It was the heart of Chicago's "Black Metropolis," a commercial swath of black-owned businesses that thrived on the South Side between World War I and World War II. To some, Cottage Grove Avenue's mix of black insurance brokers, butchers and shop owners represented a viable separatist model for black urban development.
Today, the Cottage Grove corridor looks like a war zone.
"That's what we would like to create, a mix of small businesses and restaurants so you can go there and spend the day," says Johnson-Gabriel, executive director of the Quad Communities Development Corp., a non-profit group working to recruit retailers.
It sounds more like a dream than a plan, reminiscent of former Ald. Dorothy Tillman's hopes to create a "Blues District" surrounding the Harold Washington Cultural Center at 47th Street and King Drive. Plans for a fancy jazz-themed wine bar and restaurant and a Second City comedy club there fizzled. And now some wonder whether the current redevelopment plans are too ambitious and whether a recession could dash Cottage Grove's retail comeback as well.
Still, there are encouraging signs that Cottage Grove's rebirth is more than a pipe dream. It doesn't hurt that the street would be a focal point for out-of-town visitors if Chicago gets the nod in 2009 to host the 2016 Olympic Games because of its strategic location midway between the proposed Olympic Village and Washington Park, where opening ceremonies would be held.
Ald. Pat Dowell, who unseated Tillman in the Third Ward, isn't counting on it. "My community needs retail now. We will not wait until 2016."
At the Bronzeville Coffee House at 528 E. 43rd St. on a recent December morning, several tables are full and a man in a fedora and dress coat is sitting at the coffee bar. The door opens and in strides Tim Schau, a former partner in Hyde Park's Istria Cafe, laptop in hand.
He greets Johnson-Gabriel and settles in at a table next to the wall to work on thumbnail descriptions of the products he will carry in a specialty food market he plans to open four blocks to the south.
The Zaleski & Horvath Market/Cafe is scheduled to open at 1126 E. 47th St. in April in a storefront formerly occupied by business called Prosperous Realty. The market will bring artisanal cheeses, smoked meats and wine to the neighborhood sorely lacking in grocery stores. Just a few blocks closer to the lake, a former 42,000-square-foot grocery store has been empty for more than two years.
A former manager at Starbucks, Schau borrows from the coffee chain's lingo, saying he wants to create a "third place" for neighborhood residents to relax and hang out. In terms of food, Schau is modeling himself after Zingerman's, a specialty food purveyor from Ann Arbor, Mich. But mostly he wants to give his customers what they ask for. "Stocking your store by referral is a great way to do it," he says.
His enthusiasm is obvious but bankers didn't feel the same way. "They're either willing to give you a micro-loan or a giant loan. We are very much of a 'tweener' business," he says. Schau wasn't deterred and is self-financing the market because he loves the South Side where he moved five years ago.
Johnson-Gabriel, the community development specialist, sips a soy latte as Schau talks about his store and then she adds, "We want to make sure we have a good mix of restaurants with all kinds of ethnic cuisines. We now have one full-service restaurant in the area -- Blu 47. We need more. We need a lot more."
The fact that the Bronzeville Coffee House is thriving is encouraging in itself. Opened two years ago in a desolate patch of empty storefronts, the cafe's mix of pastries, coffee drinks and free Wi-Fi access has attracted a loyal clientele that continues to grow.
"We started turning a profit right away. We didn't ever get a loan, so that was success in itself," said co-owner Trez Pugh, who also owns the building. "It's not a commercial strip. We're like an island. As they build up around here, it will get better. I'm not taking a salary yet. I'm in it for the long haul."
He remembers customers' reaction when the doors opened in 2005. "I put in exquisite art and nice hardwood floors. It was like people had stepped into the North Side. People freaked out because it was so nice."
Plans for vacant lots
Looking at Cottage Grove Avenue today is like looking at an iceberg, economic development experts say. What is visible is only a fraction of what is going on underneath the surface.
"Within the next 12 months, you're going to see some pretty phenomenal things happening on that corridor," promises Chinwe Onyeagoro, a former McKinsey consultant working with Johnson-Gabriel's group on recruitment of retailers.