By Ja’Net Defell, Director
I grew up on the South Side of Chicago in the Auburn Gresham neighborhood. It was and still is a predominately Black community. I remember as a child that the highlight of my day was walking to the local family-owned grocer. The store was no larger than 2500 sq. ft. and fully stocked with fresh fruits and vegetables, canned goods, household items, a full-service meat counter, and, most importantly, lots of candy. Every time I entered the store, I was greeted by the warmest, friendliest smile. Linda, a Black woman and one of the store owners, was always behind the check-out counter. Her family owned the store and the entire building. They lived in the residential unit above the store.
As I grew older, I noticed a shift in the mix and stability of the local commerce in Auburn Gresham and many of its surrounding neighborhoods, including Englewood. Bustling commercial corridors with businesses owned by residents were replaced with blighted buildings and storefronts armed with security gates and thick glass windows. The experience I had with Linda as a child was gone.
Today, I lead the work of Community Desk Chicago. In my role, I am passionate about supporting the next Linda.
Communities like Auburn Gresham, Englewood, Austin, Little Village, and others on the South and West sides of Chicago are at a critical juncture. Last year’s events – COVID, the killing of George Floyd, and calls for racial and economic justice – highlighted the disparities faced by communities of color and further exposed years of systemic racism. However, there is an opportunity to leverage the momentum to bring back bustling corridors and quality housing stock. Residents and organizations across the city are actively rebuilding their communities plagued with high vacancies, blight, and disinvestment.
At the Desk, our mission is to assist community-based real estate projects to secure the necessary capital and resources to revitalize neighborhoods and improve the quality of life through wealth-building opportunities. According to the Federal Reserve Banks’ 2020 Small Business Credit Survey, more than one-third of Black and Latinx small business owners seeking loans are denied, and for Black owners, the denial rate is two times higher than for whites. The Desk serves as an advocate, trusted advisor, and partner to help our clients navigate the complexities of commercial real estate development. We support several women-of-color-led organizations, cooperatives, and small businesses, including Obsidian Collection Archives, ChiFresh Kitchen, and Justice of the Pies. We support these organizations by connecting them to capital providers and advocating for grants and other critical resources to acquire commercial properties and complete the necessary renovations.