The hallmarks of urban retail saturate East 71st Street: beauty supply, dollar, cell phone and gym shoe stores.
But most noticeable is the 65,000 sq. ft. vacant space in a strip mall at 71st and Jeffrey Boulevard. On the outside, it looks like someone rubbed the beige building with an eraser – the faded Dominick’s lettering the only hint this used to be a bustling grocery store.
Last December, the grocery chain Dominick’s closed all of its doors, including 13 in Chicago. All of the vacant stores found a new grocer to fill the space – except the one at 71st and Jeffrey Boulevard in the predominantly black South Shore neighborhood. Now residents there wonder why they’re being left out.
More than eight months after it closed, South Shore residents say all they want is a proper supermarket to take its place. Not another discount or liquor store that sells food on the side.
“Food is the common denominator. How we break bread, how we sustain ourselves so it’s a great metaphor. Everyone has to eat,” said resident Anton Seals.
Seals said residents should be able to do that in their own neighborhood.
“Part of the angst that people feel is that we are tired of leaving our community; thus leaking the dollars, not helping where we are.”
Val Free, president of The Planning Coalition, a local community group, agrees.
“Dominick’s closing brought the community together. And that’s a win-win. And we’re going to get the grocery we want. The kind of grocery store we want,” Free said.
South Shore organizers are taking steps to make sure that happens. They’ve hosted several community meetings, circulated a survey and met with city officials. In some ways their fight for a grocery store is part of a larger struggle playing out across the city. The intersection of race and retail often leaves African-American consumers short on access to goods and services. Even basic ones like where to shop for dinner.
This is especially true on the South Side where many neighborhoods, regardless of income, are food deserts. Juxtapose this with some areas on the North Side awash in grocery stores. Recently, residents of Wicker Park rejected a new Trader Joe’s due to traffic concerns.
Over the past decade, more grocery stores have opened in Chicago overall. But many on the South and West Sides feel left out when their only nearby food options are discount chains.
“On the South Side of Chicago in general, we experience retail redlining. There’s a certain kind of marketing. When we talk about institutional racism, it’s the dismissal of communities that have income and that expendable income,” Seals said.
South Shore is a dense, truly mixed-income neighborhood. Mansions and multi-unit apartment complexes share alleys. The community has a median income of $28,000 but there are thousands of households earning more than $75,000.
Seals said the kind of grocery store matters too.
“We definitely didn’t want what’s considered low-end grocer like a Save A Lot or Food for Less in South Shore because we also wanted the new store to be a kind of catalyst for the economic resurgence we need.”
Mari Gallagher is a researcher and expert on food access issues and said South Shore has really been a misunderstood market for a long time.
“There’s a lot of buying power in South Shore. And I know from the research and I know anecdotally people who live in South Shore who go all the way down to Roosevelt Road or Hyde Park to do their shopping. There’s a lot of leakage, money leaving these neighborhoods,” Gallagher said.
She said black Chicago has long struggled to nab quality retail. Billions of dollars leave the community each year and are spent in other neighborhoods.
“And it’s not necessarily because they can’t support it as a consumer base and certainly people do eat as part of the human condition,” Gallagher said.
Target Market News is a consumer research group that tracks black spending and found that black households traditionally outspend whites and Latinos on fruits and vegetables and items that have to be cooked to be eaten. In the Chicago area they spend approximately $240 million on fresh produce annually.
“So why do certain neighborhoods have quality grocery stores and other neighborhoods have none or just very very few, perhaps one?” Gallagher said, adding that changes in the grocery industry perpetuate this gap.
“That was the case when Jewel and Save A Lot were corporate siblings and the parent company decided well, we really can’t have a Jewel in every neighborhood. So instead we’ve put Save A Lots in those neighborhoods. There were those kind of changes and people misunderstand the African-American market.”
Some retailers are beginning to get the message.
Mariano’s is set to open in Bronzeville, a neighborhood long starved for better grocery options. The fast-growing chain also announced plans to open at 87th and South Shore Drive. The site is across from a lucrative development in the works on the former steel mills site. Meanwhile, Whole Foods is experimenting nationally by building in low-income areas. This summer they broke ground for a store in Englewood.
Meanwhile, back in South Shore they’re still waiting.
“I don’t think you can take race out of the equation. Not just for the grocery business but just for commercial real estate in general,” said Ald. Leslie Hairston (5th.)
Hairston said she’s in conversation with other stores and is open to a grocer bypassing 71st Street for another South Shore location.
But she’s also not giving up on the former Dominick’s space. Although it’s empty, the lease runs until 2015. The owner of the property is Shirven Mateen. He lives in Los Angeles and declined to be interviewed.
Hairston is in communication with him. She said she even flew to L.A. to meet with him – but it didn’t happen.
“From what I’m understanding what they are looking for in the price per square foot exceeds, is about 40 percent higher than what the market will bear so that in fact is an impediment,” Hairston.
So the alderman is trying to reach the absentee landlord through moral appeals.
“We can’t control the economy. What has happened has happened, but you are located in a community that needs to have a grocery store. You’re the vessel for that and we basically need you to do the right thing. We understand the business component of it but I need you to understand the human component of it,” Hairston said.
Just last week, Hairston finally got what she’d been asking for. She gave Bob Mariano, CEO of the grocery chain, a tour of her ward to view potential sites. No word yet if anything will be built, but one thing’s for sure, the CEO didn’t like the 71st Street location.