At This Juncture

photo by Lydia Gorham

Site of Bronzeville Cookin’, at 51st and Prairie. Photo by Lydia Gorham

Right after a Green Line train rumbles into the 51st Street station, a siren sounds in the air. Bernard Loyd glances at the street, momentarily distracted. “This is why sound stages were invented,” says the cameraman filming him. Loyd gives a quick chuckle. We are standing on the roof of what will soon be Bronzeville Cookin’, a multipurpose development that Loyd is bringing to the northeast corner of 51st and Prairie Avenue. I walk over to the edge just in time to see an unmarked police car race east.

The team interviewing Loyd is from the Metropolitan Planning Council, a non-profit urban policy organization that is trying to ensure that Bronzeville Cookin’ gets the exposure it needs to be a success. They believe the development will be a major boon to the surrounding area. As Abby Crisostomo, an associate at the MPC, puts it, the project is “everything that everyone is trying to get together, all in one place.” When it is finished, Bronzeville Cookin’ will include a rooftop farm, a fresh produce grocery, a vegetarian restaurant, a jerk shack, a breakfast place, and a more upscale restaurant, offerings to be determined. Construction is just beginning, and Loyd expects three of the restaurants to be operational by the end of 2013.

The project’s developer, Loyd has been a Bronzeville resident for over twenty years, and lives a little more than a mile from where we’re standing. Loyd says that ten years ago he decided to quit his job at McKinsey & Company, where he worked on agricultural development across the globe, “to try to do [economic development] in my own backyard.” He started his own firm, Urban Juncture, and in 2005 purchased the two-story terra-cotta building that will soon house Bronzeville Cookin’, the firm’s largest project to date. The building–which once included a liquor store–was already organized into six twenty-foot-by-sixty-foot spaces when Loyd bought it, giving him the idea to divide it into multiple venues. There are different management teams for the restaurants, but Loyd is a co-owner of each.

Loyd was able to get several prominent financial partners involved after the purchase, including JP Morgan Chase and the now-defunct Covenant Bank, though the financial crisis stymied building efforts. “Most of our major financial partners disappeared,” he says, and in the past few years he has had to find a new group of backers. That process came to an end last September, by which time Loyd and Urban Juncture had assembled a team that includes the Chicago Community Loan Fund, the Community Reinvestment Fund, and the Illinois EPA. Together, the group has raised the $8.4 million necessary to cover Phase 1 of the project, which includes the restaurants slated for completion this year, the rooftop farm, and the produce store. Phase 2, projected to cost at least $2.6 million, will involve building another, more upscale restaurant in the space on the corner of 51st and Prairie, in addition to instituting some transportation and landscaping improvements. A “multi-motor parking facility” will include chargers for electric vehicles, and Urban Juncture has gotten a commitment from I-GO to install a car share station when the lot gets built. If he is able to procure the funding, Loyd plans on landscaping the lot east of the restaurants to include bioswales for directing runoff water, in addition to building a bike repair station with the help of Blackstone Bicycle Works.

51stStreetDevelopmentAerialView_LydiaGorham

Looking west down 51st Street. Photo by Lydia Gorham

There is currently no timeline for Phase 2, and no guarantee that the funding is available. But Loyd is convinced that a demand for healthy food is very much present. As he says, “It’s easy to find an apple if you want,” but that’s really about it. “There hasn’t been a produce store in this community for about two generations,” he tells me. Red Apple Food & Liquor, across the street from Bronzeville Cookin’, advertises deals on its facade for white bread, white potatoes, and white onions, as well as soft drinks and eighty-nine cent chicken legs. It’s a sharp contrast to what Loyd’s venture will offer–“the full food chain,” as he puts it. The rooftop farm will grow vegetables and herbs for the restaurants as well as for the produce store, which will compost their waste for use in the farm. The Urban Juncture Foundation, the sister organization to Urban Juncture, is the direct source of funding for the farm, though the finances are essentially all integrated between the two organizations. The foundation also funds the Bronzeville Community Garden, located a block east from Bronzeville Cookin’.

Taquala, a woman I talked to in Hyde Park Food & Liquor, told me she would welcome any venture that brought healthier food to the community. She says she is a healthy eater–she rarely eats fried foods, and is a vegetarian–and wishes there were healthier restaurant and food options like those in Hyde Park, where she often goes to buy her groceries. A Chipotle, she thinks, would be perfect.

Other residents expressed a different wish. “I’d like to see a McDonald’s or something,” said one man I talked to who frequents 51st Street. Ghazi Al-Adwan, owner of Hyde Park Food & Liquor, suggested bringing in a McDonald’s, Burger King, or Dunkin’ Donuts to attract people to the area.

After filming a short interview for the MPC’s website, Loyd leads us down the stairs and into the back of Bronzeville Cookin’, where there is a roll-off dumpster and several large compost bins. I look up to see a construction worker come to the edge of the roof. He tells us to look out, and throws a big box of metal scraps down into the dumpster. Russell Rahn, the site’s superintendent, walks out the back door of what will soon be the produce market and asks me where I live. I tell him I live in Hyde Park.

It turns out that Russell Rahn lived there for several years when he was younger. He remembers that there had been a large development project on 47th Street. They were trying to bring in new businesses, going west from the lake, but they only got to around Drexel Avenue and weren’t able to rehab the entire street.

“It never really got there,” he says.

****

One evening last December, just a few days before Christmas, Sandra Bivens was at the door of the Great Elks Lodge, on Prairie Avenue just south of the Bronzeville Cookin’ site. As the executive director of the 51st Street Business Association, Bivens was greeting friends and members of the community who were there for “A Taste of 51st Street,” the association’s annual fundraiser. The room was just beginning to fill up when Bivens was approached by two police officers she recognized, cops who worked the 51st Street beat. They informed her that someone had broken into her office.

The culprit turned out to be an employee of the association, a nineteen-year-old boy from the community who had only been working there for a few months. Bivens told me she guessed right away who it had been. She contacted the parents and a social worker, and together with the police they worked out a deal with the state’s attorney that included only a few weeks’ jail time (“We wanted to give him that scared-straight experience,” said Bivens) and a yearlong probationary period. The whole thing was sorted out in less than a month, and the deal included a provision that would allow the misdemeanor to be taken off the boy’s record if he went twelve months without another arrest.

The theft was the first the first time the association had been the victim of a crime, although the organization was started in 2009 in response to a series of robberies along 51st Street. Some stores that didn’t have roll-down shutters over their entrances were burglarized several times, and other business owners felt they might be next. Bivens-whose constulting firm Alexis Bivens Ltd. used to have its offices on 51st Street-along with the owners of Hyde Park Food & Liquor, Baba’s Famous Philly Steak and Lemonade, and a few others, met with 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell out of concern that their voices were not being considered. Dowell–who declined to comment for this piece–told them that if they banded together they were more likely to be noticed by the city, the police, and local residents. Led by Bivens, the Business Association officially incorporated in 2010. In 2011 they moved into their current offices.

Bivens thinks the fate of the boy who robbed her office might have been very different if he had robbed a business without the association in place as a mediator. She’s probably right: were the association not there to communicate between the state, the police, and the parents, the nineteen-year-old might have been penalized much more harshly. In Chicago, property theft can mean up to a year in jail and a permanent stain on your record. “Punishment should fit the crime, as they say, and a $2,500 crime,” she told me, “should not dictate the life of a child.”

The story of the boy who stole from the Business Association is the result of a new type of urban community, one that is in the process of overtaking an old paradigm. The response Bivens made represents the kind of effort she is engaged in: trying to “totally rehab 51st Street,” from the inside out. Like much of Bronzeville, 51st Street is at a kind of crossroads. Many neighbors perceive things as having vaguely gotten better, but exactly what is going into the gradual changes of “the strip”–as Bivens refers to the street–is not obvious. What is clear is that 51st Street is changing, and may soon bear little resemblance to its current form.

****

Sandra Bivens is a real presence, full of hospitality. She is almost always in a cheerful mood, but her face darkens dramatically when she discusses the challenges of reimagining a community. Her experience has been garnered over a twenty-five-year career as an activist and development specialist, which has included consulting work with public housing. For her career efforts, she was the recipient of an Unsung Hero Award in 2012 from the South East Chicago Commission. She is casual when she rattles off all the projects the Business Association is involved in, but her passion comes across in full display when she is asked to talk about the progress the organization has made.

Including Bernard Loyd’s firm, there are about thirty businesses in the 51st Street Business Association, most of which fall between Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive and the Dan Ryan Expressway. The association is a non-profit, with support coming from annual dues of $250 that each member business is required to pay. According to Bivens, those dues go toward keeping the lights on and the computers running; most of the association’s funding for local events, which have included a summer music festival and a school-supplies giveaway, comes in the form of a Community Development Block Grant, from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. Bivens works with three part-time volunteers who come from a couple different senior aide programs run by area charities, which compensate the volunteers with government funding. “We work on a very sparse budget,” she says, “but we know how to stretch a dollar to make it happen.”

Though not technically employed by the association, Bivens is there day in, day out to meet with various community members and business owners. She hears requests, complaints, and questions; has led job training for local cleanup efforts; has taught classes on how to start and run a successful business; and has helped business owners write grants to request funding from the city. “Whatever this community needs,” she promises, “we’re going to make sure it happens.”

Since the 51st Street Business Association’s formation, one of the community’s most pressing needs has been crime prevention–after all, that was the reason the group was organized in the first place. Bivens says that crime around 51st Street has decreased in the last several years, largely because of the association’s advocacy. “I think that it has made a serious difference,” she says, recalling a much greater prevalence of theft four years ago. “Sometimes people stopped you on the street trying to sell you a pair of shoes, and you knew exactly where those shoes came from. And I would get on their case about it, too. Why would you steal from a sister who’s just trying to make it?”

Any crime that does happen around 51st Street, she thinks, is most likely coming from outside the community. She says that as the community becomes more and more developed, and as residents react more quickly to crime, it becomes obvious for the robbers that they don’t “fit in the mix.” Drugs are a sensitive topic for Bivens, and she sees the kids who deal them as victims of their economic situation. “They don’t particularly want to sell drugs, like people think, but that’s the easiest thing that’s out here for making money,” she says. And while the area around 51st Street still has problems with gangs every so often, Bivens says it’s become less and less of an issue. A large part of her job is convincing people that positive change is occurring along 51st Street.“It’s not as bad as it used to be. It really has gotten better,” she says.

51stStreetDevelopmentRendering_cBernardLoyd

Aerial rendering of Bronzeville Cookin’, with rooftop farm. Courtesy of Bernard Loyd

Ghazi Al-Adwan, at Hyde Park Food & Liquor, doesn’t buy it. Al-Adwan is one of the founding members of the Business Association, though unlike Bivens he doesn’t think there has been much improvement in the neighborhood. He goes to the monthly association meetings occasionally, and though he has respect for Bivens and the organization (“The lady is okay! They’re nice people”) he is hard-pressed to think of any way in which the association has had a positive effect on the strip. “It’s not going nowhere,” he says.

Likening the association to a manager and Alderman Dowell refused to comment to a boss, Al-Adwan explains that he wants to feel represented, but does not. “If they were representing us they would fight for us,” he says. That fight would include pushing for business-friendly regulations–per city ordinance, Al-Adwan’s store is not allowed to sell malt liquor, beer that is less than $2 per bottle, or beer that is over six percent alcohol–and, perhaps more important, pushing back against the constant presence of drug dealers in the neighborhood. Al-Adwan is convinced that many of the people on the street are dealers that come from further south and hang around 51st Street all day selling various drugs. “All the drug dealers,” he tells me, “gotta go outta here.”

“I don’t think it’s improved crimes or robberies, to be honest with you,” said Mohammed Nofal, who has been the owner of Baba’s Famous Philly Steak and Lemonade for five years. Like Al-Adwan, Nofal was a founding member of the Business Association. “There is a ton of drug action on the corners. Whether people want to admit it or not, whether they want to turn a blind eye to it, there is a ton of drug selling on this corner, on that corner, everywhere.” Nofal used to call the police five to six times a week and sometimes three times a day; now, because he’s so used to seeing drug dealers standing around, he only calls once or twice a month. The police are very responsive when he does call, and Nofal admits that they tend to come more quickly now that the association is around. However, once officers arrive, all they do is kick people off the corner. After a few minutes everyone is back to where they were before the police came. The presence of officers is “not even a deterrent anymore. And anyone who tells you otherwise–they’re full of it,” he told me. “Anyone who tells you, ‘No, it’s gotten better,’ either they’re not looking really good at it, or they’re just not spending the time.”

Crime statistics from the Chicago Police Department list Grand Boulevard–the community area bounded by 39th, 51st, the Dan Ryan and Cottage Grove–as twenty-fourth of seventy-seven Chicago neighborhoods in number of reported property crimes over the past 365 days. Reported property crimes are down thirty percent from last year, and of those burglaries make up a small portion–the vast majority are thefts that occur outside of homes or businesses. (The Washington Park community area, directly south of 51st Street, has seen a forty percent decrease in property crimes since a year ago.) Since about 2002, all types of crime have been decreasing. Property crimes have also lessened more in the last three years than in the nine years before. However, drug-related crimes in the street are still a constant source of arrests, and these numbers only include reported crimes, leaving out all the unregistered complaints of drug dealing made by people like Mohammed Nofal. For bringing in customers, reported crime statistics are perhaps less important than public perception–and around the 51st Street area, more often than not that perception is negative.

On a Friday evening at the Bronzeville Community Garden, just east of the 51st Street Green Line stop, I’m told that many of the people socializing are not from around 51st Street. Many come from further south, past 85th Street. One woman said she came north to the garden to see her friends, because “I gotta be where my associates are.” She is weary of people who say there is a decrease in crime on 51st Street. “If there’s a decrease in crime here,” she says, “it ain’t happening when I’m here.”

****

Still, Bivens is steadfast in asserting that the crime that used to happen along 51st Street has tapered off, and that the neighborhood is trending away from robberies and drug dealing. She says the people who hang out up and down 51st Street all day, the sort of people that attract the notice of Ghazi Al-Adwan and Mohammed Nofal, are not ill-intentioned. “They ain’t hanging around just cause they’re hanging around,” she says. “They’re hanging around because they want jobs.”

Many different community members brought up the issue of loiterers on 51st Street. Randy McCollum, owner of the eight-year-old Randy’s General Merchandise, which is located right across the street from the Business Association’s offices, said he wants to get rid of “undesirables” on the street.

McCollum joined the association about three years ago because he was impressed by Bivens’ presentation to the business owners on the strip. “It seemed like the right thing to do,” he says, both for his business and for the other businesses around him. McCollum thinks that the number of people hanging around on the street is lower now than it used to be, and that this is due in part to Bivens helping many people get jobs. However, it is unclear how many people have benefitted directly from the Business Association in finding employment.

Bivens thinks that a lot of the men who loiter on 51st Street used to have jobs in the stockyards, which closed in 1971, and the steel industry, which began its long decline in the seventies and has largely disappeared from the South Side. Bivens attests that the closing of the public housing high rises coincides with an economic decline in the surrouding areas.

As many residents told me, the neighborhood around 51st Street used to be a happening place. “In the fifties, sixties, and seventies, it was hot,” said Bivens. The blues could be heard coming out of venues up and down 47th Street, and 51st Street was home to a number of jazz clubs. A steep population decrease–caused by a lack of blue-collar jobs and, more recently, the closure of projects like the Robert Taylor Homes–has changed all that. While Grand Boulevard had a population of 80,000 in 1960, by 2010 its population had shrunk to about 22,000 residents. About thirty percent of the neighborhood lives below the poverty line–double the national average.

Jobs are essential to Bivens’ goal of “bringing businesses back online.” The fewer people that are on the street, she says, the more that are working and contributing to the community. She hopes they can soon return to a boom in professions that don’t require much education. Bronzeville Cookin’ will be key to this.

As Bernard Loyd pointed out, the restaurant industry may be the United States’ largest single provider of first jobs–the National Restaurant Association reports that one in three adults got their first job at a restaurant, and projected that the restaurant industry will employ ten percent of the American workforce in 2013. It has also added jobs at a higher rate than the U.S. economy for the past thirteen years. Restaurants are, says Loyd, a “vital rung in the ladder to have in developing communities.”

Unfortunately, Mohammed Nofal tells me, many of the local restaurants have seen a dive in businesses in the past few years. “Restaurants took a big, big hit” on the heels of the recession, says Nofal. As he sees it, people nowhave fewer funds for food that isn’t for groceries, and are more likely to allocate their money for mortgage, rent, or car payments than for dining out.

But residents I talked with at the Bronzeville Community Garden said they would welcome a new restaurant and a new space for socializing in the community. 51st Street is already considered a major social hub for Bronzeville, and Loyd hopes that his project will direct more residents and visitors off the sidewalks and in to businesses. He has particularly high hopes for the Bronzeville Cookin’ restaurant slated to be closest to the Green Line stop, a Southern-style breakfast joint that will have seating for seventy-five. This venue will be crucial, Loyd says, for establishing the clientele base necessary to proceed with Phase 2 of the Bronzeville Cookin’ business plan.

****

Loyd’s approach with Urban Juncture is a foil to that of the Business Association in that it depends much more heavily on the non-profit and private equity worlds for funding. Bivens, on the other hand, is constantly pushing the businesses on 51st to apply for public funding. She tells the Association’s members about programs like the special service area (SSA) tax, which allocates funding for businesses within the designated area. TIF (tax increment financing) money is drawn from the SSA, and can be purposed into SBIF (Small Business Improvement Fund) grants or NIF (Neighborhood Increment Financing). The things these funds most get used for, Bivens says, are façade changes, which “change the tenor of a neighborhood.”

51stStreetDevelopmentStreetView_LydiaGorham

photo by Lydia Gorham

Al-Adwan generally agrees; he often has his employees clean up the sidewalk in front of Hyde Park Food & Liquor. Many times he cleans the areas in front of neighboring businesses himself. “I clean from this side,” he says, gesturing to the corner of 51st and Indiana, “to the end of the block.” Bivens has organized similar cleanups, and is hoping to institute a number of superficial changes in an effort to change the neighborhood’s “tenor”: flower pots on the street corners, fewer boarded up windows, better looking signs, and new facades for businesses. “You have to create things to make people feel good about their community,” she says, “and not feel so disenfranchised from each other all the time.”

The funding that Bivens espouses for use by the businesses on the strip is sometimes hard to obtain, though Bivens helps the owners with grant writing. So far about four businesses in the association have applied for and received funding and used it to improve their facades. Because of the red tape involved, people like Nofal are hesitant to pursue the public-funding option. “I would rather hold a gun up to my head and shoot myself before I deal with the city of Chicago,” he says. “It’s like pulling teeth, it really is.”

Nofal is skeptical that superficial changes are even what the strip needs, but he recently completed a small renovation to the outside of Baba’s, paid for out of pocket. “I think Sandra and the association are more focused on, like, the beautification of 51st Street,” he says. He would like to see more focus on bringing in the kind of businesses necessary for families and residents, like a laundromat, dry cleaners, or a large grocery store. “Right now,” he asks, “what’s on 51st Street? They got a couple of liquor stores, a couple of gas stations, a couple of restaurants. It’s missing everyday things like what they have in other neighborhoods.”

****

When I talked to Al-Adwan, who is staunchly pessimistic about the changes along 51st Street, he acknowledged that the Business Association is working hard and doing the best it can. However, he worries that might not be enough; by itself, he said, “one hand doesn’t clap.”

“They need somebody helping them,” said one woman, a local resident who lives around 51st Street. “It’s kind of hard to take you serious when you’re the only one advocating for things.”

There are other organizations involved in rehabbing 51st Street, including the Bronzeville Alliance–a group of community figures and business owners throughout Bronzeville–and the Bronzeville Retail Intitiative, an offspring from the Alliance. Both organizations, however, have spread their focus to 43rd and 47th Streets, especially in the time since the 51st Street Business Association was incorporated. Like Urban Juncture, the Alliance and the Initiative both focus on investing at specific “nodes,” aiming to reach a critical mass of funding that will cause ripple effects throughout an area. The strategy, they say, is more conducive to seeking out larger financial partners, especially in the private sector and among non-profit equity firms. Doing so also helps prevent funding from being spread out too thinly.

But Bivens believes that improvements should come at least as much from the businesses already on the strip as from outside sources of funding. “As you talk with the businesses,” she says, “you have to get them to understand that it takes more than just having more police protection. It takes your getting involved with making a change in the community.”

Often, the proof of that change can be faint. The strip of East 51st between King Drive and the Dan Ryan Expressway looks similar to how it did four years ago, when the Business Association first came on the scene, but positive changes are certainly there: Swagger–a new restaurant just north of Prairie and 51st that has been open for about a year–turned a vacant lot into a gorgeous patio area, and there are two more businesses on that block than there were two years ago, replacing what used to be boarded up storefronts. The business community on the strip has become much more cohesive; when major issues come up, says Mohammed Nofal, “I feel like we have one voice,” which cannot be ignored by the alderman or police commander. As Bivens puts it, “It’s different when you have a whole group of people raising Cain than just one or two people.”

Bernard Loyd has a strong vote of confidence in the association. “We are big fans of Sandra,” he said. “It’s been very helpful to have that level of energy and commitment basically next door.” Though his venture is a very concrete step toward a more inviting 51st Street, its hard to divine whether Bronzeville Cookin’ will remain a neighborhood project. Sometimes it’s hard to see around the long corners, and rarely in the world of community development do people know what to expect. But the mere fact that Bronzeville Cookin’ is under development signals an important shift away from the economic stagnation that has for so long defined this neighborhood.

“I want to let this be a model,” Bivens told me, for what people can do in a distressed area. It’s impossible to predict the future state of the strip, but Bivens believes that the stakes are high enough and the community strong enough to create a successful, self-sustaining community on East 51st Street.

“One thing I think every businessman knows, no matter what ethnic group you’re in, is that when you put twenty, thirty years investment in a community that helped raise your kids, or whatever else, you’re not just going to walk away from that. You’re going to do what it takes to maintain your business.”