Whole Foods and Marianos: Signs of Economic Progress in Bronzeville, Englewood

img_2828The changes that have occurred throughout our Chicago neighborhoods are more evident in the economic developments of the South Side Englewood and Bronzeville communities. In a time where the homicide count vibrates throughout the city and African-American bodies lie lifeless on concrete, surrounded by yellow tape, the backdrops of our neighborhoods receive a bad rep.

Since the announcement of Whole Foods’ commitment to build its grocery store on the corner of 63rd St. and Halsted — one of the busiest intersections on the South Side — questions arose on how this would go down. Critics thought the grocery franchise — known for its organic and high-end products — would price out residents in the neighborhood.

It is no secret that the Englewood community has battled its share of loss in business development. Once a thriving shopping and small-business district, the 63rd St. corridor featured clothing and shoe retailers, cleaners, tailors, beauty and barbershops over the past five decades. The City of Chicago Colleges expanded the Kennedy-King College campus in their attempt to revitalize the area.

On Sept. 29, the campus officially welcomed a new neighbor to the corner — Whole Foods, along with a brand new Starbucks that had opened its doors.

The $20 million shopping complex, known as “Englewood Square,” also includes the Oak Street Health clinic, and a soon-to-be-open Chipotle. The ribbon-cutting ceremony brought together the result of several community organizations working closely with Mayor Rahm Emanuel, Managing Partner of DL3 Realty, Leon Walker; Whole Foods CEO, Walter Robb; Starbucks Executive VP of Public Affairs, Vivek Varma, and other key public officials — Congressman Bobby Rush (D-Ill.), and Deputy Mayor Andrea Zopp.

Bronze statue dedicated in memory of Alderman Joann Thompson

A bronze statue of the late Ald. Joann Thompson of the 18th Ward was unveiled to attendees with family members standing by. Ald. Toni Foulkes acknowledged Thompson’s early commitment of supporting the grocery retail development.

Real Estate developer and financier Leon Walker played a major role in bringing the complex to the community. Raised in Chicago and the son of schoolteachers, he sought the necessity to rebuild what was considered at one time a burgeoning community of wonderful Black businesses.

This undertaking had significant meaning to Walker, whose mother was a graduate of Englewood High School and whose father was the founder of the Children’s Developmental Institute.

“I grew up on the South Side of Chicago when Black businesses were prevalent. We were in every area. We had carpet stores and gas stations, tire companies, insurance and construction companies. Not just primary care and child care — things that we are mostly focused on these days. We were most broader and deeper in terms of the number of businesses that were present in our community,” he said.

Real Estate developer and financier, Leon Walker.

Walker, a graduate of the University of Chicago, earning his degree in law and business, moved to Los Angeles to work for the largest real estate investment firm, JLL. After the death of his father in 2000, the successful businessman moved back to his hometown to help his family and build his business in familiar territory. He noticed the stark difference in economic depletion in our neighborhood since his childhood.

“I drove down every one of our major corridors — basically they’re bombed out. They were lighted, depressed, underinvested, disinvested.”

He said before the 2008 recession hit, major streets that connected small business communities such as King Drive, Halsted, Ashland, Cottage Grove and Western also had responsible property owners within a stone’s throw.

“There was an unmet need, there was an unmet demand. Our people are valuable, they’re alive and this community matters. To try to get the critical and quality services that everyone wants became my passion and mission.”

Bronzeville Developments

marianosstoreJust a little under five miles going northeast of Englewood is the community of Bronzeville — rich with African-American history. A brand new building showcasing the Mariano’s name greets travelers driving along 39th Street and King Drive. The 74, 000-square-foot store dons a unique design featuring an artistic screen wall honoring some of Bronzeville’s famous residents like journalist Ida B. Wells, author Richard Wright, Illinois Poet Laureate Gwendolyn Brooks, Choreographer/dance/ anthropologist Katherine Dunham, Sociologist Horace Clayton and Louie Armstrong, who lived there for a while.

Slated to open Oct. 11, Mariano’s Food Market sits on the former site of the Ida B. Wells Housing project, which was demolished from 2002 to the final buildings in 2011, under former Mayor Richard M. Daley.  Since then, the land has stood empty with several proposals for developments. Bronzeville has experienced a considerable spike in real estate value, with the community having close proximity to the McCormick Place and flourishing lakefront — the neighborhood is gradually undergoing a cosmetic change.

So much has gone into making this happen, and so many facets of the community have been involved that it has to be viewed as a community effort. Blacks have been involved in every step of the process. The design and building team includes Phil Johnson & Lee Architects, Millhouse Engineering and construction manager Claude Powers of Powers & Sons.

Capri Investments CEO Quintin Primo [Photo by Mary L. Datcher]
Capri Investments CEO Quintin Primo [Photo by Mary L. Datcher]

Co-founder, Chairman and CEO of Capri Investment Group Quintin Primo has a long professional career in financial investment and real estate development. As a global financier and philanthropist, he says it’s important for residents in their communities to hold on to their property.

“To all property owners in Bronzeville and other places that are hanging on — hang on to those assets because they are very valuable and they will be two or three times as valuable as time goes on. The biggest issue of our community is that people of color do not control or manage money.” He said Black-owned financial management firms such as Capri, Ariel Capital and Loop Capital oversee a small percentage of financial investments compared to larger firms.

“We manage collectively a small, small percentage of the trillions of dollars that are out there under very large firms. If we all were worth $10 billion, you could rest assured that the South Side and the West Side would be a different place because, like those of the Jewish faith who support Israel, we as African-Americans should support our communities,” said Primo.

With progress comes change, and addressing the need to fill our communities with more accessibility to similar retail resources that other communities benefit can be bittersweet.

“Our communities suffer — period. Investment in our inner cities is critical whether it comes from government or a mall.”

Community organizations, such as Resident Association of Greater Englewood‘s (R.A.G.E.) President Asiaha Butler, say it was a long and tedious effort to make sure everyone’s voice and input was heard and recognized.

img_2548“We partnered with Whole Foods since the beginning and Whole City Foundation to help get grants back into the community to think about healthy food. We’re just looking forward to a long-term partnership from this day forward,” she said.

She is pleased with the outcome and admits they still have a long way to go, but it must start with the residents who take action and take back their neighborhood.

Recognizing not only African-American-owned and -operated contractors such as Ujamaa and Power and Sons who were responsible for building out the complex, but selecting vendors for the Whole Foods location was a significant goal.

Currently, there are featured products and services from 35 minority-owned businesses at this location, a first entry for many entrepreneurs entering the retail world.

Growing up in Englewood, owner of Rome’s Joy, Cliff Rome, says he is pleased that the retail giant is carrying their signature brand, Peaches Coffee.

Chef Cliff Rome
Chef Cliff Rome

Charmin Edwards, owner of Rocyalocs, says, “There was nothing on the market when I started wearing braids, so out of aggravation, I pulled my phone charger out and wrapped my braids to twist my hair,” Edwards said. “We’re here and excited about the vision and dream to be in Whole Foods.”

A similar launch for the Bronzeville Mariano’s is being planned as Mariano’s held a vendor fair a few weeks ago to greet and meet local businesses presenting their products for placement consideration.

Ald. Sophia King has inherited the responsibility as the newly appointed councilwoman of the 4th Ward to work with Mariano’s.

“They’ve had several meetings with those vendors and they are bringing them along.” She says there is a similar process, such as the one Whole Foods put in place for both the Englewood and Bronzeville locations. “They are being meaningful about the process and their respect of Bronzeville. You can see in the artwork. There’s a slower process, but it will be welcomed in the community as well as hiring people from the community.”

Is this a fair process to meet the goals of economic re-investment in communities that lack opportunities of competition in predominantly white neighborhoods? Will existing businesses benefit from their new franchise neighbors?

Gentrification Concerns

King says, “There are some great businesses that are already here in the community, and if a community is about to go through a resurgence or development, you have to make sure that those businesses are propped up. There are ways to do that financially.”  

Englewood Starbucks barista takes care of customers.
Englewood Starbucks barista takes care of customers.

Does this lead to the question of escalated gentrification, where second-, third- generation family households are priced out of their place of residence — to make room for potential non-Black property owners?

Many Chicagoans are familiar with the facelift of East Humboldt Park, aka Wicker Park, aka Bucktown in the 1990s to Ukrainian Village/East Village’s shift to the less ethnic name — West Town.

Now, most recently the Pilsen community — once filled with Mexican-owned restaurants, bodegas, botanicas — is being replaced with hipster lounges and performance venues. While the movement of this type of change-over is still a steady crawl in the Bronzeville community, the aftermath of gentrification worries long-time residents who are feeling the climbing property taxes.

Walker says their goal is not to drive out long-time residents but admits Englewood’s attraction for development is great access, infrastructure, character housing and all the things that attract new development. “We focused on what is called ‘development without displacement’. Englewood is considered ‘good bones’ in the real estate industry. It was a great business intersection at one time, so we’re not asking anyone to leave. What we’re trying to build is a viable and sustainable community for working families.”

Having close to 200 new permanent jobs stem from the Englewood Square Shopping complex, developers want to attract residents to the area.

The anticipation of a Mariano’s is a warm welcome to many strapped with the burden of driving 10-20 minutes to the nearest full-service grocery market or walking to the neighborhood liquor/convenience store — stepping through a cipher of corner hustlers.

Businesses such as Mariano’s are taking the necessary steps to include Black-owned businesses from the construction to the vendor process to incorporating the visual art presence — showcasing the long history of Black history makers.  The benefits go both ways — employment for residents, profitability for the Kroger-owned franchise.

“They have been very meaningful, hosting several job fairs. To make sure they are getting people from the community to hire. Ultimately, they are going to benefit and profit from that.” As a resident and public official, Ald. King believes it’s important to have somebody in place who understands the process and promote inclusion, not exclusion of the process. “When people really understand the benefits of including a community — financially and socially — I think it makes for a better living space.”

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