Englewood Whole Foods saga shows why neighborhood investment is sometimes about more than profit

I rooted mightily for the store. To me, there was a lot riding on its survival. If disinvestment were a card game, its success could serve as a trump card to be slammed on the table whenever a company dared to utter an excuse for why it couldn’t locate in a lower-income Black community.

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A customer walks out of Whole Foods at Englewood Square on April 29 after the company announced that the store will be closing in the coming months.

A customer walks out of Whole Foods at Englewood Square in April, after the company announced that the store would close.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Just before the sun was up one recent early morning, I drove to 832 W. 63rd Street on the South Side, pulled into a parking space in the empty lot and got out to take a look.

There were no lights and no activity. The now-nameless building sat lifeless, its signage removed. The scene was dead, except for the sounds of passing cars on the streets nearby.

It had been a month since the Englewood Whole Foods closed, but I felt I had to make a visit to pay my final respects to the store that opened in 2016 to high hopes and much fanfare.

Since then, I’ve been thinking about what the closure says about the challenges of bringing much-needed goods and services to communities that have suffered for decades from disinvestment.

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A symbol of hope

The arrival of Whole Foods was a much needed — and much closer — breath of fresh air for me. One of my three daughters has severe food allergies. As a young child, it seemed like she was allergic to everything — gluten, milk, eggs, corn, rice, shellfish, peanuts and tree nuts, just to name a few. Whole Foods was one of the few places I could go to find foods she could eat. Before the opening of the Englewood store, the nearest Whole Foods was 10 miles away.

Yet Whole Foods in Englewood represented so much more than a more convenient option for my daughter’s dietary needs.

At the time of its closure, it was the “Blackest” Whole Foods in America.

It was the only one in a ZIP code where more than 90% of residents were Black, according to my analysis of data for more than 500 Whole Foods locations nationwide. The store was also unique because it was in the poorest Chicago ZIP code, 60621, where the median household income was roughly $25,000, the latest census data show.

Whole Foods aren’t typically found in Black, lower-income neighborhoods. Just seven of its more than 500 remaining stores are in majority-Black ZIP codes, and only the ZIP code of the Whole Foods in midtown Detroit had a lower median household income than the Englewood store’s ZIP code.

For those reasons, the 63rd Street store was considered an experiment. Many people, particularly outsiders who only know the community for its struggles with poverty and violence, questioned whether residents would have the palate or the pocketbook to support the upscale grocer.

So I rooted mightily for the store. To me, there was a lot riding on its survival. If disinvestment were a card game, its success could serve as a trump card to be slammed on the table whenever a company dared to utter an excuse — crime is too high, the neighborhood is too poor, the costs to operate are too great — for why it couldn’t locate or remain in a lower-income Black community.

Hush yo’ mouth. If Whole Foods can do it in Englewood, so can you.

However, for some, Whole Foods closing after just six years may represent just the opposite — an “I told you so” for all of the naysayers who believed the venture was doomed from the start. Corporate bean counters everywhere can now point to its demise as proof the risks are too high in underserved communities.

Yet when it opened, Whole Foods itself said the Englewood store was about more than making profits. It was about providing healthy food options in a food desert, where life expectancy is 20 years lower than in other parts of the city.

The company committed to that mission by slightly lowering its prices and cultivating a relationship with Englewood. Yet that commitment seemingly waned after Amazon bought the grocer in 2017. Neighborhood and city officials say they never got sufficient warning from Amazon the store was in trouble, which would have spurred them to try and save it.

Black communities, particularly lower-income neighborhoods, are often the last to attract investment and usually among the first to lose it when times get tough. City leaders and officials have to do more to counter that trend so communities have an equitable chance to thrive.

After the civil unrest following George Floyd’s murder, retailers knocked themselves out to proclaim they stood with the Black Lives Matter movement. Their business decisions play a role in whether Black people can conveniently access food, medicine and other necessities.

And yet, Aldi and Save-A-Lot have closed stores on the South and West sides. You can’t find a CVS in a Black neighborhood on the West Side, and you can’t miss the numerous empty or former Walgreens stores on the South Side.

We can no longer be willing to accept such losses. I know that companies have to make money. But economic development sometimes has to be about more than dollars and cents.

The needs are too great, and the stakes are too high.

Alden Loury is senior editor for race, class and communities at WBEZ and writes a monthly column for the Sun-Times.

The Sun-Times welcomes letters to the editor and op-eds. See our guidelines.

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