The power of consumers is evident on the number of retail chains that continue to build up in growing neighborhoods across the Chicago area. In predominantly African-American communities, on the West Side and South Side of Chicago, there is still slow progress, but there are pockets of heightened growth in Hyde Park and Bronzeville.
Since the past century of the Great Migration, Chicago has led the country with Black businesses that have provided economic growth within our communities. Some of these businesses started as Mom and Pop brick-and-mortar storefronts, growing into a full franchise. While others have built major international brands — employing hundreds of employees —, the economic downfall and company transition have resulted in the loss of jobs.
Property value has increased in areas that continue to diversify, and retail chains move into high-traffic throughways such as 53rd St. in Hyde Park, 63rd and Halsted in Englewood and 35th & King Drive in Bronzeville. The addition of Target, Mariano’s and Whole Foods ignites other businesses to invest and build within these communities that have pulled residents beyond their neighborhoods to shop up north or in the suburbs.
Unfortunately, the residents on the West Side must still travel to Oak Park or the North Side to take advantage of some of the amenities that retail chains provide. As the Latino community grows in Chicago, so does their businesses — the loyalty of their dollar is spent a great deal among residents. The Little Village Retail Corridor is considered the second-highest-grossing area in Chicago, where predominanty Mexican consumers have spent $900 million since 2001.
Although there is not a concrete study that breaks down how often our dollar is circulated among African-American consumers back to Black-owned businesses, current business owners are aware of the importance of entrepreneurship.
Black Business Communities
Quad Development Communities Corp. is an organization that services businesses on the South Side that includes Oakwood, Bronzeville and North Kenwood. Their primary goal is to improve the quality of life and economic strength of neighborhoods that include driving economic development, improvement of schools and retail/workforce revitalization.
Executive Director Rhonda McFarland says, “It’s vital because any community has to contain not just residential housing opportunities, but it has to contain the basic services and goods that any resident would need,” she said. “Without having any of those items or those things available in a community, you don’t have a full-service, vital community. You don’t have the tax base that comes from having retail service in the community that then also supports things like food, streets and other infrastructure.”
Cate Costa, Director of Entrepreneurship for the Chicago Urban League, says their primari concentration is within African-American neighborhoods.
“What we try to do with our clients — since we’re serving the business owners who are also consumers — we try to make sure that they have a deep understanding on how to properly market their business so that those in the community know that they’re there and want to go and shop there,” she continues. “Part of that is making sure that if their connection to the community is something that would be important to their clients, that they’re highlighting that in their marketing materials.”
Eric Williams, owner of The Silver Room, located in the business district of Hyde Park, grew up understanding the value of being self-employed. His father is the owner of Manny’s Blue Room in Robbins, Illinois, a neighborhood favorite hang-out.
He said, “Having that in hindsight, being self-employed was not a big deal. People have a fear of being self-employed, because they don’t get a constant paycheck, the fear is something that hinders people. I never had that fear because my father was self-employed. My first job out of college I worked in finance. I didn’t want to do it. I remember going outside to take a break and my manager said, ‘no’. I remember thinking, I never want a job where I can’t make my own schedule.”
Many entrepreneurs start with a vision of what they are good at and develop a base to build from. For almost two decades, Williams rose from a street peddler to starting The Silver Room in a small storefront in Wicker Park, growing to a bigger space to eventually relocating to the South Side. Although he has a diverse staff and his clientele encompasses people from various walks of life, he has faced the basic challenges of a business owner, but more so as a Black one.
“No matter what race you are, it’s having resources and money. Being Black is even harder. Most Black businesses don’t have enough resources to start. You start from behind, trying to think of creative ways to make more money, spend less, to market the place — that’s always the challenge. Staffing issues, it’s up to you.”
Chicago is an international city that is one of the more diversified and geographically complex cities in the country. It is also one of the most culturally segregated cities in the North. At one time, during the migration of hundreds of thousands of African-Americans relocating from the South, they found themselves in pocket sections of the South Side and the West Side. Businesses thrived in these areas because residents weren’t welcomed by other non-Black businesses.
Today, the freedom to travel beyond our communities and patronage businesses is not a problem. But the vitality of keeping dollars circulating within these communities compared to other ethnic neighborhoods is weak.
“When you are in a community similar to the ones that we service in Chicago, we have commercial corridors. When those commercial corridors do not look healthy and vibrant and then those corridors upset the ability to have a healthy residential community, people drive through and they see a bunch of vacant, abandoned storefronts and wonder, ‘Do I want to live a block away from that?’,” McFarland said.
“We need to support and engage our small-business owners. As residents, I think that residents get turned off if they don’t see a storefront that is familiar with them.” She said QDC tries to work with initiatives such as American Express “Small business Saturdays,” where they encourage consumers to shop local, shop small and shop in Bronzeville.
Business Resources & Networking
One of the organization’s programs, Bronzeville Summer Nights, has become a great way to provide opportunities to residents who can participate within business corridors during a time when there is a lot of activity. It is a great way for both businesses and residents to connect as a group, and later returning to shop as a consumer.
Fighting through the disparity of the Jim Crow era, Blacks would turn to the handy guide of the Negro Motorist Green Book, which outlined Black-owned and -operated restaurants, motels, retailers and places that welcomed our patronage from 1936-1964. That has grown to The Black Pages, an alternate internet guide from the Yellow Pages listing specifical businesses and services operated by African-Americans.
Other consumer directories to Chicago Black-owned businesses can be found in such book as The Brij Neo-Green Book: Chicago’s Holiday Guide To Buy, Give, Love & Live Black.
Williams says it still is very commonplace for other groups to patronage businesses within their own religious or cultural community. “A lot of my Jewish friends grew up like that. You may go to your Jewish doctor, Jewish banker, a dentist — it’s just part of the culture. It happens a lot in the Asian and Latino communities too.”
He’s noticed many businesses that once thrived in Black communities such as Roseland, Pullman, Lawndale, Englewood and Chatham have suffered. The city of Chicago has made plans to invest millions of dollars in programs such as the Cottage Grove Retail Corridor and the Southwest Corridor Collaborative programs, encouraging prospective business and existing owners to consider revitalizing these areas.
Cate Costa says it can take its toll on consumers to readjust.
“It is a challenge as you work on building up a commercial area within a community if there aren’t a good mix of stores there, a lot of times it’s difficult for the consumer. Instead of going to a one-stop shop for needs, they would need to drive around to different places and park multiple times to go to multiple independent stores — sometimes people don’t have time to do that.”
Williams adds, “But when we do have new a business, what’s the quality of them, what kind of business, what’s the aesthetic? Who are we going to be reaching out to? Trying to hit home with our customer and our community, it’s important to shop with Black businesses,” he said. “One thing about Hyde Park, I hear at least three or four times a week, someone will ask, ‘Is this a Black business?’ I have employees of all races. People will ask, and they will shop here. It’s an effort to shop with Black businesses in Hyde Park. I hear it all the time. That kind of mentality is what we need more of — I’m the same way when I can, where it makes sense.”
As the thousands of people shift in high gear for their Christmas shopping, the challenge for small-business owners in neighboring communities is how to get the word out.
The Chicago Urban League is one of several organizations that work with area business associations that focus on networking events, intensive management training and marketing capabilities.
Costa shares with business owners on how to build more visibility with consumers as well as collaborating with fellow businesses. “Make sure to find an area where there are other business owners that they can collaborate with and making sure they’re doing that,” she said. “They can cross-promote their products; they can help each other out with special events that the other one is having, referring business to each other to make it easy for people to connect with consumers and their needs.”
As Williams prepares for the Christmas holidays and an upcoming anniversary for The Silver Room, he is always brainstorming on new ideas.
“You’re constantly thinking of things you got to do and it doesn’t end when your job ends. You work a 9 to 5 job, it gets 5 p.m., you go home. My best ideas may be late at night when I’m in the bed. You have to be in it all the way — it never ends.”
For a listing of Black-owned and operated Chicago businesses, check out these directories:
The Neo-Green Book: Black Friday Digital Edition