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This IS Englewood

The new Englewood Square shopping center at 63rd and Halsted

Gordon Walek

There are lots of ways to identify positive neighborhood change – increased population, income levels, school test scores, housing prices, new businesses, lower crime rates, etc. But sometimes the early signals are more subtle and less empirical – such as how long it takes to cross a street.

Consider Ivan Ramos’ walk the other day from his Financial Opportunity Center office on the southeast corner of 63rd and Halsted to the northwest corner of the intersection, where Whole Foods was preparing to open a grocery store. En route he stopped and talked to people he knew – former and current clients, co-workers, maintenance people and others. While on the south side of 63rd Street he visited the Teamwork Englewood office to greet his friends Perry Gunn and Rashanah Baldwin.

Ivan Ramos and Lavetta Van Buren outside the Kennedy-King Financial Opportunity center  at 63rd and Halsted...

Gordon Walek

A few years ago, that walk wouldn’t have taken nearly so long. Or happened at all. For one, there was nothing on the northwest corner. It was a vacant space – a ghostly reminder that the once-thriving 63rd Street commercial corridor faded long ago. For another, despite the presence of the Kennedy-King College campus, the intersection wasn’t pedestrian-heavy, lessening the chance for random encounters with neighbors and associates. Finally, the relationships among Englewood community organizations weren’t at the level where people were routinely dropping in on one another.

Whole Foods rules

It’s a stretch to attribute Englewood’s newfound cosmopolitanism to the arrival of a Whole Foods grocery store, but people attending the grand opening at the new Englewood Square shopping center on September 28 didn’t count it out.

“It’s a tale of two cities,” said Ramos, who for the last five years has been helping residents find jobs, learn employment skills and improve their credit scores at the Kennedy-King Financial Opportunity Center (one of 12 FOCs throughout Chicago supported by LISC). “The conventional notion of Englewood is a place of crime and violence. But what you see here is a community – in every sense of the word.”

And the arrival of new businesses at 63rd and Halsted, he says, is a big part of that. In addition to Whole Foods, the center includes a Starbucks, a Chipotle restaurant, a clothing store, a nail salon and a health center.

Perry Gunn, executive director of Teamwork Englewood, is counting on the the new Englewood Square shopping center to spur further development in the neighborhood.

Gordon Walek

More than just a shopping center

“This is more than a shopping center,” said Perry Gunn, executive director of Teamwork Englewood, a LISC lead agency that for years has been working to make the neighborhood stronger. “It’s a place that will make people think differently about this community. They’ll feel the vibe. It’ll make businesses want to invest here.”

The new Whole Foods is just the beginning. LISC Chicago and its community partners, such as Teamwork Englewood, the Greater Englewood Community Development Corporation, the Resident Association of Greater Englewood (RAGE), and other local community organizations, have been laying the groundwork – through organizing, and quality-of-life planning for more targeted investments. Not that Englewood Square is the first new Englewood investment in a while. An Aldi grocery store is a couple of blocks east on 63rd Street, where other businesses serve the Kennedy-King College population.

“But 63rd and Halsted is such a touchpoint for many of us,” said Asiaha Butler, the president of RAGE, who grew up in the neighborhood and for the last several years has organized residents to promote the area. “We’ve all had our experiences here – my mother met my father at 63rd and Halsted – and that helped unify people around this project. It’s symbolic.”

Whether Englewood Square is the first step in restoring 63rd Street’s 1950s retail status as second only to the Loop’s State Street in gross sales is anyone’s guess. And it’s irrelevant to generations of young people, such as Lavetta Van Buren, 24, for whom those years are ancient history.

“But 63rd and Halsted is such a touchpoint for many of us,” said Asiaha Butler, center, the president of RAGE, who grew up in the neighborhood and for the last several years has organized residents to promote the area.

Gordon Walek

Hiring locally

Van Buren, with a vibrant personality and healthy ambition, is one of roughly 100 people, about 45 from Englewood, that Whole Foods hired to work in the store. Her 20-hour-per-week schedule will allow her to study health sciences at Chicago State University. She was referred to Whole Foods through the Kennedy-King Financial Opportunity Center, operated by Metropolitan Family Services, which worked closely with the grocer to identify qualified applicants and provide special training through a “customer service boot camp” this summer for people who needed it.

“Very early Whole Foods began having community meetings with Englewood residents about the store,” said Ramos, who saw the store as a potential employer for his clients. He suggested to Teamwork Englewood and the Greater Englewood CDC that they offer a customer service preparation class to applicants and partner with Whole Foods to help design the curriculum.

Last summer, 45 Englewood residents attended the two-day “boot camp” in which they learned about customer service, conflict resolution and other qualities that Whole Foods values in its employees. A number of them were subsequently hired, as were Kennedy-King FOC clients, such as Van Buren, who Ramos said already had sufficient retail sales experience and didn’t require additional training.

Lavetta Van Buren's part-time job at Whole Foods will allow her to pursue nursing studies at Chicago State University.

Gordon Walek

Van Buren learned of the FOC from her year-old son's father, who was a client there, while she was studying for her certificate in medical assistance. She made frequent use of the center’s computer lab and its digital skills training program. “The doors were always open here,” she said. “I was here every day, applying for jobs, working on my resume, printing stuff. How can that not be helpful?”

“Lavetta was one of about 20 percent of people who come through our doors who you know is ready,” said Ramos. “She was a go-getter. We knew she was polished. Each of our departments worked with her and said the same thing about her. ‘We’ll support her.’”

Neighborhood vendors

In addition to hiring people from the neighborhood to work in the store, Whole Foods is fueling the flames of local entrepreneurs by arranging for about 35 vendors to sell their products in the store, including Jimmy Prude, whose Jimmy’s Vegan Cookies were already on the shelves in several other Whole Foods Chicago stores.

Prude, formerly a community organizer with the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation (he sold his first batch of cookies at GADCs 79th Street festival in 2011), is obviously pleased with a new outlet for his product. He’s also optimistic about the impact of new businesses at an historic intersection.

Tina James snaps a photo of Jimmy Prude during opening festivities for the Whole Foods store on September 28.

Gordon Walek

“There’s a renewed sense of community well-being here,” he said. “It feels good to shop local, which people in Englewood, West Englewood and Auburn Gresham will now be able to do. This should allow Englewood to be positioned for future development.”

Prude welcomes the opportunity to sell more cookies, promote veganism, and good health in general, to a wider audience. Through his website, he’s profiling local residents engaged in health-related efforts.

Sewing seeds for change

David Doig, whose Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives did the early development work on Englewood Square (thanks in part to a $400,000 pre-development loan from LISC Chicago), agrees that the grand opening is emblematic of more than just new shopping opportunities. The process of getting the shopping center, he says, has been a confidence-builder for residents and community organizations. Doig’s no stranger to these matters. He began his community development work with the Lawndale Christian Development Corporation in North Lawndale before becoming a city planner and superintendent of the Chicago Park District. His subsequent real estate development work has included the revitalization of the Pullman neighborhood on the far South Side.

“People in disadvantaged neighborhoods are used to being lied to,” he said, which breeds cynicism and suspicion. “But community groups here saw an opportunity and worked for more than three years to get it. It was a unifying effort.”

LISC Chicago plans to take advantage of the momentum with an announcement coming later this month, which will target economic development investment on 63rd Street from Cottage Grove Avenue to Pulaski.

“The Englewood community has been working on this revitalization process for the last 10 years, but it’s not the only one,” said Meghan Harte, LISC Chicago’s executive director. “Teamwork Englewood has been partnering with neighbors in Auburn Gresham and Chicago Lawn so they can work on improving their entire quality-of-life strategy.”

Looking south on Halsted from 63rd Street back in the day when the commercial corridor was a bustling shopping district.

And in a related effort, LISC Chicago is supporting Meeting Halfway, an initiative to link local organizations with banks and other financial institutions to improve financial stability and literacy at the neighborhood level by helping people forge stronger connections with mainstream financial services.

“In the next five to 10 years, Englewood will thrive,” said Ivan Ramos. “I saw it happen in Pilsen, where I grew up. It’s now a completely different neighborhood, but it didn’t lose its soul. And Englewood won’t either.”

Posted in Economic Development, Financial Opportunities, Englewood


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