By Michael Romain
LAST WEDNESDAY, MAYWOOD — Inside of what used to be a Maywood branch library years ago, Darryl Johnson, a silkscreen designer and armchair historian, was telling another entrepreneur about Greeenwood, the now-legendary neighborhood in Tulsa, Oklahoma widely considered to be one of the wealthiest African-American communities of the 20th Century. It was so successful that people began calling it “the Negro Wall Street.”
It’s now known as “Black Wall Street” and talked about with hushed reverence by business-minded African-Americans like Johnson, who, as he touted Greenwood’s qualities to his confidante, could’ve been describing Eden.
“I’m trying to inform people about its existence,” Johnson later said during an impromptu interview over reception-size servings of fried chicken and pasta salad.
“The economic engine that they created was self-sustaining. A dollar was passed 30 to 100 times before it left the community,” Johnson said.
He was sitting inside the new Global Business Center at 840 S. 17th Avenue in Maywood that was developed by Global Estates, LLC, a construction and real estate development company owned by Andre and Vena Nelson.
The Business Center looks a world apart from its prior incarnation as a branch library. There are wooden desks and office chairs anchoring the side walls and a long work station for laptops that runs down the middle. In the back is a kitchenette and a savvy-looking conference room encased in glass. The space has the air of a hotel business room and smells like new carpentry–a hint that its development still has just a few miles to travel before completion.
“We still need to install dividers. The carpet just came in Monday. There’s been a lot of physical labor the last few weeks,” Nelson said.
The Business Center was hosting an informational meeting put on by the Chicagoland Black Chamber of Commerce, and Johnson was one of the black business owners the Chamber was targeting for membership.
The same ideas that Johnson praised in Greenwood–the self-reliance, the independence, the spirit of cooperation–were touted by Grady Norwood, Jr., the Chamber’s Chairman; Arness Dancy, the Chamber’s President and CEO; and Vena Nelson herself, who hopes the Center can be the catalyst of a Black Wall Street-like renaissance here in Maywood, if only black business owners take cues from Greenwood.
Nelson, who owns rental properties in Maywood, said she was motivated to open the Center after noticing that some of her tenants needed space to work, but found the centers that are currently available too expensive.
“I looked at Living Word’s Joseph Center, Aspire and Regis as models. They offer open office space, but for higher prices,” she said.
Unlike its competitors, the Global Business Center bundles a variety of services such as printing, computer time, conference room usage, Wi-Fi and 24/7, nights & weekends access into its unlimited plan for $299 a month, a price that is going for $199 a month for a limited time only.
There will also be space for business mail boxes, remote access to computer files and an onsite receptionist during daytime hours to assist virtual “tenants” with various administrative tasks.
“Current incubators are expensive, even for me,” said Nelson, whose husband works from office space that Global Estates owns next door to the Business Center. For her part, Nelson will be conducting her side of the business at the Center.
“Most small businesses gross under $100,000 a year. There’s not a lot left over after expenses for office space, amenities and services,” she said.
During his presentation on the Chamber’s plan to encourage and foster entrepreneurship in Chicago’s black community, Arness Dancy channeled the spirit of Black Wall Street while talking about a much less boastful reality. “We’re passing on generational poverty […] 97 percent of our dollars leave our community within 24 hours,” he said, figures that ran opposite to those Darryl Johnson brandished in reference to the legendary neighborhood in Tulsa.
Nelson wants to recapture some of the old Tulsa glory on a corner that’s experiencing something of a mini-renaissance. Nelson plans to partner with Sy Bounds, a technology expert, to offer technology courses in the Global Estates property located next door to the company’s Business Center, itself adjacent to a Jackson Hewitt tax agency. The development hub has Nelson thinking along the lines of Greenwood.
“This can almost be like our business or finance district,” she said. VFP