Mariano’s Market and Chicago Politics

I attended a meeting yesterday at the CHA offices. The heads-up went out by email from several quarters of the community late in the afternoon prior to the meeting. The topic that drew so many of us to 60 East Van Buren was the proposed Mariano’s Market on the old Ida B. Wells housing site in Bronzeville. I don’t think CHA was expecting such a turn out. The meeting was standing room only. There were so many people there that the front welcome table ran out of comment cards. You couldn't speak unless you filled one out. This caused a minor kerfuffle when a man did not get a card but was determined to have his say. He was escorted off the floor by three burly men. Why did all these people show up to hear about a proposed grocery store? This type of turnout is normal when there are diametrically opposed forces but that was really not the case here.

CHA land is at question and promises made to prior tenants of the housing projects about relocation and replacement of housing at the original site. There were a few people who expressed anger that their community areas needed grocery stores too and why was the Bronzeville site getting a Mariano’s. Some felt CHA had not followed the proscribed rules about selling land to a private entity without sufficient input from CHA housing tenants. These people for the most part didn’t have a problem with Mariano’s Market being built on CHA land but they did want to know if there would be housing replacement.

Now the most interesting thing about this to me was the fact that we were all assembled for a hearing supposedly to hear pros and cons and for a vote to be taken on the proposal. Interestingly there were not enough committee members to have a quorum. So much for a vote. In the style of true Chicago politics, vote or no vote it didn't make a darn bit of difference. Mayor Rahm Emmanuel and both Alderman Dowell, of the third ward and Alderman Burns of the fourth ward were at a press conference announcing the coming of Mariano’s Market to 39th and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive. For those who are not familiar with the location it is smack dab on the Ida B. Wells site.

I, like most in attendance am delighted about the grocery coming. We need it. I’m especially excited that with it come 400 jobs that pay union wages. (Thank God not another Walmart).

I share some concern with the past residents who need affordable housing. I have history with the Ida B. Wells projects. My family lived there when it was an affordable home for a family with one wage earner from the steel mills, my mother, a home maker and me. The rent allowed my parents to keep me in private school. To this day I bless their names. My parents tried public school for one day. When I told my mother that the students were learning their colors and ABC’s I was immediately transferred. I could read already.

There was gang activity back then but there were very few guns. The leader of one of the gangs lived across the walk from my family. I was in the girl scouts with his sister. We were not afraid of gunshots through our windows. The biggest problem we had was children stealing my mother’s roses. Things changed rapidly after our first five years there. We were no longer a community of black families raising their kids, hanging wash on the line outside the back doors and getting together on summer evenings to drink lemonade and catch lightening bugs. Our blocks became territory for drug deals and wars. My family was fortunate enough to move.

Since those days Ida B. Wells continued to turn into a demilitarized zone.  Gangs, drugs and violence took over. The law abiding tenants were trapped in what amounted to hell encased in concrete. I often wonder how any sane human being thought that heaping poor people into an area, sometimes in high rises with elevators that rarely worked and stair and hallway lights that were out more than on was a good idea. Wealthy people can live in big, big buildings. Just look at the Hancock and all those other buildings that have high speed elevators, doormen, concierge service, on site grocery and convenience stores, cleaners, etc. These people have the money to get out of Dodge when they want a vacation. Poor people do not have that option. They live in Dodge City, guns blazing; saloon type shot outs on the street, in the hallways, at the community park and kids are dying. What does all of this have to do with Mariano’s Market? It will take up space on land that the lost tenants thought would be housing for them. They were promised a museum in honor of Ida B. Wells. No museum and still too many people have not been relocated. I understand the disappointment. Blacks often feel akin to Native Americans. So many promises so few are fulfilled. But I understand other things like a community entirely composed of poor people is a ghetto in the making. There will be few if any business developments. This Mariano’s Market stands for more than a grocery. There are people, like me who grew up in Bronzeville and spent some time living in Ida B. Wells. Many of us have good memories but too many have lost children to the crime, the gangs and all the ills that develop when we marginalize a group of people. I applaud decent development and the promised 400 jobs for the community but we need to remain vigilant. Make sure those promises are kept.

Still, it was really crappy the way CHA and our local politicians did the usual Chicago three card Monte by holding a hearing for which the decision was already made. On top of that the press conference was a scant hour after the hearing. Welcome to Chicago. Hold on to your hats. It’s the Windy City, lots of meaningless hot air but still it’s my city. It did appear though from the talk from old tenants and new comers to Bronzeville that Mariano's Market might just be a bridge builder. At least we hope it will be.

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