Several thousand people strolled up and down 61st Street in West Woodlawn Saturday, September 10th, enjoying the balmy afternoon with family and neighbors, perusing booths that showcased local services, retail stores, makers (craftsmen), artists and other entrepreneurs. Amidst the bustle and vendors was live music, and some patrons even danced.
The occasion was Black Wall Street, an event organized by the nonprofit organization Woodlawn Diversity in Action in conjunction with the Urban Market Exchange, with the support of Sunshine Enterprises, POAH, Friends Health, the Gary Comer Youth Center and other Woodlawn-based businesses.
"My biggest goal was to let the youth see what was possible for them and (for) families to see what generational wealth could look like,” said Carlas Prince Gilbert, the lead organizer for the event. “Because Black Wall Street, back in the 1920s and 40s, that's what it represented."
Black Wall Streets were centers of economic vitality that existed in most Black neighborhoods of segregated cities, such as Chicago’s Bronzeville, from the early to mid-20th century.
(One of the most famous of these was the Greenwood District in Tulsa, Oklahoma, which was destroyed by white supremacists in 1921; More than 300 people were killed and 1,000 buildings were destroyed by a fire. The centennial of the attack was marked last year by a conference in Tulsa attended by Hyde Park resident Laurel Stradford, the great-granddaughter of J.B. Stradford, one of the magnates of Tulsa’s Black Wall Street.)
More than 40 local Woodlawn area vendors that offer financial services, pest control, jewelry, clothing, body care and other products were represented at the event.
Among the vendors was Gary Lewis who, with his daughter Ella, worked Lewis’s iAMDAD365 casual wear booth.
Tiffany Williams, of Exquisite Catering Events, prepared a shrimp aglio e olio during a cooking demonstration with her daughter Julia Highsmith.
Prince Gilbert noted that many of the chefs who gave cooking demonstrations — in an area of the festival dubbed "A Taste of Black Wall Street" — used produce from Woodlawn neighborhood gardens.
The festival’s reference to the economic vitality of Black neighborhoods in Chicago during the 1940s and 1950s was reinforced by “an Ella Fitzgerald impersonator, an impersonator of Louis Armstrong, doo-wop singers and tap dancers," as one entered the festival, said Prince Gilbert. Both of these performers played the Regal Theater, a jazz and dance ballroom that had been located on the corner of 47th Street and Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive (formerly South Park), where the Harold Washington Cultural Center now stands.
Events like Black Wall Street have been and are continuing to be organized in Woodlawn and other Chicago neighborhoods as part of an effort to bring life back to commercial corridors that were decimated by red-lining, racist lending and commercial practices, and large-scale economic shifts that favored national chains and online retail sales.
"Retail leakage" is one of the metrics that economists and developers use to assess the loss of spending dollars from a neighborhood and the potential for commercial corridor revival by returning those lost dollars to the neighborhood. Simply stated, retail leakage occurs when the residents of a neighborhood spend more money on goods than local retail outlets bring in through sales. That money leaves the neighborhood; it goes downtown, to the suburbs, to big box stores and, through the internet, to more distant locations.
In 2009, Natalie Moore of WBEZ reported that "South Side of Chicago residents are forced to spend billions of dollars outside of their communities" due to a lack of restaurants, retail shops and grocery stores.
Although progress has been made in bringing commercial development to the South Side since 2009, including the opening of a Jewell store on Cottage Grove in 2019, a 2019 draft report provided to the Hyde Park Herald by Emerald South Development Cooperative reveals that retail leakage still dominates many retail sectors of retail businesses in its service area, which includes the communities of Washington Park, Woodlawn and South Shore.
The draft report indicates that in 2019 the only local retail sectors that brought in more money through sales than could be generated by the needs of the neighborhoods alone were direct sales (door-to-door marketing); beer, wine and liquor stores; non-store retailers (those selling goods such as T-shirts outside of the confines of a physical shop); gasoline stations and shoe stores.
The report also revealed that 40% of every grocery shopping dollar generated within the neighborhoods was spent outside of the neighborhoods; 60% of every furniture shopping dollar was spent outside of the neighborhoods; 80% of every general merchandise dollar was spent outside of the neighborhoods and 100% of every lawn, garden equipment and supply dollar was spent outside of the neighborhoods. The list goes on.
The efforts to return vitality to commercial corridors are many and varied. They include infrastructure improvements, government assistance in gaining access to business loans, grants to retail establishments and efforts to make the streets of commercial corridors safe, friendly and welcoming. In a manner of speaking, efforts to occupy the streets with hospitality.
It was largely for this purpose that Carlas Prince Gilbert was asked in 2017 to organize the Woodlawn Food Truck Fest, and in 2018 and 2019 a 5K run on the Midway and a Woodlawn's Got Talent show at Greenline Coffee, 501 E. 61st St.
When the pandemic hit in early 2020, Prince Gilbert understood that she needed to organize something that met the immediate needs of the community. She reached out to the food truck vendors that survived the initial pandemic-induced sales plummet, when few people were going out, raised money and provided meals and desserts from the food trucks to more than 800 seniors residing in four Woodlawn area senior living facilities.
This year, with the most devastating consequences of the pandemic hopefully and presumably in the past, Prince Gilbert and other event organizers doubled down on their original plans to bring vitality to West Woodlawn and got more than 1,900 people to register for the Black Wall Street festival.
"Vendors had the opportunity to showcase their businesses," said Prince Gilbert as she reflected on the day. And then, as her father, award-winning music teacher and percussionist Dr. Curtis Prince gave her a congratulatory kiss on the cheek, she added, "The vendors made money. People got to see that they could shop right here, and they didn't really have to go that far.
"It was great, it exceeded my expectations."
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