Two splashy projects on the horizon have the potential to help transform swaths of the South Side of Chicago: Whole Foods and the Obama Presidential Center.
When Whole Foods three years ago announced it would open a market in the Englewood neighborhood by 2016, the news was immediately met with skepticism, shock and racism. The central question was: why would an expensive grocer open in a low-income black food desert? And for some, a new Whole Foods amounted to gentrification and an eviction notice for residents.
Later this month Whole Foods will open at the corner of 63rd and Halsted. And Englewood — lo and behold — is still overwhelmingly black.
President Barack Obama recently revealed his brick-and-mortar legacy will go in Jackson Park, impacting the surrounding Woodlawn and South Shore neighborhoods.
These two ventures raise a lot of questions for me about development in black Chicago communities. We’re so used to being underserved that when big projects are declared, we think they are not for us. For good reason. The city has a long history of displacing African Americans. The construction of the Dan Ryan Expressway and Lake Meadows housing complex on King Drive are two examples in which black homes were demolished and families displaced. The proper term is “urban renewal” but for black folk that translated into “Negro removal.”
I’m not here to shill for Whole Foods. Or Obama. But these two opportunities in black neighborhoods don’t have to be met with a hard fast no or belief that they will literally whitewash black spaces. Whole Foods has had numerous community meetings in Englewood with a commitment to hire residents. Soon the store shelves will be stocked with dozens of products from South Side small businesses. It seems fitting that the first black president’s archives and foundation will be in the heart of black America. A number of activists are clamoring for a community benefits agreement to make sure blacks get jobs, contracts and have a say in the construction of the presidential center.
My point is that black people in black neighborhoods have agency to made demands and not docilely accept corporations or entities coming into their areas. Still, for some, there’s that gnawing feeling that black folk will be hoodwinked and that neighborhood change is akin to laying out the red carpet for gentrification.
I used to live in Bronzeville and longed for amenities that I had to drive to Hyde Park or South Loop for. My friend and former neighbor Isis Ferguson works for Place Lab at the University of Chicago (Yes, I know the university has decades of baggage in black neighborhoods) and contemplates “ethical redevelopment.” We used to excitedly talk or text each other when something new was on the horizon for Bronzeville.
To her, ethical development is “a process of thinking about neighborhood development that is mindful about the folks who live in the neighborhood currently. The folks who have built the neighborhood to be what it is and folks who are thinking about its future beyond profit-driven strategies and solutions.”
Even though research at the University of Illinois-Chicago and Harvard University find that black South Side neighborhoods don’t gentrify, that doesn’t stop gentrification from being a boogeyman. It can suck up all the space in a conversation around redevelopment or revitalization in black and brown communities.
“We miss the nuances of peoples’ organizational missions or community engaged minded practices,” Ferguson said. “I also think the skepticism is incredibly warranted. But we do ourselves a disservice when we think gentrification is the inevitable end and the goal of every new announcement of a facility or a building or an initiative.”
No doubt neighborhood change is inevitable when redevelopment happens. And growing pains may happen, too. We often think about developments as check boxes for winners and losers. But as long as the people with roots in these black communities have a say so about that change, there’s less likely to be a column for losers.
Natalie Y. Moore is a reporter for WBEZ and author of “The South Side: A Portrait of Chicago and American Segregation.”
Follow Natalie Y. Moore on Twitter: @natalieymoore