How One Block Got Through It

Listen to this episode

S1: Over the past five months, small businesses in America have been undergoing a mass extinction event. Bars are closed, restaurants are half empty and retail is shuttered. Full blocks are slipping away. I wanted a sense of how this is playing out in the city I live in Chicago, not the one off story of a beloved bar, not the frightening toll in national statistics.

S2: I wanted the story of one block, so I went to Seventy Fifth Street in the Chatham neighborhood in the heart of Chicago’s South Side.

Advertisement

S3: This part of the south side is really pretty, there are huge street trees, flowers on the steps of the bungalows, brick two flats Al Capone used to live in one of them. Many corners have signs from block clubs setting the rules of the road. No loud music, no car repair. Watch out for children playing. Even in middle class parts of the South Side, commercial corridors have struggled redlining, big box stores, job loss and black flight have left them full of vacancies. There are signs for businesses that have been gone so long their phone numbers don’t have area codes, signs for furniture stores, nurseries, food markets, stores that sold beepers, which is what has long made this stretch of 17th Street just east of South Michigan Avenue stand out.

Advertisement

S2: And what makes it stand out now? Even during the pandemic, there’s a handful of hair salons and barber shops. There’s a dentist and a daycare. There’s a cycling gym where one day I visit the DJ is wheeling bikes onto the sidewalk for afternoon classes and everything. So hip hop R&D, there’s a cult favorite vegetarian joint, Solvejg, which always has a line inside and a famous barbecue joint, LEMS, which always has a line outside. Yes. And I have a large amount of mail, but I know that there are two dry cleaners where the pressed uniforms of Chicago police and transit workers hang under plastic and a tailor who says online ordering suits him just fine.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S4: Yeah, it’s going to go it’s never going to stop because there’s nothing you can buy. It fit you perfectly.

S5: You’re going to need some altering.

S6: That’s why there’s always there’s a deli run by an ex cop. And I went there undercover in plainclothes and they know who I was. And I got to a fight. So I may have started to fight my gun out of my waistband.

S2: And me and a guy that was fighting for his pistol, there’s a bakery, a frame shop and Frances’s cocktail lounge. The bar has been here since December 31st, 1965. Muhammad Ali used to drop by Michael Jordan, too.

Advertisement

S7: So we are the regal beagle. You don’t know Three’s Company. So a lot of people, it is the neighborhood. Cheers where everybody knows your name and we’re able to have people come out and have cocktails in the front. So that has really things that help us. Excuse me.

S1: You got to know, OK, I need you to have on the map Jada Wilson. Turnbow runs the place with her cousin whose mother founded it. If you can’t tell, she used to be an assistant principal at a Chicago public school.

S7: Can you put on your mask for me, please? Thank you so much. Appreciate you working with children. Really get me ready for this.

Advertisement

S1: One reason I picked this stretch of Seventy Fifth Street was because it seemed on paper like exactly the kind of place that would have struggled to get through the pandemic stretch of black owned family businesses in a city that has been hit hard by covid-19. But what I found was not what I expected.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S3: By mid-July, virtually every business on 17th Street had reopened after the initial shutdown. Some were just getting by, but many of them said, in spite of everything, that they were doing great.

S1: I’m Henry Gerber and this is the final episode in our series on the future of the city during and after covid-19. Today on the show, one block on Chicago’s South Side tries to get through the storm. So when the pandemic happens, I just got home from a job in Houston, you know, that feeling you had in March when you started clearing things off your calendar trips, weddings?

Advertisement

S8: So we Reames had to do that to my April job, got cancelled. My summer job got canceled.

S1: Except that Zoe is an opera singer, so her calendar was just a little more interesting than yours.

S8: I was supposed to be in Paris like now that got canceled. I supposed to be at Lyrica and then I was going to be in Sweeney Todd, which would have also been super fun. I’ve done that show a couple of times now.

S1: So she came home to help her mom run the family business, the Brown Sugar Bakery. That’s right across the street from Frances Cocktail Lounge. And like many places here, it was initially shut down for months.

Advertisement

S8: I mean, everyone was unemployed, so they applied for the paycheck protection program. It was almost like they didn’t want us to get the money. I mean, that’s how it felt. You know, that process was kind of grueling. And and then it was overshadowed by U.S. news, things being like, oh, and then Ruth’s Chris got all this money and you’re like sitting in your in your bedroom and on your laptop as a small business being like, well, shit.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: After hours of work and lots of revisions, Frauenkirche did eventually get cheap loans. But reopening the bakery brought its own challenges.

S8: Everything was on back order. You know, sometimes instead of going to the restaurant, depot would just have to go to Aldi and be like, hi, we need to buy all of your milk. You know, we need thirty gallons of milk. And so it was definitely moments like that where, you know, things that we weren’t used to or just going to a grocery store and buying 60 cases of strawberries, other businesses on 71st, the dry cleaners, the barber shop, a custom T-shirt store, didn’t get people loans.

Advertisement

S9: The T-shirt business suffered as family reunions were canceled. The dry cleaning business flagged as churchgoers, kept their Sunday best in the closet nationwide. We know that black businesses have been under covered by the small business bailout and 75th Street is no exception.

S2: Besides the loans, the other big racial disparity is, of course, in the actual public health effects of the pandemic. Jada at Francis Cocktail Lounge.

S4: Her husband got the virus back in March when they were still telling people not to come to the hospital unless you had breathing difficulty. So overnight, his breathing changed while we were sleeping and did rush into the hospital. But at that point, it was too late.

Advertisement

S10: He died on March 31st after he passed, of course, I tested and found I had called it. So I was at home by myself 18 days, just me and my dog. So those are probably the hardest days. Still not easy now. I just believe in God’s will.

S1: So while Jada was home, her customers were looking out for her place, even though it was technically closed.

Advertisement
Advertisement

S7: What’s really funny is once the weather kind of broke, maybe about April, we had people that will come out and sit in front of the chairs and their cocktails. So it was still the meeting place, even though we were close. You got your mask. You got his mask, you got your masseur need you to have you back. Thank you. So most people that have been coming to us have been here for years or their parents have come. And we still have some of my friends who are in their 90s as the 80s and 90s that come out occasionally.

Advertisement

S2: Over at Brown Sugar, things were getting back to normal in no small part, thanks to Zoe being on the scene with a quintessential millennial task, putting her mother’s business online.

S8: I’m the person doing most of the online stuff. So I see as the orders come in in our database and I’m writing the tickets and I would say it’s probably about 65 to 75 percent of our ordering online. Oh, wow. Yeah. How does that compare to what happened before? Well, it was zero percent really, because we didn’t have any online. We we didn’t do online at all.

S1: It’s a huge change with it. Sit down. Area closed. Brown sugar has transformed itself overnight into a business where orders get made online and revenue is almost back to where it was. And this was something I heard at a few places. Maybe a deli was doing well. LEMS was so busy I couldn’t even interview them. I did get some ribs, though. The dry cleaner and the barber also said business was good. If anyone would be having a hard time, it would be Jarda at Francis Cocktail Lounge. For her, adapting has been a lot tougher and a lot less profitable.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S7: But unfortunately, it doesn’t seem like people in Chicago want to continue and follow the mandates and follow the rules. Luckily, we have a patio in the rear, so we will be able to have guests outside. We’re probably at 20 percent, 20 percent of business as usual.

S1: And that was before Chicago closed indoor bars for the second time.

S10: Later, Jada told me, well, we are turning people away and turning people after two hours, asking them to leave so we can let other people in. They don’t like that idea. So that is a challenge. But we have to keep everybody safe by November. I really think we’ll be close anyway. We’ll be close to back to phase one, if not phase two.

S1: And yet Jenna seems surprisingly unfazed by this. Maybe it was that the city was converting the parking lane outside the bar into a patio area for her customers. But there was something deeper, too. She says she first set foot in the tavern at the age of three and she’s seen a lot of family businesses leave the neighborhood. Since then, she’s watched the restaurants close. You can’t get a sit down dinner here anymore. I can’t think of the restaurants are also. There were so many. And the groceries? Well, the liquor store wasn’t a liquor store. I was a grocery store. People, you know, walk to the grocery store, everybody pretty much, you know, shopped in their own neighborhood, which we don’t, of course, now, which is sad, but I’m just not going to let her aunt’s bar go the way of those grocery stores without a fight.

S9: What Jane is talking about has been the story on the south side since 2000, middle class black families have been leaving for the suburbs and businesses are leaving with them. Manufacturing jobs have disappeared. Predatory lending and foreclosures have torn the fabric of neighborhoods. Slice of the population with college degrees and high salaries is getting smaller. It’s just as hard as ever to get a loan. And that was all before the pandemic hit. Restaurants aren’t closing now because they were never able to open in the first place.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S11: It’s very hard for black entrepreneurs, we don’t have access to the venture capital of others, we don’t have friends and families that can write us a check for a couple of million dollars and bootstrapping. What we get are the wonderful takeout restaurants because those businesses depended upon takeout. It was not a big stretch to go from in person takeout to ordering online and delivery.

S1: Nedra’s Spears is the head of the Greater Chatham Initiative. She’s trying to revive commercial strips on this part of the South Side. She says food based businesses in the area have seen revenues fall by 35 to 65 percent. But seventy Fifth Street does seem to be doing OK.

S11: We know for a fact that so Vegetarian Lims Barbecue and Brown Sugar Bakery are regional destinations where people come 25 miles away. One day I was at limbs and there was a woman who was purchasing a bottle of Lims hot sauce so she could jump on the plane and go back to L.A. People were lined up at LEMS in the middle of the riots. It was the most curious thing to see people standing in the middle of a riot waiting to get lims barbecues.

S12: So I guess in a sense, then, one way to explain Seventy Fifth Streets continued vitality is that it’s no longer just serving the four blocks around it, as it might have done in the 1970s or something when there were equivalent strips on seventy ninth and other thoroughfares. It now does occupy a kind of a unique place in the South Side commercial ecosystem.

S11: That is correct. Chase Foundation did an analysis of how walkable communities were in the city of Chicago and when they looked at black versus white communities, the average, let’s say, low wage to high wage white person in a white neighborhood could walk to and get amenities. But for African-Americans, that was not the case. Typically, they were a couple of miles away from picking up their amenities, whether their groceries, flowers or a bottle of wine.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: In other words, seventy Fifth Street endures in spite of disinvestment and black blight on the South Side, but also because of it. It looks like neighborhood retail, but it serves a much bigger market. It’s one of a kind Chatham, Aeger says, has been the breadbasket of the South Side. Even within the strip, you can see how its resilience during the pandemic is related to the hardships of an earlier era, there weren’t many new ventures ready to fold like a house of cards, because banks don’t lend money like that down here. The place is vulnerable to e-commerce already left.

S11: I grew up in Chatham and I remember there were several hardware stores in the neighborhood. And when Home Depot came, those hardware stores struggled. And when Lowe’s came, they basically went out of existence.

S9: A few blocks down seventy Fifth Street, I found a place whose customers came from even further afield.

S13: This machine, we purchased an eighty something, and it puts them both at once, it’s got two blades, one on each side.

S1: This is the wood shop, a gallery and framing store. Brian Dantin Act, the son of the gallery’s owner, is showing me an ancient blue green German miter saw standing in front of the machine. Looking a bit overwhelmed is Brian’s 14 year old intern, Mitch. So what we have, Mitch, that often it was easy. Mitch is trying to unscrew a bolt to replace a complex looking widget called a moisture trap. And I’m nervous on his behalf. This machine looks expensive.

S14: Make that nice and tight. Yep. Get a time that you can go up, go easy, and then he gets it. You got my man. You, the man I love follow me from this place is huge. It’s not small.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: So this is one of the gallery spaces, Brian’s father opened this place in the 70s, virtually every one of its many rooms is covered in art portraits of Malcolm X and Barack Obama prints by Emily, the now famous Chicago artist that Brian’s dad discovered in the 80s. In the front room by the phone, Brian pulls out an old laminated photo album.

S14: That’s me, that’s my brother, it’s my other battle as my dad, and you’ve been working here basically your whole life. Yes, yes, I have, yes.

S4: So tell me, how have things been in this pandemic?

S14: It’s been a challenge. They shut us down immediately. You know, the money thing was a lot jinky, you know, but we like I said, we survived that first wave. And as soon as they allowed us to open back up, we had a huge rush of customers.

S1: I asked Brian what made 75th Street different from some of the corridors nearby.

S14: It’s a little difficult for me to answer that question because we lost so many businesses in the last 20 years. So it doesn’t feel different. It looks the way it looks. But we’ve lost 60 percent of our businesses 20 years to now. Yes. And they were all black. I mean, Fletcher’s records and they’ve been around as a music distributor for 60 years. I didn’t know they were closed. Yeah, we moved here in seventy seventy eight and there was not a vacant store on this street between.

S4: Probably ninety four all the way to Stony Island, so maybe what I see is look at how vibrant this trip and survive were.

S14: You see, it’s remnants of what it used to be, remnants of what it used to be. Yeah. Yes.

Advertisement
Advertisement
Advertisement

S1: If seventy Fifth Street survived this crisis, one person suggested to me it was because they’ve been fighting a deeper, slower crisis for two decades.

S9: If I told my head just so I can see, seventy fifth the way Brian does not as a bright spot among the corridors of the South Side, but is a fading star here, like in so many places, the story of the pandemic is really about what happened before the pandemic. This is a theme I’ve come across over and over reporting this series. When the virus hit, it exposed just how fragile many cities already were, the bare bones budgets, the flailing city school districts, the millions of Americans, one paycheck away from eviction, and the arts institutions scrounging for donations while the stock market hit record highs.

S15: None of that really is new, but covid has made it newly visible.

S16: That’s the show in the series, thanks to Nedra Sphere’s, Brian DenTek and Jada Wilson, Turnbow Supreme’s, Marie Cox and everyone else I talked to on Seventy Fifth Street, What Next? TBD is produced by Ethan Brooks, Derek John and Allison Benedicte edited our scripts and listened to our tape early in the morning and late at night. Thank you, Alison and Derek. Alicia Montgomery gave us direction on the series. I’m Henry Garba and I’m back now to writing my book about parking. You can follow me on Twitter at Henry Corba. TBD is part of the larger what next family, TBD is also part of Future Tense, a partnership of Slate, Arizona State University and New America. Thanks for listening. Mary will be back on your feet on Monday.