Tawanna Geiger lives in Bronzeville but rarely buys groceries near her home for one reason: "Because there's nothing in the neighborhood to buy. No fresh food," she says.
The 28-year-old stood in line on a recent afternoon at Red Apple Food and Liquor (315 E. 51st St.) holding a few cans of energy drinks. The bustling convenience store has a small section of shrink-wrapped produce—pale tomatoes, cucumbers with shriveled ends, bruised apples for a buck apiece—but customers aren’t buying them. Like Geiger, they dip in and out for cigarettes, sodas, something from the fast-food counter.
Across 51st Street, in the shadow of the CTA Green Line stop, a unique, open-air retail development nearing completion aims to change how Geiger and other residents eat, shop, and interact.
Boxville, which opens at 4 p.m. Wednesday for what organizers are calling a preview, is built out of old shipping containers. Picture four giant metal Lego pieces, plunked down in a grassy vacant lot with a wood-planked plaza in the middle—but those Lego pieces are filled with groceries, prepared food, a boutique, and a bike repair shop. It’s the latest project from developer Bernard Loyd, who has spent the last decade finding ways to revitalize the neighborhood—which, despite its history as the cultural and economic hub of Chicago’s African American community, has struggled to attract investment in recent years.
"The idea was always to have a community plaza with vending opportunities, something informal," says Loyd, a Bronzeville resident and former McKinsey executive. "We're trying to create a progression of spaces."
The Starting Lineup
Boxville will be open on Wednesdays initially and ramp up to at least five days a week, according to Loyd, whose development firm Urban Juncture is spearheading the venture. It’ll operate until October, shut down for the winter, and reopen again next year. Two more 20-foot containers will eventually be added, totaling six boxes and nine vendors.
Green City Market will anchor half of the 40-foot, street-facing container—called Produce Box—selling produce from 4 to 7 p.m., collected that morning from farmers at the popular Lincoln Park market. Chefs will provide food samples and demonstrate easy, one-pan recipes weekly. It will offer conventional produce from the family-owned Hyde Park Produce, pre-cut fruit, Italian ice, and baskets in the $20 range containing a week’s worth of produce, which customers can pre-order and even have delivered, like a subscription-free produce share. As with other Green City Market locations, Produce Box will match customers’ LINK purchases up to $15.
"It'll be more of a community experience, not as cut-and-dried as a produce stand," said Melissa Flynn, Green City Market's executive director.
Other debut vendors include Aplomb, a vintage clothing and home goods boutique that currently has a pop-up location, and Friistyle, a new Belgian frites stand still under construction. (Friistyle owner Corey Gilkey—of streetwear brand Leaders 1354—says he’ll hand out free food samples Wednesday.) Bronzeville Bike Box, a bike repair shop that inspired the Boxville concept, will take up the 20-foot-long, easternmost box.
Something’s Cooking in Bronzeville
Boxville is an extension of a $9 million revitalization project led by the MIT-educated Loyd that includes conversion of a building just west of Boxville at 300 East 51st Street, where Urban Juncture is headquartered, into a dining hub and business incubator called Bronzeville Cookin'. The city has pledged $3 million in funding and delivered on $1 million for that project, says Loyd, who also is behind the revival of the 30,000-square-foot Forum on 43rd Street, once the arts and culture hub of Bronzeville.
While completion of the Forum is years off, development has picked up on this well-traveled stretch of 51st Street, west of King Drive, where Loyd has been buying parcels of land, including the Boxville lot, since 2005.
He started the Bronzeville Community Garden in 2010 on the southeast corner of 51st and Calumet Avenue. In 2015, he planted another garden on the Bronzeville Cookin’ rooftop so it would be visible to L passengers—a sign of things to come—and he helped open Bronzeville Jerk Shack, one of four planned food businesses in the building. But a fresh produce component was still missing.
The need is obvious, he says, ticking off names and distances of the nearest grocery stores. It's a short list. Hyde Park Produce, 1.5 miles away. Mariano's, 2 miles away. Red Apple across the street, if you consider it a grocery store, which he doesn't.
"These aren't walking distance. They're not accessible," he says.
The seeds of Boxville were planted, so to speak, in the community garden. Early on, Loyd organized a neighborhood bike ride series with the garden as the meeting point. "On the fourth Sunday, we brought in a bike organization from Woodlawn to do free repairs. Well, they never rested… It was clear to us we ought to create more opportunities in the community [for businesses]," he says.
That led to the Bike Box in 2014, providing bare bones bike repairs (they didn’t even have electricity, originally) in a shipping container, which Loyd bought for less than $1,400, on the lot that’s now Boxville. Freewheel Motion, a Bronzeville-based startup, will rent and run the Bike Box this summer.
Loyd had read about a burgeoning movement in Chicago and around the world of repurposing shipping containers into retail ventures. From Las Vegas to Toronto to Kyrgyzstan, entire shopping centers have been constructed out of these modular metal boxes. It’s an approach Loyd likes because it requires less upfront money—one of the biggest issues for entrepreneurs in the neighborhood is the lack of startup capital, he points out.
About a year ago, he and Green City Market's Flynn met through a mutual contact. Flynn, who has been looking for ways to expand food access in Chicago, suggested selling produce out of the Bronzeville Cookin' building, but Loyd wasn't sure that would work. It wouldn't be visible, for one thing. A traditional farmers market’ didn't seem feasible, either. "Some communities might not have the demand or the infrastructure to support a farmers’ market," says Flynn.
So Loyd proposed selling produce out of a container like the Bike Box. Flynn signed on, as did Michelle E.L. Merritt, owner of Aplomb, the vintage boutique.
A Community’s Needs
"He's not landing on the community, but really engaging the community in the effort," says Merritt, a Kenwood resident who has run Aplomb as a pop-up for the last two years.
She’s now based out of the Bronzeville Cookin’ incubator. Her long-term plan is to open a location in the Forum once it's complete. Boxville makes sense for now.
"This idea of reuse and repurposing, it's a green approach to development. And for me, as somebody who's in that space between still being a new entrepreneur and not having tremendous access to capital, but already having my product, it's easier for me to get my arms around," Merritt says.
Loyd envisions food and retail startups cycling in and out as tenants and says the low-cost container model will make that possible. The monthly rent for half of a 20-foot container at Boxville is $500. That would barely cover the electricity and maintenance costs of a 1,200-square-foot storefront, he says.
And then there’s the aesthetic appeal, “the boost this will give to this corner in terms of look and feel. There are very few ways of getting all these benefits on the South Side, given the capital crunch we’re under every day,” Loyd says.
From Alexis Fields' perch in the community garden kitty-corner to Boxville, where she and a group of neighbors play dominos most days, she’s watched the lot transform without knowing the story behind it. When told, she smiles. "Oh, good. That's the best thing they could've done. I'll be there faithfully," she says.
Resident Vanessa Stevenson, who was walking past Boxville after getting off the train, likes the idea too. "I always said this street is a good place to start something, but there's still a lot of riff-raff around here," says Stevenson, who makes and sells jams. "It's a food desert right here. We've been looking for something good."