In Chicago’s Poorest Areas, Recovery May Be Long, If It Comes At All

Decoby Smith
Decoby Smith, 30, relied on the Family Dollar at 4247 W. Madison St. for food to feed his seven children. That store is destroyed, leaving him few other grocery options. Chip Mitchell / WBEZ
Decoby Smith
Decoby Smith, 30, relied on the Family Dollar at 4247 W. Madison St. for food to feed his seven children. That store is destroyed, leaving him few other grocery options. Chip Mitchell / WBEZ

In Chicago’s Poorest Areas, Recovery May Be Long, If It Comes At All

On Chicago’s West Side the other day, Decoby Smith wanted to stop at a dollar store on the walk home from his shift at a jerk-chicken joint.

But the store’s windows were bashed in and its front doors swung freely. Water from somewhere inside flowed through the entrance, turning the parking lot into a pond.

“This Family Dollar meant a lot to us,” Smith said, his fists clenched. “We don’t have stores open in the neighborhood that sell those types of products anymore.”

The store, occupying a one-story building at 4247 W. Madison St., was not unlike countless other Chicago retailers emptied and destroyed in the looting and vandalism following protests over the Minneapolis police killing of George Floyd.

But for Smith, 30, it was the main source of groceries, diapers and toiletries for his partner and their seven children. Now all that merchandise is gone.

“My greatest fear right now is just the kids going hungry,” he said.

Smith, who said he does not own a car, also voiced fear about venturing elsewhere for their necessities: “These other races don’t want us in their neighborhood because of what we did to our own neighborhood.”

The property destruction in Chicago has now subsided. Store owners are sifting through the rubble. Their supporters are launching crowdfunding campaigns to help rebuild. Teams of young people are out with brooms to sweep up glass. Nonprofit groups are setting up small-business relief funds.

Chicago Mayor Lori Lightfoot, meanwhile, has vowed to push insurers to cut checks post-haste. Black state lawmakers have asked for state funds to rebuild. A U.S. senator has said she telephoned pharmacy executives to push them to reopen.

But many supermarkets, pharmacies and bank branches remain closed with no sign of repairs or reconstruction. The prospects for the neighborhoods — for returning them even to their meager condition before the destruction — appear dim.

“It is so difficult to get a good retailer to go into an underserved market,” veteran Chicago-area shopping-center developer James Matanky said.

“If the neighborhood is totally decimated,” Matanky said, “they might think twice and not come back.”

Calculations

The pastor of a big church a block away from the Family Dollar said the neighborhood, West Garfield Park, never recovered from riots following Martin Luther King’s assassination more than a half-century ago.

Photo of Rev. Marshall Hatch, senior pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church
Rev. Marshall Hatch, senior pastor of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church on the West Side, said what will avert looting and destruction at future points is massive investment in African American communities. Chip Mitchell / WBEZ

“If you talk about income inequality in America, this is the bottom of it right here,” said Rev. Marshall Hatch of New Mount Pilgrim Missionary Baptist Church.

Hatch listed maladies from housing insecurity to joblessness, from school closures to widespread narcotics sales and use.

“It has become almost like a regional open-air drug market,” Hatch said. “People from the suburbs come off the Eisenhower Expressway to cop drugs here.”

Another persistent problem is food insecurity. West Garfield Park is among several Chicago “food deserts” to which public officials have tried to lure in food retailers. But each time they land a Walmart, Pete’s Fresh Market or Whole Foods, it seems, they lose a Jewel-Osco, CVS or Target.

In West Garfield Park, a neighborhood of 17,000 people, none of those chains are present.

An Aldi supermarket about four blocks from the dollar store survived the looting, thanks to heavy shutters and an early decision to board up the front doors, employees said. The neighborhood’s only other grocery store, a small Save A Lot about a mile from the dollar store, was emptied and ransacked but managed to clean up and reopen with shelves partially restocked.

A crucial question after the destruction of recent days is whether the few big retailers that were operating in the city’s poorest areas would rebuild and reopen.

“I think it depends on the extent of the senseless looting,” Matanky said.

Matanky said grocery and pharmacy chains of all sizes face similar calculations about their profit margins in these neighborhoods. He said those margins were thin even before the looting.

“If they have to deal with extra security issues, if they have to deal with theft, if they have to deal with rebuilding their stores, their margins go away,” Matanky said.

“I’m in a constant struggle to get people to believe that they can make money and that I will keep them safe in an underserved market,” said Matanky, whose company owns or manages 3 million square feet of Chicago-area retail space, much of it in low-income communities. “To just have that safe convenient market destroyed for no good reason is going to put us back years.”

Over the last decade, Walmart has built eight stores in Chicago, mostly in working-class areas. Many of those stores are now trashed. A company spokesperson, questioned by Crain’s Chicago Business, would not commit to reopening them all.

Then there are small businesses.

The pandemic had already brought many to the breaking point, according to Laura Gonzalez, a California State University Long Beach associate professor of finance.

“If they are being looted now, they just do not have the cash to rebuild and they will not be able to get loans,” Gonzalez said.

She said banks won’t take the risk while the pandemic continues and there is potential for more unrest.

If history is a guide, low-income areas won’t get much public help either, according to Stacey Sutton, an assistant professor of urban planning at the University of Illinois at Chicago.

“How we use tax dollars and where they get allocated tends to be high-wealth areas,” Sutton said. “When we have an uprising, historically that’s what we’ve seen. And the reticence from many of our public officials becomes punitive: ‘Well, you destroyed your neighborhood. Therefore we’re not going to reinvest.’ ”

Downward spiral?

A scarcity of food, medicines and household products in low-income Chicago areas also threatens to intensify the city’s infamous gun violence, which would make the neighborhoods even less attractive to retailers and could set up a deadly downward spiral.

On Sunday, Chicago’s worst day of looting, the city had 15 homicide deaths, the most in at least 36 years, according to a WBEZ analysis of Cook County medical examiner’s data. All 15 resulted from gunshot wounds.

Gun violence has continued at elevated levels all week.

Some violence-prevention workers say scarcity could increase community tensions already intensified by the COVID-19 pandemic and the arrival of summer temperatures.

“There are some things someone may have that others don’t and, when you see someone [who] has it, you go get it,” said Jesse Duncan, who coordinates violence-prevention efforts for the nonprofit Westside Health Authority. “I feel there will be a little bit more of that — a lot more, rather.”

Mayor Lori Lightfoot on Tuesday said her “top priorities” right now include “groceries, pharmacies and making sure that we can get those resources into our neighborhoods that were hard-pressed before [the looting].”

photo of shattered windows at Walgreens
The Walgreens at 1614 W. 47th St. on the South Side moments after a group of young men bashed in a window; photographed on Sunday, May 31. Chip Mitchell / WBEZ

“We have way too many food deserts across the city,” Lightfoot said. “So I have my team working in a coordinated fashion to make sure we can fulfill those needs.”

She said the work includes food pantries and restaurants: “This is a big huge effort and we are on it.”

Longer term

Hatch, the pastor, is among neighborhood leaders intent on helping. He said his church, due to the pandemic, was already providing a lot of free food to residents.

Now, Hatch said, his religious services would remain online and the church’s physical plant would become mainly a food-distribution center.

“The food desert just got more deserted,” he said.

But Hatch warned that avoiding looting and destruction at future points would require a much larger effort. He said the city’s African American communities need Marshall Plan-scale investment.

“When you look in European countries that are highly ordered, there is a very efficient and effective safety net under which nobody falls,” Hatch said. “That’s because, probably, those populations are homogeneous and everybody sees one another as members of the family. Race has skewed that in America.”

“America does not necessarily see African Americans as really part of the family and worthy of having a safety net under which nobody falls,” the pastor said.

Hatch said society needs to “start seeing people in these communities as worthy of investment, just like we see everybody else.”

“We’re going to have to take very seriously investing in people,” he said. “What we invest in is what grows.”

Chip Mitchell reports out of WBEZ’s West Side studio about criminal justice. Follow him at @ChipMitchell1.

WBEZ data editor Elliott Ramos contributed data analysis. Follow him at @ChicagoEl.