Whole Foods plan intrigues a wary Englewood

Neighborhood residents talk about the perhaps promising future future and the painful past.

Two men stood on an Englewood corner looking at the future and the past.

The future lay across West 63rd Street, where by 2016, according to the startling new plan the city revealed this week, a Whole Foods Market will shimmer forth out of the weeds and broken concrete.

The past, meanwhile, lay everywhere, as vivid as yesterday to Charles McGill and Edward Jones Sr.

They could see the past in the boarded doors and boarded windows of abandoned graystone homes. In the faded names, painted on crumbling brick walls, of vanished businesses. In the desolate lots where there were once lives and jobs.

"Sixty-third used to be it," said Jones, pressing on the word "it."

Once upon a time, the men recalled, before there was such a thing as Whole Foods, before "Whole Foods" was shorthand for "healthy and wealthy," the neighborhood at 63rd and Halsted had it all.

A Sears. A Wieboldt's. Theaters. A fish market. A car dealer. People with money to spend and legal ways to earn it.

"Then they killed King," said McGill. "After King, chaos."

At 81, McGill, by his account, has lived in Englewood for more than half a century. He lives beside the "L" tracks along 63rd Street, which is where I ran into him Thursday, the day after the announcement that the most luxurious supermarket in the history of the world was coming to one of Chicago's poorest neighborhoods.

While the Red Line intermittently rumbled overhead, McGill recounted how the neighborhood got that way.

How in the racial turmoil that led up to and followed the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., people and jobs fled. How neighbors turned on neighbors. How, later, when the city's housing projects were torn down, new people moved in and with them new crime. How Arab owners had taken over the few remaining shops. How his wife had taken to shopping for decent food in the suburbs.

He was offering this brief history when a car pulled up across the street and Edward Jones Sr. stepped out.

Jones was brandishing a map of the area to be redeveloped. He wondered: Was this Whole Foods deal going to affect McGill's house?

The two men studied the map for a moment, then agreed. Looked like McGill's house would be spared, by a few yards.

"Good for your property values," Jones said.

But it looked like Jones' church, the Now is the Time Ministry of Faith, on the other side of the "L" tracks, next to the currency exchange, might go. He wasn't surprised. Or distressed.

In 2007, when the new campus of Kennedy-King College opened on the east side of Halsted Street, he smelled change coming.

"Some people don't welcome change," he said, "But I do."

Both Jones and McGill — like others I talked to in the neighborhood — are warily optimistic about the arrival of Whole Foods.

Optimistic because they know something needs to change, something to lift the spirits and the opportunities of the people of Englewood.

Wary because they can't shake the fear that change may be a code word for routing poor people.

"Is Whole Foods really going to be for Englewood?" Jones mused. "That's the concern. I don't know. I don't know."

He was looking again toward the empty lot awaiting its bright Whole Foods future when a man in baggy black pants and a white T-shirt crossed the street toward him. The man, a stranger, spoke.

The church could use some paint, the man said. He pointed to the tired walls.

"I got eggshell for that," he said, waving a hand. "White for that."

Jones shook his head apologetically. Too late for paint.

"The city's going to take it," Jones said.

For a flicker, the man's shoulders slumped, then he reached into a pocket.

"Can I give you my card?" he asked.

He handed Jones an index card, on which he'd written in block letters, in blue ink, his name and the words "Paint Good."

Jones watched him walk off down 63rd Street.

"Jobs," said Jones. "That's what it's all about."

Even when you think you're talking about food.

mschmich@tribune.com

CHICAGO

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