Skip to Main Content
Hunger Beat

Q&A: South Side developer on bringing change, creating jobs

This September, the people behind the Englewood Square shopping center at the corner of 63rd and Halsted will celebrate its five-year anniversary.

Anchored by a Whole Foods Market, the development drew much fanfare, including local and national media when it opened in 2016. Though some were skeptical, many believed the project represented a new hope for progress in the lower-income community of Englewood on Chicago’s South Side.

“The miracle on 63rd is what some people called it,” chuckled Leon Walker, the renowned community developer on the project.

Five years later, there are some clear reasons to celebrate. The shopping center has stayed fully leased throughout tumultuous times, Walker said. It’s also created jobs, helped reduce crime and added diversity to the area.

“Our developments are more than just bricks and mortar,” said Walker, 53, in a recent interview at the office of his firm DL3 Realty. “They go beyond the four walls of the building. They reach into the neighborhood. That’s where you really get the engagement in terms of building up local businesses and supporting existing residents.”

A native son of Chicago’s South Side, Walker’s career has included stops at powerful global firms in New York and Los Angeles. He’ll be the first to tell you that he left Chicago, and the South Side specifically, to advance his career.

“I left because I didn’t see the South Side of Chicago as a place to exercise my talents, to make money, to prosper,” Walker said. “The talent drain out of our communities is heavy. I was one of those who was attracted outside the neighborhood.”

But Walker came back. In 2000, just as he was preparing to move to Singapore, he received word that his father was ill. He returned home to help his parents and the family business. His parents, both teachers, owned and operated a chain of education centers.

In the years since, Walker’s passion for projects that uplift and transform South Side communities has only grown. Since 2013, Walker’s also served on the Food Depository’s board of directors. He recently shared his thoughts with the Hunger Beat blog on his unique model of community development and how it intersects with the work of the Food Depository.

The following interview has been edited for length and clarity.

How would you describe your philosophy of community development?

We call our work venture development. It really focuses on bringing private at-risk capital into neighborhood deals and transformative projects. Most of our neighborhoods are not starved for great philanthropic efforts or government attention – they’re really starved for private at-risk equity. Our work is about creating the nexus between those different pools of money and stakeholders. This combination results in transformative capital solutions and more sustainable development plans that lift the surrounding neighborhood.

I’m very clear in speaking in the community context that change is coming. And that change means it’s going to look different than it does now. There are going to be different people walking around. There are going to be others that live here and different businesses. That does not mean displacement. Our developments are focused on development without displacement.

We’ve created about 3,000 jobs in the last five years with our projects. At the Englewood Whole Foods alone, we created 250 jobs. Our goal is creating 10,000 new jobs by the end of this decade on the South Side of this city.

How do you measure the success of Englewood Square project, which includes a Whole Foods Market, and its impact on that community?

That shopping center has been 100 percent leased through downturns, Great Recessions, civil unrest – 100 percent leased. Now the city is building on that with Invest South/West initiatives to expand and create a more dense environment with additional housing and residents.

When I talk to community stakeholders about diversity, often we are promoting economic diversity as the way forward out of economic stagnation. It’s not racial diversity but sometimes that’s a part of it. At that intersection at 63rd and Halsted, you now see a mix that you’ve never seen before. You’ve got to remember, from the west, coming from beyond West Englewood, the Latino population is moving east. It’s the only neighborhood in this city where the Latino population is moving east instead of west. And then to the north, you have the historic ethnic enclaves of Back of the Yards, Bridgeport and Canaryville and going on to Chinatown. So you have a level of diversity intersecting at that corner now that has not been seen over 50 years!

That creates a different spirit, a different light, a different energy that you didn’t have before. And that’s what we’re about – bringing in light, bringing hope, bringing energy.

And that will encourage people to make different decisions in their life.

We have had very measurable results in Englewood. Crime dropped 50 percent the year after we opened in that immediate area. We’re celebrating five years of being open there this year on Saturday, Sept. 18. We have a music fest that we’re sponsoring. I invite you to come out.

(Learn more about the Englewood Music Festival.)

We want to bring a little love and hope.

How do you see your development work intersecting with the Food Depository’s work toward ending hunger?

All we’re seeing at the Food Depository, if we continue on status quo, is increasing need and insecurity. The need has only grown over time. It’s grown to more than even the Food Depository can accomplish over time. It outstrips what we can provide.

If you’re starving and hungry, you have to address that. That’s the urgent need. I like to focus on – how do we bend the curve of need in the future? And the answer is jobs and, in particular, local jobs in the neighborhood. If you don’t have hope, you don’t make different choices about the future. If you don’t have a job, you can’t provide for your family in a way that’s connected to the larger economy in a productive way. It goes hand in hand. It’s not separate.

What do you think about how the Food Depository has shifted its strategic focus toward equity in recent years? There’s been an understanding that we have to do more to serve Black and Latino communities on the South and West Sides.  And as one example, we’ve invested millions of dollars in partners serving those communities during the pandemic.

It makes total sense. It’s getting out of that paternalistic mindset. I learned this in my work in the communities. Developers can’t think that they know the answer, that they know best. We have to humble ourselves. With that comes an approach and an attitude that is more engaging and more focused on equity initiatives.

We know the need is bigger than we can meet. Are we just about trying to feed the need? Or are we really trying to be a part of structurally changing the equation?

It requires engagement, it requires strengthening partner ties, it requires building up our partners so they can do for self more than we can do for them. It’s that fundamental shift in attitude to start seeing the humanity in the people that we work for. And trying to get them in position to be part of the solution.

The challenges in Chicago can feel so intractable, particularly when we talk about the racial inequities and disinvestment on the South and West Sides. What makes you want to stay here and keep doing the work that you do?

In order to do this work well, you have to be a student of history, I believe. Englewood didn’t just pop up to be Englewood last year. What are the conditions? What are the things that created the current state of affairs? Understand that and understand that timeline. And once you do that, you can start to project a timeline for change. It’s not necessarily going to be next year. You invest in process.

What does philanthropy mean to you and what’s your call for others?

Focus on the things that are near to home and near to heart, particularly if there are things near to communities where you grew up in as a kid. Don’t let them just continue to languish and falter. Make investments that impact those communities that you grew up in. For those of us who have been blessed and are now fortunate enough to have gathered some resources to live differently, we should still maintain a connection to those neighborhoods we grew up in as kids. We have an obligation to those communities.

Invest locally with organizations such as the Food Depository and others that are making real difference in the lives of people in the local neighborhoods.

The next thing I would say is consider how you’re spending your time, and what kinds of organizations, initiatives and efforts you can invest your time in. Money is part of the equation but your talent and education can help inform these conversations, which results in better solutions for all.

This is how we begin to be a part of the change we want to see.

More Recent Stories