Transforming CHA: Chewing Up Tobacco Road

by  Assistant Editor

The stores on Tobacco Road are losing business because of the relocation of residents of the low-income areas surrounding the stores.

As I walked down the legendary 47th Street, better known as Tobacco Road, in early March, I noticed a lot of boarded up stores. The Michigan Garden Apartments, better known as the Rosenwald complex, lay barren. The Rosenwald once housed approximately 500 low-income families. Now it’s a ghost town. No children are outside playing; no one is standing outside of the once very busy dwelling.

I was waiting for a tumbleweed to brush by my dusty boots as I continued to walk down the long road of despair. I couldn’t help but wonder: If all the stores that were located in the Rosenwald closed down, then how are the other businesses in the community doing?

What effect is the relocation and displacement of low-income people from the Rosenwald, Robert Taylor Homes and other nearby properties having on the community businesses?

The first store that I went to was the Community Mart, 53 E. 47th St. I asked the manager, Abdul Mizyed, how business was now that the Rosenwald is closed.

Mizyed said, “There’s a big difference concerning our business since the closing of the buildings. Our profits are down but there are still a lot of houses in the community that are keeping us somewhat afloat – at least so far.”

“Big Pun,” the assistant manager, said, “I’m finding it quite difficult concerning business but I’m optimistic concerning the future. I do believe that whatever the plan that the city has will come into play and our business will pick back up and everything will fall back into place as long as the community continues to support us.”

As I continued to walk down the long, dusty Tobacco Road, I came upon the Marathon Gas station at 4700 S. Michigan Ave., the gas station that seems to have been there ever since my feet hit the soil of 47th Street 9 years ago.

In the Marathon’s store, I asked the owner, P. Grewal, how business was going.

He looked down at the floor as he spoke to me: “Sliding down hill fast, sinking. I’m one person who is not glad that the city closed the Rosenwald because we lost a lot of business.”

Grewal added, “One bad apple spoiled the whole bunch. Every body that lived there wasn’t bad. There’s bad and good in every community and in every race.”

I asked him about his plans for the future.

Grewal said, “These are our jobs, our livelihood. We are going to stay.”

As I continued on my journey for answers, I couldn’t help but notice the smells that were now lingering in the air: freshly baked donuts and cakes hot off of the oven rack and the strong, freshly brewed black coffee. It was a heavenly aroma coming from the Abundance Bakery, 105 E. 47th St.

It seemed to me the aromas took on hands and pulled me into the bakery. My eyes continued to roam. Like a kid in a candy store, I couldn’t stay focused from looking at all of the sweet treats that lined the shelves. I mustered us enough willpower to ask Billy Ball, the general manager, how business was going. Ball replied, Ive been in business for 10 years and this is the slowest I have ever seen it. I guess its slow because of the closing of the Rosenwald and all the other people being relocated.”

I asked Ball what his plans were for the bakery’s future.

Ball said, “I’m trying to hang in there until the neighborhood makes its transition.”

I built up enough strength to pull myself away from the sweets in the bakery and went right next door into the Parkway Barbershop, where I saw a young man cutting another young man’s hair.

“Excuse me,” I said. “Are you the owner?”

He looked closely at my press pass and said he would answer my questions only if I used his initials. I agreed to do that.

I asked, “How’s business?”

M&M said, “Business is nil to none. I am trying hard to keep my head above water to keep from drowning. I’m trying hard to stay on the raft and keep afloat but it is a bear market out here. If one thing doesnt get you, the utilities will.

“The big businesses don’t want to give the small businesses a break. Small businesses are like a small guppy fish swimming in shark-infested waters. Otherwise, the big fish eats the small fish.”

Next, I went a store on the west side of the street called My Style, a men’s-clothing store, 104 E. 47th St.

I asked the salesperson, a young man name Khan Yasin, how business was going.

He said, “At a snail’s pace. Very slow. I heard that they closed the Rosenwald because of a gas problem. I guess when they fix it, the people will return. At least I hope so.”

I didn’t tell him what was really happening with the Rosenwald. The building was closed in January of this year and there are no plans to re-open it.

I asked him what his plans were for the store’s future.

Yasin said, “Hopefully, to keep my job. My boss said if business doesn’t pick up, there’s no need for a salesman. Hopefully, the people will come back. We were good to them. We gave them 50 percent off. Not many stores will do that. They will charge them the full 100 percent price for their clothes.”

I decided to stop in one more store that has been around for almost 30 years. Most of the peoples watering hole is a store called 200 Liquor, 204 E. 47th St.

I asked the owner, S. Michelis, how business was going.

He said, “Business is great. I’m selling more grocery than liquor these days. I guess with the closing of other stores, like Al Finer Foods, people come here for their groceries.

“Plus, it has a lot to do with how I treat people. I treat people good and no matter where they go, they seem to come back here. The secret is to treat people nice.”

I walked down to Ald. Dorothy Tillman’s 3rd Ward office and I asked her about the city’s plans for the 47th Street area.

Tillman said, “The city’s plan for the 47th Street area is to designate this area for a blues spot for African American culture.”

I telephoned the city’s Department of Planning and spoke with Yvonne Gonzalez. I asked Gonzalez how much money is being spent to turn 47th Street into a blues spot for African American culture.

Gonzalez said, “The redevelopment plans are still in draft form and are waiting to be adopted at the Community Development Commission meeting, which will be held on May 22 in the City Council Chamber.”

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