The Bronzeville neighborhood of Chicago is home to Boxville, a shipping container marketplace that empowers Black and Brown entrepreneurs while reviving the area's historically-disinvested downtown area. Credit: Sandria M. Washington

Currently there are over 17 million shipping containers across the globe being used to transport mass products from one country to the next. Of that figure only 6 million are actually in circulation. In America especially, many containers sit idle. This is because the country imports more than it exports and shipping the containers back to Asia would be too expensive for most businesses. 

Fortunately over the last 20 years, builders have been utilizing shipping containers as affordable, environmentally friendly alternatives to traditional constructions. These days, it is not uncommon to see homes, schools, hospitals, and even swimming pools constructed from shipping containers. 

Armed with this knowledge, urban planners and community developers have joined the movement, using shipping containers to construct temporary and permanent shopping malls that empower Black and Brown entrepreneurs, help fledgling businesses, and revive downtown areas in disenfranchised neighborhoods.

The story of Chicago’s Boxville 

One such neighborhood is Bronzeville in Chicago. Bronzeville was once an epicenter for arts, culture and commerce, filled with a community of working middle-to-upper-class Black families. 

A 1940s photo of historic Bronzeville. The city was once a center of robust economic, social and artistic advancement on Chicago’s south side. Credit: University of Chicago

Since 1970, the city’s population has decreased by 59%. Bronzeville is now home to just under 26,000 residents. With a primarily Black demographic, the median household income in the area is $30,979, just half of Chicago’s median income of $61,811.

Bernard Lloyd is working to change that. Lloyd is the founder of Urban Juncture, a nonprofit organization dedicated to revitalizing disinvested Black urban communities by rebuilding neighborhood commerce around culture and innovation. 

We are focused on creating local opportunity and that is where the injustice has been. — Bernard Lloyd, founder of Urban Juncture 

Urban Juncture established Build Bronzeville, which consists of five initiatives designed to revitalize the once-prosperous community. 

Five years ago, the Boxville Marketplace became one of those initiatives. Boxville is one of Chicago’s first shipping container restaurant and retail centers. Created as a stepping stone for Black businesses to grow, progress, and prosper, the accelerator enterprise is located in a former vacant lot at 330 East 51st Street and covers about one-third of a city block.

Boxville is home to nearly a dozen local businesses. Credit: Boxville

Boxville allows entrepreneurs and small businesses to open shop affordably and receive supportive services. The start up capital required to access typical commercial storefronts can be wildly expensive. For business owners wishing to locate in Bronzeville, expenses and challenges multiply. Years of disinvestment, disengagement, and blight have left the city with few prime commercial spaces, under-resourced business districts and a surplus of dilapidated buildings. 

“Entrepreneurs and small businesses already struggle to find capital,” said Katrina Roddy, Boxville’s Director. “If they are trying to locate on Chicago’s south side, they may have the additional expense of having to renovate a storefront on a commercial strip where few other businesses exist. Now, they’ve got to find a way to draw customers to their location, too.” That’s where Boxville comes in, she explained.   

Boxville is the tipping point to keeping the Black dollar circulating. We always talk about the circulation of the African American dollar between our Brown and Black communities and our businesses. Now we have a spot. — Katrina Roddy, Boxville Director

Boxville offers small businesses, entrepreneurs, and budding restaurants opportunities to test and grow their markets before moving on to a long-term or permanent brick and mortar space. Partners also receive small business training and coaching in areas such as financing, business development, and marketing.

Roddy works with community partners, like the Small Business Development Center (also located in the Boxville incubator) to ascertain if a business has the potential to become a Boxville partner, using pop-up events to measure business growth potential and prospective community impact. 

A Boxville pop-up event featuring local small businesses. Credit: Chicago Neighborhood Development Award

Once the offer to become an official Boxville partner is extended to a pop-up vendor, they can set up shop at the 51st Street location. Retail space in a container ranges from $450 to $850, depending on the size of the space. The fees cover the cost of a micro (10 X 8) or standard (20 X 8) sized, insulated, retrofitted container, electricity, and up to two windows. Vendors cover the cost of heating and cooling, and are permitted to fix up their spaces as they desire.

Corey Gilkey, owner of Friistyle Restaurant, began as a pop-up vendor before becoming a Boxville partner. Gilkey now operates a restaurant, where he sells his loaded pomme frittes,  (fried potatoes) at a brick-and-mortar location, about one block from Boxville. 

Corey Gilkey poses in front his Friistyle storefront. Credit: Quarantine Times

Stoviink Creatives sells wellness and mindfulness products. Co-owners Storie Devereaux and Tovi Khali decided to become a part of Boxville seven months ago after thriving as an online business during the pandemic. 

“It was time to create more visibility,” said co-owner Storie Devereaux. “Our products are sensory, so we wanted customers to experience our products in a different way.” Like Gilkey, Devereaux and her partner want to expand to permanent locations in Bronzeville or Englewood. 

Storie Devereaux and Tovi Khali, Boxville partners and co-owners of Stoviink Creatives, a line a wellness and mindfulness products. Credit: Stoviink Creatives

Roddy believes the success seen by the Boxville marketplace and its alumni will create lasting positive change for the community of Bronzeville. 

We see people investing in Bronzeville as a result of our work. Someone just bought a building on the corner. They plan to open two retail shops. Across the street, we see new construction. In the next three to five years, it will look different on 51st Street.

Boxville is open year-round, and currently has ten businesses, having previously featured as many as seventeen. This decrease, according to Roddy, is not a negative. It is a sign that Boxville is accomplishing its goal. “We don’t expect Boxville partners to be in Boxville for more than two years…We’re just trying to provide the community with a stepping stone before they have to make the huge investment associated with brick-and-mortar costs,” Roddy said.

For the neighborhood that surrounds it, Boxville is as much about community as it is commerce. In addition to hosting local businesses, the marketplace also includes spaces for free community fitness classes and “Neighborhood Square” events, where neighbors gather to talk, listen to music, and dance. 

Addressing a history of economic exclusion 

While Boxville is an undeniable success, the story of Bronzeville and communities like it aren’t unusual. U.S. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen asserts that the disparity in incomes and businesses in Black communities across the nation is not an accident nor is it a scarlet letter attached to a particular race. Centuries of divestment have sought to undermine social and economic advancement in many historically Black and Brown neighborhoods.

From reconstruction to Jim Crow, to the present day, our economy has never worked fairly for Black Americans — or really any American of color. — Janet Yellen, U.S. Treasury Secretary 

Yellen notes that U.S. policy makers have historically established racially influenced rules for the economy that prevented intergenerational wealth transfers among Black Americans.

In 2019, there were a total of 5,771,292 businesses with more than one employee. Black owned businesses represented 2.3%  (134,567) of that number. These businesses traditionally have been sole proprietorships that are more likely to hire Black workers who otherwise might be unemployed or ignored in traditional job markets

In efforts to close the enduring wealth gap, communities across the country are looking to utilize new means of building out Black and Brown economic power. 

Boxville ‘with a twist’: Atlanta’s Beltline Marketplace

Like Boxville organizers, Atlanta Beltline, Inc (ABI) and The Village Market (TVM) also hope to address the wealth inequality between Black-owned and other minority and white-owned businesses. 

ABI and TVM have begun piloting an initiative similar to Boxville. The twist: the pilot program solely targets locally-owned Black businesses. Doors opened mid-July at Beltline Marketplace, which like Boxville, was constructed entirety from shipping containers. The marketplace offers six local Black-owned businesses exposure to Atlanta Beltline’s two million annual visitors. 

Atlanta Mayor Andre Dickens (center), celebrate the opening of BeltLine MarketPlace with Atlanta BeltLine, Inc. CEO Clyde Higgs (right of mayor), The Village Market founder Dr. Lakeysha Hallmon (left of Mayor), and local businesses owners. Credit: Erin Sintos

Each business receives affordable commercial space and business support services before and during the inaugural season, which lasts from early summer to November 2022. The pilot project is supported by a $750,000 grant from the Kendeda Fund. 

This collaboration ensures economic mobility, accessibility, and a progressive way forward as the Beltline begins to nurture relationships with local, independently owned, Black-owned businesses that have been displaced due to the surge in commercial rents. — TVM Founder and CEO Dr. Lakeysha Hallmon

Beyond the pilot program, Beltline MarketPlace plans to open up to businesses of all backgrounds as more locations pop up around the eastern and western sides of the Beltline loop. 

Continuing to create space for emergent entrepreneurs 

Roughly half of all small businesses fail within their first five years, and prospects are even more bleak for entrepreneurs of color, who face issues like lack of access to capital, resources, expertise and customers.  

Marketplaces like Boxville and Beltline remove these barriers by absorbing the cost of building out space, locating businesses in highly visible areas, and providing affordable lease rates below traditional commercial markets. And this model is becoming quite popular already.

Stackt is a large shipping container market in Toronto, Canada. The site features a mix of shops, a microbrewery, top chefs and ongoing community programming. Credit: UrbanNext

Community developers and organizers in cities like Cleveland, Ohio, Sparta, Michigan, London, England, and Toronto, Canada are among the many cities utilizing the model to bolster local economies and revive struggling commercial centers. 

Enticing entrepreneurs back to downtown locations at a fraction of the costs, shipping container marketplaces are helping to return life and economic opportunities to flailing neighborhoods, strengthening localized Black and Brown economic power and creating social environments that celebrate sustainable, community-based commerce. 

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Tina Jenkins Bell


Tina Jenkins Bell

Tina Jenkins Bell is a freelance journalist who has written for numerous local and national organization publications about economic and community development in addition to the Chicago Tribune, Crain's Chicago