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Chicago Bakery Experiences Gentrification in an Unusual Way

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Abundance Bakery is a small storefront on the busy 47th Street thoroughfare – a few blocks east of State Street. The owner of the Chicago bakery has witnessed many neighborhood and demographic changes. And they've belied his expectations.

I decided to take a visit to Abundance Bakery. It's a business in Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood – a neighborhood that's been gentrifying. I wasn't just curious about the delectable treats; I wanted to talk to the owner about some typical retail wisdom.

That wisdom says a business needs high-income households nearby to thrive. ambi: Ball greeting a customer; cash register Bill Ball opened Abundance Bakery in 1990, armed with his mother's sweet recipes.

He hands me an apron in the kitchen. I get excited maybe prematurely.

MOORE: This is pretty cool. I get an apron.
BALL: No, you get an apron to sit own, sweetie. laughs
MOORE: I thought I was going to be your sous chef. laughs
BALL: Naw, baby, you ain't my sous chef - ok. It's to make sure you don't get soiled while you're here.

Ball opened shop in Bronzeville 20 years ago because he saw the neighborhood was changing. At the time, Bronzeville was still close to a lot of public housing. It was within walking distance of the Robert Taylor Homes, the world's largest public housing development. The last units in that development were demolished four years ago.
And, in fact, there was another low-income housing development right across the street from his bakery. Since he opened Abundance, people with more money including black urban professionals, or buppies, have moved into the neighborhood. Moving in with all these higher-income folks made him feel like he was on the cutting edge 20 years ago.

But Ball says these gentrifiers weren't the ones sustaining his bakery. People from the low-income households were the ones who kept him in business.

BALL: My walk-in business, my day-to-day business was probably better 10 years ago because neighborhood had a higher amount of people because we had public housing in the immediate vicinity of the store. Our monthly gross had declined since the time of public housing – between 15-20 percent.
Here's what was happening: In 1990, the neighborhood's population was nearly 36,000. A decade later it dropped 22 percent. The dip continued but the projection for this year is higher but still not at its peak. Ball's observations aren't a lark.

A year ago I interviewed a retail expert from a nonprofit called LISC Chicago. I learned that some low- and moderate-income communities actually have a lot of retail spending power because they're dense. They have a lot of people buying the basics.

That could include what's behind Ball's glass counter.

BALL: Over here I have sweet potato squares. Then down here I have a brownie, butter, cookies, bread pudding, pineapple upside down cake.

But now Ball's baked goods aren't as popular. As new condos have gone up in Bronzeville, 47th Street is still a busy corridor. But perhaps it doesn't have the kind of shopping that buppies, or black urban professionals, want. Instead, it's got a currency exchange, discount stores, beauty supply shops and fast-food takeout joints.

Ball says he doesn't think most of the buppies even know his bakery exists.

BALL: Forty-Seventh Street still has that stigma of being the ghetto. A lot of the buppies as soon as they come on 47th Street they want to get off 47th Street. It's still somewhat of a crime element around here. People get shot on 47th Street. I can't tell you how many times we've seen yellow ribbon stretched across the street over the past 20 years.

Ball's 62 years old now. He's still committed to the neighborhood and sees potential growth. So, he's sticking around, offering up treats. And earned the reputation of being the cranky old man who doesn't allow loitering or drug dealing in front of his bakery.

He is trying to appeal to a new demographic, and he's added bagels.

Still, he has no plans for an espresso machine.

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