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Black Suburb Jinxed by Lack of Commerce

April 19, 1998|JON JETER | THE WASHINGTON POST

ROBBINS, Ill. — Founded in 1917, Robbins is the oldest all-black community in the North. Its municipal airport was the first in the nation owned and managed by African Americans, but a windstorm toppled the structure in 1931. The town has been snake-bitten since, according to the old-timers here. It is, according to U.S. Census Bureau figures, among the poorest suburbs in America.

Commercial development in Robbins consists mostly of rundown liquor stores that open as early as 8 a.m., mom-and-pop convenience stores and the underground bazaar of pimps, prostitutes and drug dealers. The big employer here is a nursing home. It has 105 employees.

Between 1970 and 1990, Robbins lost a third of its population. The town collects about $270,000 annually in property taxes.

Over the years, Robbins Mayor Irene Brodie said, she and her predecessors have courted drugstores, grocers, shopping malls, banks and factories. None came. Hoping to entice health care workers, the town built a medical clinic. The building was never occupied. Robbins tore it down.

Developers interested in building homes or opening businesses here have historically been discouraged from doing so by area bankers, according to economists, historians and elected officials. Area banks typically either refused to lend money for commercial projects in Robbins or redirected development to neighboring white communities such as Blue Island, Midlothian or Alsip, said Larry McClellan, a sociology professor and director of the South Metropolitan Leadership Center at Governors State University in Illinois.

Chicago had the only incinerator in Illinois until 1987, when state lawmakers sparked a proliferation of garbage burners. Fearing--unnecessarily, as it turned out--that the state was exhausting its landfill capacity, the Legislature approved a tax incentive to encourage the construction of facilities that converted solid waste to electricity.

That was the catalyst for a proliferation of incinerators in Chicago's south suburbs: a wood burner in Chicago Heights, a tire burner in Ford Heights, a medical waste incinerator in Harvey. Of the newly built plants, only a trash incinerator in nearby Summit is in a community that is neither impoverished nor populated mostly by people of color. Robbins, however, was the only community in the state to actively shop for an incinerator to move to town.

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