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75th Street: A Black Wall Street District

Monday, June 09, 2008 16:44:07
By Matthew Bruce, South Street Journal Staff Writer

On a cozy stroll down 75th street (www.blackwallstreet.org), the enticing aroma of barbeque greets your nose as you venture past the Dan Ryan Expressway and cross into the east side of town. Lem’s Bar-B-Q House, a fixture in the Greater Grand Crossing community since 1968, sits prominently in the middle of the 300 block of East 75th, sending billows of charbroiled scented smoke into the night sky.

The well-known chicken shack stands as a symbol, resting in the heart of the 6th Ward, a booming business district. Between State Street and Cottage Grove, nearly 85 percent of the businesses on 75th street are African-American owned, giving the area the distinction of having the largest concentration of black-run operations in the city.

The bustling nine-block commercial strip was a main focus of the Black Wall Street Economic Summit.

“This summit is to leverage valuable assets, intellectual capital and access to information - while it utilizes the nearly $800 billion in black consumer spending to advance economic agendas,” BWSES chairman Ron Carter wrote in the forum’s proposal.

“A main task for the summit is to collaborate with Chicagoland community businesses to strengthen the economic base among Black Americans.”

At its inaugural anniversary, the BWSES discuss efforts to establish 75th street as the Black Wall Street District due to 80—85 of the 120 businesses are black owned..

“I think there’s been a base here for many years,” said Alicia Spears, executive director of the Business and Economic Revitalization Association (BERA), a non- profit economic development organization headquartered on 75th street that specializes in providing small businesses in the area with financial and technical support.

Of the 75 businesses on 75th street’s run through the 6th Ward, 63 are Black-owned. Lem’s, which migrated from 59th street nearly 40 years ago, is one of the oldest tenants on the strip. “When we came, this was a good spot to be in between the traffic,” said Lynn Walker, manager of the 54-year-old establishment. “We get a lot of traffic here. I think we attract a lot of people with our product. So that’s probably one reason why people are coming to the area.”

Another reason may be the strong support small-business owners get from Freddrenna Lyle, the ward’s Democratic alderman since 1999.

In March, Chicago refused Wal-Mart’s bid to build a 195,000 square-foot Supercenter store in the 8300 block of South Stewart – just outside ward boundaries.

Lyle, a staunch opponent of Wal-Mart’s arrival in the community, was instrumental in keeping the nation’s largest retailer out of Chatham. In 2004, she co-sponsored a living-wage ordinance, requiring Wal-Mart and similar “big box” businesses to pay its workers a minimum wage of $13 an hour, citing Wal-Mart’s reputation for forcing out small businesses.

“They’ve killed the main streets in small towns all across America,” Lyle said. “I don’t think that we should do anything that so limits our competition that we only have one. Wal-Mart, which operates more than 4,000 stores in the U.S., raked in over $374 billion in 2007. The discount-retailer unveiled its first store in Chicago in 2006 near North and Cicero Avenues on the West side. Since its grand opening at the Austin site, Wal-Mart has hired more than 440 employees and generated more than $7.3 million in sales tax – including about $2 million for the city. Despite its benefits, however, Wal-Mart has a history of bitter relationships with labor unions and is often seen as suffocating to small businesses.

In 2003, the United Food and Commercial Workers union launched the longest strike in U.S. history – nearly five months – when 70,000 workers walked off their grocery-store jobs all across southern California. The strike was triggered in large part by Wal-Mart’s infiltration in the community, sparking grocery chains to cut workers’ wages and benefits in order to compete. “You don’t build neighborhood businesses to have one store come in and wipe everything away,” Spears said. “We always talk about entrepreneurship, but what’s the point of entrepreneurship if you’re going to have one store that caters to everyone’s needs.”

Nevertheless, Wal-Mart would not have been the only big box store in the community. Target moved into the 6th ward in 2002 when it set up shop on the 8500 block of South Cottage Grove. Lyle, however, cited differences between the rival companies.

“Target doesn’t sell everything. Wal-Mart sells everything from tires to eggs and that’s what they pride themselves on,” she said. “They market themselves as (having low prices) because they can buy in these huge quantities. The business across the street can’t buy 12,000 gross of anything so they can’t compete with Wal-Mart.”

The Chicago area is one of the most conducive regions in the country for black business. According to the 2002 U.S. Census Bureau report, Cook County had the most black-owned firms in the nation. Chicago ranked second as a city, behind New York, with 39,424 black businesses. Lyle’s province is one of the city’s biggest promoters of black business.

The ward’s section of 79th street also boasts a high number of African American shops, including the only Black-owned grocery store in Illinois. “Ald. Lyle has been our number one advocate. She really supports us with her dollars,” said Leonard Harris, who recently celebrated his 25th anniversary as owner of the Chatham Food Center.

“We’ve been very fortunate to have some strong aldermen, who have stood up for, promoted and advocated the black businesses in the community.”