LISTEN HERE (Support this project at patreon.com/AfricanElements)
The Whole Foods saga might be the most telling, and surprising, expression of that spirit. In 2013, the grocery chain shocked the city with an announcement that it would open a store in Englewood, and I covered the story for Chicago’s public radio station, WBEZ. No one had seen that coming— a pricey organic store in a much-maligned, high-poverty neighborhood. Cruel comments swiftly surfaced on social media: “Chicago will have the healthiest gangbangers in the nation.” “Whoever thought of this must be on drugs.” And then there were Black people — often not Englewood residents — predicting Whole Foods would descend like a gentrified spaceship and its reverberations would displace Black folk for new white homeowners.
Everyone was surprised when Whole Foods moved into the Englewood neighborhood. But instead of displacing Black folk for new white homeowners, the store listened to residents’ demands.
That didn’t happen. Throughout the process, Whole Foods listened to residents’ demands not to make it a “half foods.” As a reporter covering the South Side, I know Englewood well. My office was once located there, and I live in neighboring Park Manor. So I sat in on community meetings where residents helped design the store, telling corporate executives what they wanted on the shelves and on the walls. After the store opened in 2016, Whole Foods evolved into a gathering place for hot food and fellowship in an area devoid of sit-down restaurants. My mom and I would meet up there for the Friday night special — five wine tastings and five appetizers for five bucks. My 2-year-old danced in the bread aisle as a DJ spun records and once, at another performance, she even sat on a singer’s lap as a live band grooved behind her. Folks line-danced and bopped to hip hop.
Five years after Whole Foods debuted in Englewood, the neighborhood is still Black, still confronting an unstable housing market and still trying to reverse disinvestment and displacement.
POLITICO’s The Recast will explore how cities are experiencing changes in Black populations, what’s sparking the transformation and the broader implications those changes are having on how politics are conducted and policy is made.
I tell this story not to promote Whole Foods but to illustrate that Englewood residents — and other denizens of Black Chicago — aren’t passive renters and homeowners. Throughout the neighborhood, homeowners buy empty lots on the blocks to beautify them, like Tina Hammond in West Englewood. She and her husband bought a lot for $1, sprucing it up with flowers and a wood dance floor.
Scholars say Chicago is the only city in the nation with block club signs at the beginning of streets, small pieces of painted public art demonstrating civic pride and instructing behavior: no loitering, no car washing, no loud music. Strong block clubs proliferate in Englewood, as well as in other Black Chicago neighborhoods, bucking the stereotype of how people in these areas conduct themselves. A few years ago, block presidents sought to update the signs to honor elders or provide a warmer, less scolding message: We promote laughter, peace, love, respect and community. But the intent around community expectations remains the same.
This content was originally published here.