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The dozens of acres of open space at 83rd and Stewart were once home to a steel plant that employed hundreds of workers. But in a story that’s been repeated across the rust belt, the plant steadily lost business and shed jobs until it finally closed in 2002.
Howard Brookins Jr. was elected 21st Ward alderman the next year, and ever since he’s been working—and sometimes battling—with city officials, developers, and unions to lure some kind of job-producing business to the site. In 2004 it looked like Wal-Mart might be coming, but the City Council voted the plan down, eventually leading to the big-box minimum-wage battle of 2006 and the contentious municipal elections of 2007, which Brookins narrowly survived. Earlier this year the alderman lost his race in the Democratic primary for Cook County state’s attorney, but now he says he’s going to revive his original battle: winning support for his Wal-Mart plan.
The prospects appear to be dim. At the end of last year a Lowe’s home improvement store and Potbelly sandwich shop opened on the old steel plant site. Still, while acres of muddy land remain, in March the Daley administration officially refused to support putting a Wal-Mart on the site; sources say the mayor wants peace with unions as he tries to bring the 2016 Olympics to Chicago. Brookins, though, is vowing to try to get other aldermen to join him in passing an ordinance to overrule the administration. Here’s what he had to say about it in a recent interview at the new Potbelly’s.
So where do things stand now with this site?
The site is so vast—it’s about 50 acres—that in order to make all the numbers work and the infrastructure that had to be put in there for this to work, we still need a second major anchor to the development. And for at least five years we have been unable to find anybody willing to take a chance. Target at one point said they were interested, but we found out they were more interested in blocking Wal-Mart from coming to the site than going to the location. We’ve talked to people at Costco. We’ve talked to people at Kohl’s. Dominick’s looked at the site and passed on it. So it’s been hard to get a retailer to come into that spot. I don’t even know of any other nonretailers that would be interested in this type of location, but all options are really on the table.
We’ve all heard studies conclude that Wal-Mart and other big retailers drive down wages and knock out local businesses. Aren’t you concerned about those things?
Absolutely. But what people fail to realize who live on the north side or in other areas is that we don’t have those little shops or boutiques in the 21st Ward. I also to some extent discount the idea that a big-box retailer would drive wages down, for this reason: generally ma-and-pa stores pay well for ma and pa, and the people working for them are stuck at the bottom of the economic ladder. And when I’m going to places that have a lot of big boxes and national retailers, generally places that are known for paying a pittance for wages, like McDonald’s, are even paying higher wages than in the city. And that’s because unemployment in those areas is so low that they have a hard time attracting workers. But the converse is going on in the city and in my area and areas surrounding us: unemployment is in double digits, and in certain segments of the African-American community, most notably males between the ages of 17 and 26, you get close to 40 percent unemployment.
What about other types of jobs? Is it completely unrealistic to think you could get some manufacturing in here—some better-paying jobs than retail?
I ran against an opponent who came from the union, and that was one of his arguments. And I asked people at a rally when everyone was saying, “Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!”—I asked them, “OK, well what manufacturing is it? And do you want them located next to you? When we have in the African-American community a higher incidence of asthma and other health-related diseases based on pollutants, is there anyone who’s going to stand for that being in their backyard?” And they backed off.
No, that horse has left—and nobody’s been able to figure out how to bring those high-paying jobs back to their community. And if we have high-tech jobs, they want to be in more trendy areas. And the trendy areas tend to be more built up with places like Wal-Mart. So I see this as a means to an end.
So far Wal-Mart has been the only retailer that’s been willing to dance with the community. You hate to throw a jacket on people, but in a sense it has to be that these retailers are thinking of the past, potentially racist-type thinking that let all of the jobs leave the community when African-Americans moved in here some 30 or 40 years ago. And the reason I say that is that the ward I represent is among the highest in the city as far as median income is concerned—so why can’t we attract any retailers? We’ve got to break the stereotypical thinking that there’s no money to be made in the African-American community.
So what are the prospects now, since planning commissioner Arnold Randall essentially said “No”?
We can take the authority out of his hands in the City Council and approve or disapprove the particular use of this land within a new ordinance. But the question that I have, and it hasn’t been fully vetted with Wal-Mart yet, is how far they’re willing to take this particular fight, and how far the developer is willing to take this fight. The developer is Goldman Sachs, and Goldman Sachs does bond work for the city of Chicago. Do they want to risk angering the powers that be? And how does Wal-Mart want to come into the city—do they want to come into the city being welcomed, or do they want to come in filing a lawsuit against the city? Because I do think this discrimination against one company is illegal.
Shifting gears, isn’t Trinity United Church of Christ in your ward?
Yes. And it’s my church. You know, they keep saying certain things Rev. Wright said are racist, and I keep thinking, “What in those sound bites is racist?” You may not like the analysis he made in reaching his conclusion, but clearly we bombed Nagasaki. Clearly we bombed Hiroshima. Clearly this country has done some things that as a person of the cloth you would not be proud of. If you believe in the tenets of your faith, we should not be out killing and bombing innocent folks.
Clearly, Trinity is ultraprogressive. My church is against Wal-Mart 1,000 percent. There was a bulletin on Easter Sunday: “Don’t shop at Wal-Mart.” But for people to dismiss Jeremiah Wright as a kook or a racist is very troubling to me. And his private persona is much different from his persona in the pulpit—he’s actually kind of a quiet, shy guy.
What about something important: baseball. Are you a Sox fan?
I’m a Sox fan, but not a huge one. My son is really into baseball, so I’ve been getting back into it. It’s funny, though, because when I was in college I was more of a Cubs fan. And the reason is that I went to Southern Illinois, and the only team I could see on TV was the Cubs. And everybody from the Saint Louis area, everybody from south of I-80, was a Cardinals fan, so I wanted somebody to cheer for against them. Back then Lee Smith was our dominant closer. I loved Lee Smith. It seemed like he put a little Jheri-curl juice on the ball and then struck out the side.