It’s not often that you get the opportunity to personally acknowledge the person that has inspired and motivated you from a distance, simply by them moving in their purpose. It just so happens that because of the opportunity I received to write a love letter to the community that raised me, I was able to do exactly that.

I got a moment to talk with Stephanie Hart, owner of Brown Sugar Bakery, not only to find out what the South Side and Chatham/Greater Grand Crossing mean to her, and why she has chosen to stay here–but also to personally tell her what seeing her reach new heights while always being a proud Black woman has meant to me.  

I gave her her flowers.

Stephanie: I mean, really, it’s like some of the things you do, you don’t ever, ever even fathom that what I do and why I stay is because… I feel like I started my business to represent the style of cake baking of the women that loved me growing up that were not considered professional. Or they didn’t get accolades for what they produced, except for the love of our families, and for various reasons, a lot of those women couldn’t start businesses. And so, yeah, the fact that you actually noticed just really has me a little emotional. So thank you for that. I appreciate it.

As one can imagine it can be hard to get in touch with a woman such as Stephanie. So in writing about what Stephanie’s growth and success with Brown Sugar Bakery means to me, I wanted a chance to hear directly from her. I wanted to know what rooted her commitment to the South Side and to this community.

I really think that why I committed was one, I developed a product from my memories of African-American women who loved me, or who I felt loved me through food, right. The pie that your mother loved was a gift, every time I came home to Detroit, as long as my Aunt Mary was on the planet. And so that was special to me. She was Aunt Mary because she was our next door neighbor, and back then that’s what you did, you call people auntie—or something—because they could, you know, it was different then. And I wanted all the cakes I make—the desserts, the cobblers, all of that—is [from] women that, you know, would live in a community like Chatham.

And also when I found 75th Street, I felt it was rare and unique because at the time that I came to 75th Street in 2004, there were so many Black businesses on 75th. Army and Lou’s was still there, who had been anchored for years. You had a hat maker, Sconi. You had boutiques, you had, you know, tailors and shoe shops and a shoe repair, Black owned cleaners. You had a health food store. 

You know, we really have a lot. Soul Vegetarian. I used to come to Soul Vegetarian before I ever knew it was 75th Street, because I’m not from Chicago. I would hit it from the Dan Ryan and then leave, and I never knew all the jewels that were east of 75th Street until I got ready to do a business.

And I drove down 75th Street, driving my daughter to get her hair braided. That was the first time seeing 75th Street from Stony Island all the way to the young lady, [who] lived just over the Dan Ryan. So I just took the 75th Street straight and I was amazed. 

At that time, Quentin Love had two restaurants operating on 75th Street, Italian Soul and Quench. He also had his barber shop, which all had unique-looking signs. So I saw this established stuff and I also saw, you know, a wave of newness that looked like a little bit of the North Side to me. And it encouraged me that I could be part of a thriving community and I could try to add a service to this community that wasn’t there.

I’m sure at one time there was a bakery, but, you know, that was my goal. And I figured I would start off in an area where people would be familiar. And my thought was that they would appreciate that I was celebrating them and cake. I wasn’t making just any cake. I was making the cakes that represented what I thought was an African-American experience.

We began to talk about how Black people have always managed to build up their communities and create not only opportunities, but spaces for themselves. Businesses would root themselves in the community and survive for generations. We talked about how in their prime there were hubs of Black businesses throughout the city, not just 75th Street, but also 79th, 71st, and Madison Ave.

I think 75th Street might be unique in America.

I would think that it would be… President’s Lounge on 75th Street, about 40 years. You know, Lou and Liz, the space that I occupy, was occupied by another Black woman for 40 years before I came. And I’ve been on the street for 20 years. There’s the health food store, Lem’s BBQ 66 years, no, 68 years, excuse me. That’s definitely generational, and Soul Vegetarian is generational and has to be about 44 years old. The 50-Yard Line, probably there 50 years, you know.

And there is wisdom in that. Frances [Cocktail] Lounge—although Ms. Frances died several years ago—when I moved over there, she was an older woman, but she gave me a lot of wisdom about being in business. She was very open and talkative. And that was something else that I could draw upon, is, I could talk to Mr. Lems [Lemons] and I could talk to Prince Asiel, he did a lot of counseling. The gentleman that owned the hat store, Sconi’s, made original hats and he had positive sayings inside his hats. And when I came and opened up on 75th Street, he gave me a hat. On the [inside] of it, it said something like, “If you can look up, you can get up. And if you can get up, you can run,” you know, something like that. 

The gentleman, [Harry Lennix] from, you know, he’s the space captain now, and in several movies, he’s a theater person. I think he’s even invested in the new theater somewhere up on Cottage Grove. Used to play chess at the store, two doors down from the first bakery up on Evans in a little house. That was the man trying to make a coffee house, and that was a chess hangout. And like literally it was just a community.

I felt safe there.

Throughout the course of our conversation we discussed so many things about this community we both love. So much in fact, this piece had to have its own space. Yet, and still, this brief collection of thoughts doesn’t fully express all that we talked about and the gems Stephanie shared with me. However, I will be sure to share with you the things that resonated with my spirit when talking with her. 

I made sure to ask what Chatham and Greater Grand Crossing has meant to her and her business as it’s grown up over these years.

Well, I’d like to share one thing with you because of this broken down neighborhood. I remember, and this is probably maybe seven or eight years ago now, 77 neighborhoods was redone by whatever woman that published this book, 77 neighborhoods. And she called the bakery randomly, she was trying to get some kind of quote for Greater Grand Crossing, and she prefaced what she wanted me to say.

I guess maybe she called someplace and maybe they had something negative and she was like, well, you know, this is a blah, blah, blah, and I would just like you to have a positive thought. I was like, what do you mean? Life is sweet here! And it is for me. My business life has been sweet on 75th Street.

I hope in the future to grow my business on 75th Street, and not just my business. I don’t want to just say my business because my business is anchored in a community where I want to see the other businesses grow as well. I’m very much encouraging and working with other businesses. We work together well and my goal is that this is a destination for not only Chicago but for the world, that people will tour 75th Street.

I’m so sorry that the Apartment Lounge and the jazz is gone, but I would like to see, I hope that somebody, opens up a business on 75th Street that revitalizes that part. And yeah, I would like to actually move more towards a museum-like atmosphere, or something that’s integrating in the next coming years. After I finish with this factory, to rehab 75th street into something where it’s not just a place to come get a cake, but you can come get a cake and have an experience or gain knowledge about cakes and where they came from and how much they meant in our community as around celebrations—and why this cake and what this stood for and I hope to get to that where people can really even go deeper into how much food and culture go together. Because I do think that our food has been vilified as something that’s not for you. And it’s just amazing how people can drop in our community and get us to believe that macaroni and cheese is giving us hypertension, and it never used to, but fettuccine alfredo will not.

Being a resident of the community, I witnessed the changes to 75th Street, the addition of outdoor seating and the increase in art, the overall elevation from a street to a destination. At the time there were community maps highlighting the cool places to go in the neighborhood. The change was ushered in by the Chatham-Avalon-Greater Grand Crossing Alliance, now known as the GCI (Greater Chatham Initiative). We talked about this change and Stephanie’s influence in helping to make it come to fruition.

Oh yeah. We’ve been beating that for a long time. And yeah, I was very much in favor of that. Even though the neighbors—and I understand why, because you close yourself off and you believe the hype…sometimes the neighbors don’t like me, but my point has been if we don’t occupy our space, then who will? 

So if me and my friends aren’t sitting out front, who is? If you’re not coming to the bakery and sitting on the bench, who’s sitting there? You know what I’m saying? If I don’t have a bench at all, you think that that’s going to deter people from hanging out? No, it’ll deter you from hanging out, but it won’t deter who you do not want from hanging out.

You make space for them by being absent. And I want us to be present in our community. The outdoor seating and those events, it was about a look, it was about an inspiration. It was about us being able to say, we can come out of our house, we can walk and go someplace, we can have an experience, we can shop, we can dine ,and we can have a good time and we can be entertained. In our own neighborhood. 

And for all the things that people say it brings, when you go to West Loop or wherever to hang out, all the things that happen from being in that, you know, that’s not all sweet. But people make arrangements for it to be cleaned up, to be put back together the next morning. And that kind of focus is why we got, I mean, we didn’t get but we got. What I mean is we didn’t particularly market to be in a situation to have Kamala Harris come to our street.

But the fact that we did the things to be inviting and self-sufficient and entertaining ourself. It looked like some place you would bring the vice president… And she showed up. So the energy of what we wanted to happen, did happen. But you gotta put the energy in, and you don’t have to have all the problems solved. You just have to put the energy in, and you keep working and refining and you don’t give up. 

You keep going.

Leave a comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *