The Starbucks Effect

December 10, 2007

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Evidence of growth in Bronzeville (Photo by David Schalliol)

The historic Bronzeville community continues to see growth, growth that threatens to intensify class conflict in the area. New 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell is well aware of the tension. Her job, as she sees it, is to navigate much-needed commercial development without leaving anyone behind. The question is—can she do it?

To some people, a neighborhood hasn't “arrived” until it gets a Starbucks.

So for Sheila Rugege, a real estate agent who's doing business in Bronzeville, the new Starbucks on State Street is an indication that her neighborhood's retail sector may finally be on the upswing. She wants other developers.

RUGEGE: To bring more commercial retail space to Bronzeville and the third ward where my husband and I live. We get tired of driving all the way to the North Side for professional services.

Many middle-class black households are attracted to Bronzeville for its proximity to downtown and the lake. Home sales have increased sixteen percent in the last two years and continue to climb despite the national housing market slump.

But Rugege and others complain about the lack of retail. She's handling a new upscale townhome and retail development on 39th and Michigan, but she's counting on new Alderwoman Pat Dowell to bring in commercial development.

It's Dowell who helped get the Starbucks here. At the summer grand opening, she intimated that the coffee chain might inspire other businesses to invest.

DOWELL: When a Starbucks makes a grand entrance into the community, that's a powerful message.

But Dowell says she doesn't have a magic wand to cure the dearth of retail. The ward still is littered with empty lots and boarded-up buildings.

DOWELL: Attracting retail to a community that's been underserved for almost two decades is not going to happen overnight. What I'm doing is to try to create a catalyst for retailers to be here. I think we need to have a success.

Dowell is mum on detail, but says things are in the works.
DOWELL: I'm focusing on a couple of projects, one along 43rd street, the other one on 47th street. And I'm talking to retailers that want to along 39th street. There's a major retail development that's interested in 39th and State Street and we're working with them.

Still, major retail is not everyone's idea of progress.

LUCAS: I see motivation being continuing to allow the community to lose its local businesses and local culture while preparing for the new gentry moving in.

Harold Lucas runs the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center. He's skeptical and sharp-tongued about new development not serving the original low-income and former public housing residents.

But longtime Third Ward resident Frederick Thomas is blunt when asked what the community needs.

THOMAS: Any kind of business. It doesn't have to be a particular business.

He then gets animated as he tells what longtime residents want, pointing to people near the bus stop on 47th Street.

THOMAS: Grocery stores. So they don't have to go way down to Fairplay and shop. Or go down here to this 200 Cut Rate Liquor. They sell food, but they high.

Dowell realizes that there are new residents who hunger for a Whole Foods while others don't. She's told residents that a new cleaners and black-owned Subway franchise are coming. And three grocery stores have contacted her about opening. She's also working on a market study of her ward.

DOWELL: There's an element in the community that wants upscale retail but there are also people in the community who are of modest means and they need opportunities to shop as well. It's really important to do a balancing act.

The new money that's coming to Bronzeville is hoping Dowell can deliver.

ambi: talking, wine cork

Resident Sherrell Tillis moved here from Calumet City three years ago. She mingles with others at an open house hosted by realtor Rugege. Fine art from Bronzeville's Gallery Guichard hangs throughout the 3,000-square-foot space. There's food and wine, and the evening feels more like a happy hour as professional blacks mill about, admiring the luxury dwelling.

TILLIS: You know on Rush Street, you have a lot of those places, can dine outdoors. We don't have any of that. It's very limited. I'm glad we have Blu 47, I love it, but I'd like to see more.

Turning that vision into reality won't be easy for Pat Dowell.

DOWELL: We haven't had development here before. It's hard to convince somebody to be the first in the game or to make the first investment when there's no track record.

Now that the new Starbucks is on the block, Dowell is betting on the old saying: money likes to follow money.

I'm Natalie Moore, Chicago Public Radio.