewelry, said she prefers the hometown market over chain stores and other markets in the area.

“It’s in my neighborhood, and any food stamp value is half price. You get double your food stamps shopping here,” Moore said. “And it starts at 10 a.m., not at 7 a.m. like other markets.”

Like Moore, McMillan agrees that changes in Frenchtown are good for the community, but bigger establishments should directly support residents.

“New is very good, but new is not always best,” McMillan said. “When these big box places move in, they might support some of the people who work there, but they don’t support the community. So much of the money goes back to the corporate agency as opposed to the people who need it.”

Gilliam said that whatever happens to the businesses in Frenchtown, the time that he has spent in the community will always be memorable.

“Businesses can move. I don’t know the fate of Frenchtown in the years to come, but I have truly enjoyed working down here and being a part of this place for all these many years because it’s been a wonderful experience,” Gilliam said.