This is the second installment in a three-part series for Chicago Matters: Beyond Burnham. Now in its 19th year, Chicago Matters–an award-winning annual public information series made possible by the Chicago Community Trust, with programming by WTTW11, WBEZ Chicago Public Radio, the Chicago Public Library and the Reporter–returns to explore how our region can thrive in a global era. For more information, visit www.chicagomatters.org.
This story is also part of a joint reporting project with Chicago Public Radio, which produced “South Siders Spend Billions Each Year Outside of Their Neighborhoods”
On the day construction workers began preparing to pour the concrete foundation for his decrepit neighborhood’s new Walgreens–” the first new business there in more than 30 years–”Earnest Gates stopped by, buoyed up about his community’s future. It was 1999, and West Haven was still more than 95 percent African American, with 54 percent of households living below the poverty level. The Near West Side neighborhood still bore physical scars of the 1968 race riots–”vast stretches of abandoned storefronts and weed-choked vacant lots. But for the first time in 30 years, Gates felt, the neighborhood was on the verge of renaissance.
New, wealthier residents, many of them white, were pouring into West Haven and its vicinity to take advantage of its prime location, two miles west of the Loop. Since 1990, its white population had nearly tripled to 281, and it had shed 3,300, or one-quarter, of its African Americans. It had gained hundreds of new housing units, some selling for $300,000, and at least 2,000 more were coming. The new residents were walking their dogs after work, planting flower boxes and otherwise sprinkling the neighborhood with middle-class zest.
Now, it was getting its first pharmacy. “It gets better every year,” Gates later said. “It’s something we’ve always worked toward–”to boost the demographics to a point where you start seeing a neighborhood and not a poor neighborhood.”
Gates, an African-American community organizer who worked for 10 years to recruit the Walgreens, believed West Haven’s growing white population would soon lure other retailers, bringing with them valuable services and jobs. The supermarket he and his neighbors needed–”to alleviate their burden of traveling sometimes five miles to get groceries–” would be their next target. He parked his car in front of the Walgreens construction site, at the corner of Madison and Western avenues, and listened to the din of engines, gears and pipes, confident he and his nonprofit could use West Haven’s changing demographics to recruit one in the next three years. His prediction was right–”and very unsettling.
In the past 20 years, Chicago has experienced a surge in retail development in once poor and underserved black neighborhoods around downtown. At the same time, those neighborhoods have become significantly whiter, raising suspicions about retailers’ motives. The whiter a neighborhood in Chicago gets, the more supermarkets it often gets, according to a Chicago Reporter analysis of census data and supermarket locations.
“You have to ask, what factor is driving this?” said Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University researching the impact of race on economic development. “A lot of it boils down to how race still dictates, in many cases, what kind of development occurs in black communities.”
From 1980 through 2008, the three community areas adjacent to the Loop increased their combined white population by 41 percent, the Reporter’s analysis shows. Those three communities–” which make up only 3.8 percent of all community areas–”gained 13, or 38 percent, of the 34 supermarkets opened in communities that had more stores in 2009 than in 1980.
Two of these three gentrifying community areas–”the Near West Side and the Near South Side–”are still majority black by a slim margin. But most of Chicago’s majority-black community areas didn’t gain supermarkets, the Reporter’s analysis shows, and those that did either gained white population or lost black. Of the six black community areas that gained supermarkets, five have lost black population since 1980 and three have gained white population or held it constant. Over the years, the combined black population in these six community areas has declined by 84,992, or 34 percent.
Throughout the city, community areas that either gained white population or held onto their white majorities won a lion’s share of new supermarkets. Of the 19 community areas that gained stores, 12, or 63 percent, fit into that category.
It’s not just supermarkets. “How do you get a Starbucks to open on Canal [Street] and Roosevelt [Road]?” asked Lyneir Richardson, former vice president of urban land development for the Chicago-based General Growth Properties, the country’s second largest shopping center developer until the financial crisis bankrupted it in April. “You talk about all the changes around. Look at all the condos being developed in the South Loop. Look at the prices of those condos. Look at the income level that’s required to purchase those condos. Look at the education level of people who purchase these condos and look how racially diverse the community is.”
“Racially diverse” is the industry’s euphemism for neighborhoods with white population growth, Richardson said. The sales pitch is the same in every U.S. city connected to the global economy, including Boston, Charlotte, N.C., New York, and Washington, D.C., said Derek Hyra, an associate professor of urban affairs and planning at Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University researching gentrification in Chicago and other cities. Retail is growing in the urban centers in several of those cities, and so is the white population.
“There’s definitely a race dynamic that plays a factor,” in where retailers locate, Hyra said. “When the whites come into a community, particularly a community that’s been low-income and minority, they have more income than the people who are living there. So that is a signal to retailers that there is more wealth there, and they are more likely to come when a white population moves in.”
Median incomes and housing units also rose dramatically in the areas surrounding the Loop between 1980 and 2008. The two factors account for supermarket locations as much as white population growth.
One of the supermarket chains the Reporter analyzed, Jewel-Osco, issued this statement explaining its decision to locate 70 percent of the stores it has opened in Chicago since 1980 in community areas that gained white population or held onto their white majorities: “Jewel-Osco considers many criteria when deciding on the construction of a new store or the remodeling of an existing facility. In fact, the company operates 184 stores across the Chicagoland area, servicing a wide range of diverse communities.”
An official from another supermarket chain, Whole Foods Market, which has 80 percent of its current locations in neighborhoods gaining white population, said the chain has too few Chicago stores–”only five–”for the Reporter to conclude anything significant. Food deserts are a grave social ill but can’t be cured by his stores, said Michael Bashaw, Whole Foods Market’s regional president. “I think what you’re asking really is a political and policy question that goes beyond Whole Food’s mission,” he said. “Our mission is to promote organic food, basically, and conservation and farmland. We’ve never really been political about anything.”
Dominick’s, Trader Joes, Treasure Island and Sav-a-Lot did not respond to requests for comment.
But more industry players agree that the correlation between race and retailing is a benign coincidence.
Some new urban retailers seek white customer bases, because, based on experience, that’s who they believe their products appeal to most, said Frances Spencer, a retail real estate expert who for 12 years led Retail Chicago, a city-sponsored recruitment initiative. Retailers that target black, Latino or Asian markets also use race to select their locations, Spencer said. “It’s really so that they can carry the product line that is most acceptable to the specific areas.”
Indeed, many nonracial factors are influencing retail movement into urban areas, researchers say. For one, they contain large and underserved markets. Eight percent of the U.S. population lives in high-poverty urban areas, but only 6 percent of U.S. retail outlets, according to the Institute for Competitive Inner Cities, a Boston-based think tank. High-poverty urban areas also tend to be dense with spending power, frequently having more of it per square mile than sparsely populated suburbs. Finally, some retailers are coming to high-poverty urban areas, because, after putting so many stores in the suburbs and white urban areas, they’ve run out of other places to expand.
Hyra agrees that retailers chase money, not race. They’re even following wealthy African Americans into historically black neighborhoods like Harlem in New York City, he said. But, historically, urban retail revitalization has primarily benefited white people, he said. It’s sometimes heralded as a harbinger of racial progress, he said, but rarely is. “When you have people that live close to one another that are going to the same stores and their kids are playing with one another, that certainly is an opportunity to build racial harmony,” he said. “But we typically see, as in Wicker Park, whites moving in and taking over all the public spaces and putting their own cultural values, and making the community their own as opposed to integrating the values of individuals who have lived in these communities. In the past, we have seen as white people move in, the property values raise and it makes it more difficult for a low-income minority group to stay.”
Gates is a barrel-chested, 6-foot tall, 57-year-old, with a conservative half-inch high afro. His skin is medium brown, clear and unusually smooth, bereft of hair follicles, apart from his moustache and goatee. His brown eyes bulge from their sockets. He walks slowly and speaks in spurts of acerbic wit, sometimes with labored breath, as if it pains him to explain his views.
He has lived in West Haven throughout his life, never more than a few doorsteps away from his childhood home at Monroe and Leavitt, having been born there in 1952, when it was still one of many working-class white neighborhoods in Chicago and didn’t have a distinct identity or even a name. His parents were the second black family on their block–”his father an entrepreneur starting a trucking company, his mother a seamstress–” and witnessed white abandonment of the neighborhood within two years of their arrival.
Gates grew up to become founder and CEO of Gates Trucking–” at its peak, a 40-employee company that shipped office supplies locally–”but sold it in 2000, after 22 years in business, to become a community activist. Since 2007, he has been the executive director of the Near West Side Community Development Corporation, the West Haven nonprofit spearheading the community’s revitalization.
When white people started returning to the community in the 1990s, the sway he believed they held with retailers angered him. “Hell yeah, I’m resentful of that” he said, about retailers’ prior lack of interest. “That’s a slap in the face.”
But he decided that the white arrival could ultimately improve the community by exposing its poor residents to new cultures, helping them better prepare for participation in the global economy. And, after the Walgreens came, he moved ahead with his plans to leverage retailers’ interests.
Gentrification won’t completely displace low-income African Americans, he said. He and his neighbors booby- trapped the community against it, by interspersing low-income housing throughout. “We put scattered-site public housing in the neighborhood to make it distasteful for really, really higher income,” he said. “If I’ve got a half-million dollar home, I don’t want somebody in public housing next to me. They don’t match. I can’t be in my $500,000 world with Shay-Shay and Bo-Bo next door.”
In 2001, when Gates and two developers he was working with to recruit the supermarket began calling Chicago grocery chains to publicize West Haven, its new Walgreens and its changing demographics, grocers weren’t interested. The neighborhood was still too poor, said Glenn Azuma, one of the developers, based in Evanston. Jewel-Osco said no. Dominick’s said no. Whole Foods said no. Trader Joe’s said no.
But even with West Haven’s high-poverty rate, officials at Ultra Foods, a Midwest-based budget grocery chain, called back with a reasonable proposal that year, in the timeframe Gates had predicted. Ultra Foods never opened the store, because, at the time, the proposed site contained a few parcels of land belonging to owners unwilling to sell. But within two or three years, West Haven’s demographics became so attractive to potential supermarkets that grocers began courting Gates, Azuma and their business partner for the opportunity to lease the proposed site, now mostly owned by the City of Chicago.
This spring, three supermarket chains were vying for the city’s approval to open a store there as early as November 2010. One stormy May evening, representatives of each grocery chain fawned over an audience of nearly 300 residents, roughly half of them white, with stump speeches and slide shows. Gates showed up too but took a back seat, blending into the audience.
“We love this site,” said Chris O’Leary, a representative from Food 4 Less, a southern California-based budget grocery chain. “We want to be here. We’re ready to go tomorrow, if we can.”
“Pete’s likes to go into food deserts and make ’em an oasis,” said Charlie Poulakis, a representative from Pete’s Fresh Market, a local chain known for its organic produce. “They believe this site has a lot of potential.”
“We’ve reduced our pricing on several thousand items up to 20 percent,” bragged Joseph McKeska, a representative from Jewel-Osco, a chain that for almost 20 years rejected Gates’ advances. “That’s our effort to get our pricing right for the community.”
Most audience members applauded during the speeches. A small but vocal minority–”about 10 African-American males, huddled to the left of the stage, neatly groomed, in jeans, tshirts and baseball caps–”heckled them. “We know it’s gonna be an all-white community,” yelled a ruddy man, with a chipped front tooth, wearing an orange t-shirt. “We know that’s your plan! I ain’t going nowhere!”
The emcee of the meeting, one of West Haven’s aldermen, Robert Fioretti, a heavily tanned blond with the wrinkles and airs of a has-been Hollywood actor, tried to placate them, before finally telling them they didn’t belong.
“You either be quiet or you will be removed,” he snarled, amidst audience applause.
They kept heckling, but in less than five minutes, police arrived to escort them out.
A few years after Gates and his neighbors began planning to revitalize West Haven, the Chicago Housing Authority announced in 1999 plans to revolutionize public housing. The agency aimed, ostensibly, to reduce intergenerational poverty and welfare dependency by encouraging public housing residents to move to mixed-income communities.
About 18,000 of the city’s 38,000 public housing units would be demolished, according to a 2006 Reporter analysis of CHA data.
The 6,000 displaced households would be offered two choices. They could rent or own a subsidized home in a new development, close to their former housing development, with market-rate renters and owners. Or they could waive their right to live in replacement housing and accept a housing choice voucher, entitling them to live anywhere in the country.
Since the agency started implementing the plan in West Haven in 2000, the neighborhood’s two public housing developments have been demolished, eliminating almost 2,900 units. Some of the displaced moved into West Haven’s new replacement housing. But many moved out, often into poor areas. No one can blame that on West Haven’s whites, said Gates and some of his neighbors, including some former public housing residents. Most of the neighborhood’s new condos aren’t on former public housing sites. The vast majority were built on vacant lots demolished after the looting and burning of the 1968 riots.
Two former West Haven public housing residents who once opposed the demolition of their housing development, Rockwell Gardens, now love their replacement housing and the neighborhood changes. “It’s good they tore the projects down, because we have grandchildren and we didn’t want them to grow into that,” said Marie Taylor, a 54-year-old disabled African American, who has lived in the neighborhood for almost 50 years. “This is something we were glad to see: [former troublemakers] go in their goddamn houses at night and lock their doors now. It’s quiet as a bird out here.”
Her friend Carolyn Cole agreed. “It’s changing for the better,” said Cole, a 47-year-old African American who works as a security guard. Her new white neighbors don’t discomfort her. “One thing about me, even though I stayed in high-rises, I involved myself with different races of people. I always did, because I came from Indiana, living next door to them.”
But some West Haven residents disagree.
“Pretty soon none of us will be able to stay here,” said Ronald Salley, a community activist and ex-offender, one of the “rabble rousers” at the grocery presentation.
Median home prices in West Haven rose 61 percent from 2002 to 2009, according to a report published by Gates’ nonprofit. The number of renters paying at least $1,000 per month increased almost 20-fold between 1990 and 2000, another of the nonprofit’s reports said.
“Maybe the neighborhood is better, but let me ask you this: for who?” asked Will McClain, the community activist who was the most disruptive at the presentation.
Some newcomers–”black and white–”are casting a dragnet against West Haven’s young black men, labeling them as thugs and moving to drive them out of the neighborhood and into jail. Their homeowner associations are encouraging police to harass those they believe jeopardize their safety.
Some of the vigilance is warranted. From January through May, the two police districts covering most of West Haven reported a combined 533 violent crimes, including 10 murders.
But many West Haven natives are also being reported to police on thin grounds. At a June community policing meeting, an elderly man complained that his neighbors were riding scooters, sometimes on sidewalks. “What’s the deal with that?” he asked the two police officers in the room. “Is there a certain kind of ordinance.”
It’s illegal, police interjected. “When it happens, call us. We catch –˜em–”we’ll lock –˜em up.”
Contributing: Adelaide Chen, James Edwards and Sarah Bloom.