Armeker Wright hadn’t been able to find permanent work since 2009.
That’s when an injury ended her job as a special education aide with the Chicago Public Schools. So she’s really excited over her new job at a Mariano’s store set to open Tuesday in Bronzeville.
“I was so happy after that third interview, when they told me, ‘Welcome aboard.’ And the first day of training, my manager noticed I catch on quickly, and moved me from a level 1 to level 2 employee,” she says.
“Aw, man, it’s a great feeling to go from not having anything to having something for your family.”
The second grocery to open in a food desert within two weeks, the Bronzeville Mariano’s, like Whole Foods in Englewood, is being celebrated for helping to lift up a community in need of revitalization.
“Amy and I have a Jewel’s, Trader Joe’s, Whole Foods and Mariano’s within a mile in our neighborhood,” says Mayor Rahm Emanuel. “Our goal is to make sure people don’t have to drive five miles to get a tomato, a cucumber, or other fresh produce.”
The two new grocery stores brought much needed jobs: 100 to Englewood, 400 in Bronzeville.
Each gave an opportunity to minority entrepreneurs whose products grace their shelves: some 35 in Englewood, 48 in Bronzeville.
Each was built by an all-black team. In Bronzeville, they were: developer John Bonds of Safeway Construction; architect Phil Johnson of Johnson & Lee Architects; general contractor Milhouse Engineering & Construction; and construction manager Powers & Sons.
And even before their opening, each spurred new business and residential development in both neighborhoods.
At Pershing Road and King Drive, the 74,000-square-foot Mariano’s replaces a lot vacant about a decade, ever since the Chicago Housing Authority tore down four dilapidated, drus- and gang-challenged complexes: Ida B. Wells, Darrow Homes, Wells Extension and Madden Park homes.
But that past also provided an opportunity.
A $5 million deal called for CHA to sell 8.2 acres of land at market value. In return, CHA residents would be guaranteed some of the jobs, trained by the Cook County Workforce Partnership and Centers for New Horizons.
“I’d said to Bob Mariano, this is a former public housing site, so I really want to make a special effort toward hiring from residents who once lived here, to give them opportunities for good-paying jobs,” recalls Emanuel. That was 2014.
Wright is among 97 beneficiaries of that bonus.
This July, when Emanuel visited Bronzeville to tout the Chicago Park District’s new $19 million Arts and Recreation Center in Ellis Park, he happened to run into Wright. She shared her story as an unemployed mother with four children ages 3 to 13 at home to care for, and soon after, her lot changed.
“I was called to come to a CHA hiring event, and given a date for an interview,” a grateful Wright says. “I’m working in the bakery, making cookies and Danishes, stuff like that. I’m not going to stop there, though. I’m going to try to work my way up to manager.”
On Thursday, Bob Mariano, who recently retired as chairman, president and CEO of Mariano’s parent company Roundy’s Supermarkets Inc., was at the store, watching last-minute prep before an opening gala for dignitaries planned for Monday. Roundy’s was bought by The Kroger Co. in December.
“It’s very rewarding to see it all come together in a beautiful way, and now it starts to take on its own life as our employees are learning their roles and their responsibilities,” says Mariano. “If we’ve done our work right, we’ve created an environment where customers of Bronzeville are coming into a facility they feel comfortable in, a place they can feel is theirs and every bit a part of their community.”
The store incorporates the historic community’s legacy into architecture. Its unique design includes a screen wall on King Drive that honors some of the most famous residents of the one-time Black Belt, so called because a majority of blacks were segregated there by the mid-20th century. It was home to such prominent artists and intellectuals as journalist Ida B. Wells, author Richard Wright, poet Gwendolyn Brooks, dancer Katherine Dunham, musician Louie Armstrong and sociologist Horace Clayton.
The store has large window panels on 39th Street with murals depicting historic Bronzeville images. And inside, artist Hebru Brantley was commissioned to create several original works of art.
“The store’s really special,” Mariano says proudly. “This community is so rich in history. To acknowledge that and at the same time provide healthy foods, affordable prices, nice service and a great environment is something that’s been needed here for a very long time. Opening day will be a special one for everyone.”