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Jewel of denial: Rogers Park is dying for a supermarket

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There's something sad about the increasingly bitter relationship between Rogers Park and Jewel Food Stores. Jewel needs customers and Rogers Park's got them. Rogers Park needs groceries and Jewel's got them. But in August Jewel closed the neighborhood's last remaining full-service grocery store, a 19,000-square-foot Jewel at 1425 W. Morse. And ever since, residents, activists, and politicians have been pleading with Jewel to bring one back.

But despite demonstrations and meetings and letters appealing to Jewel to reopen, Jewel won't budge.

"We got 3,000 signatures to a petition asking for a new grocery store and they still wouldn't change their minds," says 49th Ward Alderman 'Joe Moore. "You'd think that any business would welcome an opportunity to reach so many eager customers, but that's not the case."

The abandoned, boarded-up Jewel, its parking lot cluttered with debris, is worse than an eyesore; it stands as an emblem for the neighborhood's general decline. Indeed, much of the talk in and around Rogers Park has to do with gangs, drugs, trash, negligent landlords, panhandlers, gunfire, and robbery. Last week's Reader featured an essay about the neighborhood by Dina Elenbogen, who described moving after her Rogers Park apartment was broken into. "During the past few years, most of us have left for other enclaves of false security," Elenbogen wrote. "Everyone has left because being a victim gets tiresome, like watching the same dull northern light seen through the window for too long, knowing it will only come so close, but that sometimes even that is too much."

Such talk irritates the hell out of Moore and other boosters. As they see it, Rogers Park is no better or worse in terms of crime and grime than any other neighborhood in the city. "Did you know that Rogers Park has the third lowest crime rate of any police district in the city?" says Moore. "That's right--third lowest. But you wouldn't know that from reading the articles about us. You'd think it was Fort Apache, Rogers Park, out here. Yes, I know, people in Rogers Park have had their homes burglarized. I don't minimize that. My own home was burglarized, for goodness sakes. But crime is a fact of life all over the country, not just in Rogers Park. I don't think you should condemn a whole neighborhood just because your home was burglarized."

Moore and others contend that much of the talk actually stems from recent changes in the neighborhood's racial makeup. The percentage of residents who are black has increased from 9.4 percent in 1980 to roughly 25 percent.

"Some people see a bunch of black kids wearing baggy pants and backwards baseball caps and they get scared," says Clay Thomas, an owner of the Obscene Pickle, a sandwich shop on Glenwood. "But if you see a bunch of white kids, same age, you don't get scared. It's racial."

Moore also suggests that the high level of complaining about adversity in Rogers Park may simply reflect a low level of tolerance. "A lot of the younger artist types who move out to Bucktown or Wicker Park are in their 20s," says Moore. "They're fresh and relatively idealistic. But an older writer or ex-hippie or whatever who lives in Rogers Park has been around for ten years. Maybe he or she has kids now. Or they're just tired of the hassles of urban life."

Thomas predicts that Rogers Park will blossom in the next few years, with an influx of younger professionals. To prove his point, he points to the Morse Street Market, the health food store located in the storefront that once housed Foodworks. Its owner, Michael Kriston, is the younger brother of Steve Kriston, who founded Foodworks, and now owns the Oak Street Market in Evanston.

Responding to speculation about why Foodworks shut down, Michael Kriston says his brother "didn't leave this location because the market was bad. He left because he was very busy with Oak Street. Since we moved in we've had tremendous response. I got a bank loan to renovate this place, so obviously other people share my optimism. We get calls from people who say, 'Thank you for opening.' People want to see this store succeed."

Despite such enthusiasm, Morse is still reeling from Jewel's decision to close their outlet. Roberta Friend, a community organizer who works for the Rogers Park Community Action Network, says the store's absence has been devastating. "It's really tough on senior citizens who don't drive and can't afford to take a cab."

To help out, a bus leaves Moore's service office every Tuesday and Friday at nine in the morning and carries residents to the Dominick's at Pratt and Ridge.

"Moore approached Jewel to supply the bus to their closest store, and Jewel said no," says Friend. "But Dominick's agreed. The bus spends a couple of hours there to give everyone enough time. Obviously if you don't have much shopping to do it's a big inconvenience to wait. But you put up with it."

Moore has also organized several meetings between Rogers Park residents and Mike DePaola, a Jewel executive. But little was settled. "They made it clear that they won't sell the site to a competitor," says Friend "And they also made it clear that they intended to put an Osco there sometime by the summer."

DePaola assured the residents that the Osco would carry some staples, like milk, cheese, and bread, but the residents say that's not good enough. "You can already get milk or cheese at the Morse Market or at the produce store on Morse," says Friend. "But you can't do your weekly shopping there. You can't compare-shop between brands. You can't have the kind of grocery store that makes a neighborhood at an Osco."

Moore publicly threatened to block Osco's attempts to receive a liquor license, but DePaola indicated that they would build the Osco even without one. In the meantime, Friend and other activists have moved on to a more aggressive campaign. In January they held a rally attended by more than 100 residents. Participants wrote postcards to Vic Lund, chairman of American Stores, which owns both Jewel and Osco. The language in the cards was a mix of rage and helplessness.

"Your callous decision to close down the Jewel on Morse Street has caused a community of 15,000 to suffer greatly," wrote one resident. "Unable to get food in our area people must bus to outside areas. Move your Osco to another site on Morse."

"Morse is already well endowed with booze and drugstores," wrote another. "A grocery is needed to make this neighborhood really gain. Do the ethical thing . . . . The needs of the people are more important than capital gain."

Nonetheless these letters will most likely have little effect. As Moore points out, the Morse Avenue site was one of 17 midsize grocery stores that Jewel closed over the summer. "The trend in the retail business is to move away from the old 19,000-square-foot store and go for the monster stores--the 60,000-square-foot monster with a huge parking lot."

"I've been told that the big price markup is not so much on food but on items like homewares and pharmaceuticals, things you can't fit into the smaller stores. I guarantee you, if the store on Morse had 60,000 square feet, Jewel wouldn't close it."

Moore says he's talked to several independent grocers who have expressed interest in moving to the Morse site, but Jewel won't sell to a rival. "DePaola said that they had been losing money at Morse for quite a long time and that it was not a profitable store," says Moore. "But I say it wasn't a very well run store; it was dirty and crowded, and it hadn't been renovated since 1969. I think people who could shop elsewhere did.

"I'm not saying we should force Jewel to reopen there. I realize that won't happen. If they want to close their store, that's their right. However if there's another independent grocer who thinks they can make a go of it, I wish Jewel would not stand in our way."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/David Schulz.

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