Courtesy Frank Bergh
CHICAGO — A new corner store in North Lawndale promised pop, milk and eggs. It would take Link cards and sell lottery tickets, the signs said, and you could grab a sandwich or cereal to go.
It’d be one of the only places to grab food in the area, where grocery options are scarce and children are sometimes forced to grab a breakfast of Hot Fries — a Cheeto-like snack — and pickles.
But the ads that promised produce, milk and meat — painted across the building’s walls in bright red and yellow — were a farce. There would be no grocery shopping there. There would be no new store in the “nearly deserted” spot of 19th Street.
The storefront was a TV set.
“Oh, of course that’s what it would be,” said resident Sharaya Tindal Wiesendanger. She, like some of her neighbors, had thought the set was a real, new store. “Of course, because we’re really just a vessel for other people’s investments. That’s what I have learned,” she said.
“The West Side is just a vessel for other people’s investments, other people’s wealth — not our own.”
The building, which sits at 19th Street and Kedzie Avenue, has lately served as a yoga studio and private residence, neighbors said. It’s now being used as a set for an upcoming TV show, called “The Chi,” that will depict life and hardships on the South Side, neighbors said.
A representative from the show did not immediately respond to requests for comment.
Residents don’t begrudge the building owner’s allowing the spot to be used as a set, but they were disturbed: Why did they have to be reminded of what they didn’t have? Why were the West Side’s challenges always ignored to focus on the South Side?
“It feels like an affront, because it’s a set for a show that’s about the struggle that we’re having on the West Side, but about the South Side, as if the South Side is the only part of Chicago that’s having a crisis,” Tindal Wiesendanger said.
Spoiler Alert: it’s a TV filming set.
North Lawndale has been beset by food insecurity, poverty and gun violence — there have been more than 770 shootings there since 2010.
The area around the set is a “food desert,” neighbors said, meaning there are few grocery options. Three blocks north of the set is the nearest corner store, and there are no major grocery stores nearby.
Instead, many residents have to take a bus trip to the nearest grocery store, and the travel and shopping can mean trips take two hours or longer, Tindal Wiesendanger said.
“There’s no quick convenience. There’s no such thing here,” Tindal Wiesendanger said. “You have kids having breakfasts of Hot Fries and pickles. … It’s not for a lack of care. It’s that [families] have no options.”
Having access to food in the community can be a privilege, Tindal Wiesendanger said: You have to have a car or use a bus to reach a store, you have to take up time with food prep since there’s no access to healthy snacks, and you have to be able to afford a membership to bulk stores like Costco to allow for more time between complicated grocery trips.
Yet people ignore the long-term effects of North Lawndale residents’ limited access to healthy food, Tindal Wiesendanger said, noting poor nutrition can impair brain development and function.
Not being able to walk to a store is “devastating to a family or a community,” she said.
Corner stores — like the one neighbors thought was moving into the area — aren’t perfect, Tindal Wiesendanger and resident Frank Bergh said, as they often sell junk food that isn’t nutritious for kids. There are benefits to businesses in the area, though.
“There’s not a ton of stores in the neighborhood, so it caught my attention,” said Bergh, who lives about a block from the set. “I think a lot of times it’s nice to have convenient food close to where you live.
“I think the corner store is not exactly the ideal grocery option, but proximity is meaningful when it comes to food.”
It’s not the first time the neighborhood has been reminded of what it lacks. There’s recently been filming at Nathaniel Pope Elementary School, a North Lawndale school shuttered in 2013.
The closure of Pope meant North Lawndale’s kids had to “walk further through more dangerous territory” to get to school, Tindal Wiesendanger said. Knowing the school was re-opened to be used as a set was “offensive,” she said.
Bergh saw new signs on the abandoned school’s doors and saw child actors walking in as if they were going to class.
“In hindsight, the realization that it was all a show seems rather cruel. The school remains closed,” Bergh wrote in an email. “The kids who actually live here see the school every day and don’t get to go inside because they aren’t actors in an episode. This is their reality.”