PULLMAN — I’ve waited eight long years for a retail store — any store, really — to take a chance on my neighborhood.
Old-timers in Pullman have waited even longer.
Some of them — the hard-core radicals and union-backers — aren’t too happy that Wal-Mart was the only retailer willing to set up shop on our forgotten part of the Far South Side.
But that’s what happened.
On Wednesday, a Wal-Mart Supercenter is set to open for business at 111th and the Bishop Ford Freeway.
In the suburbs, a strip mall grand opening — especially another Wal-Mart — might not mean much, but down here it’s historic.
This Supercenter — a mammoth 149,000-square-foot big box complete with a bank, pharmacy, vision center, a check-cashing counter, garden center, all the stuff you’d expect at a Wal-Mart; plus a Subway restaurant and an entire grocery store with a deli counter, produce market, bakery and everything — single-handedly eliminated the food desert folks in Pullman and Roseland had suffered in for a decade or more.
On Friday, I got a first look at the joint.
Inside, the smooth, stained concrete floors glimmered in natural light that flooded the store from skylights as dozens of workers in Wal-Mart blue shirts and khaki pants hustled to stock shelves, hang dresses, sort paper products, crush boxes and straighten the bacon.
"Mmmm, bacon," I thought.
Clearly, having access to so many different kinds of bacon so close to home had distracted me.
Which is probably why, as store manager Darryl Bowels led me on a tour with his “sidekick,” Daphne Heffner, a manager in training, I asked what I thought was an important question, “Are you selling booze?”
Bowels laughed. “Yes. Wine, liquor and beer,” he said. They’ll even have a selection of beers made right in Pullman at Argus Brewery."
When you live in a desert, it’s the little things that make you happy.
“Like a kid on Christmas”
For Gloria Hancock, Wal-Mart is nothing short of a blessing.
“I was blessed with this job,” the 54-year-old full-time maintenance worker said. “My neighbors are ringing my bell asking me when is the store opening up. People pull up and ask if we’re open. People are excited about this and they should be. I’m excited.”
Wal-Mart takes a beating for its stance against unions and for paying what some people believe is less than a living wage.
Hancock doesn’t know about all that. She said she feels lucky that out of 8,000 applicants, she was one of 400 hired.
Half of those employees work full-time. And more than half of all store employees live in Pullman, Roseland and West Pullman, according to Bowles.
“I really enjoy this job. I love coming here and when I’m not here I think about these guys,” she said. “It’s something new. It’s like a kid on a Christmas morning. It’s a great experience for me.”
She even labors to get there. Even though Hancock lives about 2 miles away in Altgeld Gardens it takes her more than an hour to get to work on public transportation.
Hancock usually leaves home two hours early just in case. She hops on the No. 34 Michigan bus to 115th Street where she transfers to another bus that takes her as far as 111th and Cottage Grove.
Earlier this year, the CTA eliminated bus service on 111th Street east of Cottage Grove — which means the last stop is nearly a mile walk from Wal-Mart, located at 10900 S. Doty Ave.
And that’s the final leg of Hancock’s commute, which she finishes on foot.
So far, the transit agency has balked at adding bus service to the Pullman Park strip mall anchored by the Wal-Mart Supercenter despite a written promise to do so.
Bowles says the he’s holding out hope — for his employees and public transit-riding customers — that bus service makes it to the store soon.
A CTA spokeswoman said the transit agency remains in discussions about providing bus service.
Store with a view
Bowles walked me past the freezers and refrigerated shelves where Tahara Jackson straightened all those packs of bacon.
He told me the Wal-Mart main office in Bentonville, Ark. operates the store lights and runs the heating and air conditioning remotely.
You can’t turn up the A/C?, I asked Bowles.
“Nope. I’d have to call Bentonville.”
While all that’s interesting, it’s difficult for me to get excited about … a store.
Even more so when Bowles and Heffner rattled off a list of things folks will find at the store: a bakery where you can get a wedding cake, a deli that serves fried chicken and the Subway that’s right next door to the Urban Partnerships Bank.
Oh, and there’s a green roof.
Now that I had to see.
We climbed the long sliver ladder to the roof where purple wildflowers and clover had started to grow and spread high atop land that once was a desert. It’s more of a brown roof, but I could see the potential.
You can see the Sears Tower from up there.
Look to the east and there’s the Harborside International Golf Center Prairie-style clubhouse, which has a Phil Stefani Signature Restaurant with a tasty menu, and a wonderful Mother’s Day Brunch.
To the west, the Pullman Administration Building clock tower, a symbol of the late George Pullman’s empire and the labor movement that pushed back against it — sits in plain view.
And to the south, well, there’s the long road to the suburbs that I’ll never have to take just to get something good to eat.