When Mayor Rahm Emanuel cuts the ribbon for the grand opening of Jewel-Osco in Woodlawn on Thursday morning, he will be doing more than celebrating the first grocery store to open there in 40 years.
Emanuel will be fulfilling a promise he made in his inaugural term as mayor when he convened a summit on food deserts.
Back then, the Obama Presidential Center was a far-off hope, and the landscape from Stony Island to Cottage Grove on 61st Street was pockmarked with vacant storefronts and empty lots.
But on Wednesday morning, as I approached the intersection where the new Jewel-Osco will open in the 6100 block of South Cottage Grove, I saw a bustling mixture of development that included new housing, the Hussain MetroSquash Academic and Squash Center, a unique child care center, and a renovated transit station.
The grocery store’s parking lot was filled with the cars of the 200-plus employees who would start work there.
In less than a decade, the beaten down Woodlawn had sprung back like a stubborn weed.
The new Jewel-Osco is the 11th new or repurposed grocery store on the South Side, according to the city’s press release.
I sat down with Emanuel on Monday to talk about the often-repeated declaration, especially from mayoral and aldermanic candidates, that there has been no or little investment on the city’s South and West sides under his administration.
Emanuel rattled off what he called “facts on the ground.”
“I’m cutting the ribbon on Jewel in Woodlawn, but we also have new housing, we have the train station, we have the new Park District facility, which is the squash and mentoring program, and we have the new school,” the mayor said.
He noted population has gone up in Woodlawn and two other South Side neighborhoods — Bronzeville and Washington Park — and stabilized in Pullman.
“Every one of them has been a part of my strategy, that you don’t want to do just housing; housing without a library, housing without a school, housing without transportation is just housing. You want to build a neighborhood,” he said.
The political strategy of railing against downtown investment isn’t new.
It was the rallying cry for Jesus “Chuy” Garcia, now a U.S. congressman, when he forced Emanuel into a mayoral runoff in 2015.
“I get the politics of pitting the downtown vs. the neighborhoods, but the fact is it is bad governing,” Emanuel told me.
In the 20th Ward, the home of the new Jewel-Osco, the two candidates vying to replace disgraced alderman Willie Cochran barely mentioned the amazing revitalization of what was once a blighted area.
“Parts of the 20th Ward that have seen decades of disinvestment are now experiencing development — but when change happens, we need it to happen with us and not to us,” said Jeanette Taylor in response to a question on the Chicago Sun-Times’ candidate’s questionnaire about her top three priorities.
Her opponent, Nicole J. Johnson, said: “Exploring innovative funding solutions to capitalize on the ward’s entrepreneurial skills and other economic development opportunities, such as those connected to the Norfolk Southern railroad expansion and South Suburban completion,” was her No. 3 priority.
Yet at the groundbreaking for the new Jewel in 2017, the federal Choice Neighborhood Initiative and Chicago’s Neighborhood Now strategy got rave reviews from housing and business advocates.
But it was Emanuel’s historic food desert summit in 2011 that started a reversal of the economic discrimination in neighborhoods like Woodlawn.
“I sat all those guys down. Whole Foods delivered. Jewel delivered. Walmart delivered. You and I both know this was about respect as much as it was about an apple or a piece of lettuce,” he said.
In a speech Rahm will give at the ribbon-cutting, he points out that the new Jewel is “not an act of philanthropy.”
“It does not take an MBA to see the promise for businesses in Woodlawn. Woodlawn’s population is up for the first time in 50 years. We have seen a 10 percent increase in neighborhood businesses. Businesses like Jewel create not just jobs, but a sense of community,” according to an excerpt of Emanuel’s speech.
As the leader of the city, the mayor can be rightfully criticized for the things that go wrong.
But whenever I have an occasion to pop into the Jewel-Osco at 61st Street to pick up fixings for a healthy meal, I will think of it as an important part of Rahm Emanuel’s legacy.