West Garfield Park restaurant owner Joe Black told the story of the restaurant and its reopening to WBEZ’s Patrick Smith. It’s based on reporting by Andy Grimm of the Chicago Sun-Times, who spent months talking with people in the neighborhood, which has the highest rate of shootings in the city. Read the Sun-Times’s West Garfield Park series here.
My wife Tonya and I run a restaurant called LiFE in West Garfield Park. It’s at the corner of Springfield Road and West Madison Street. We were forced to close for about two months after a car plowed through the front of it.
The car’s driver was shot and killed. It was a tragedy. But his story is not our story. The incident has nothing to do with us or our customers.
The day we reopened was a real special day. For weeks, people had been knocking on our window, sending us emails, leaving us voicemails asking if we were going to reopen. People were like, “Man, we thought you weren’t coming back!”
Every day in the restaurant is such a wonderful day. I’m from the hood. Every day I wake up and I’m breathing, I’m grateful.
I grew up in West Garfield Park, near Madison and Pulaski. When I was outside with my brothers and my cousins as a kid, I had to make a choice, “Do I want to sell drugs, is this what I like? Or do I want to go off and be something better than this?” Because I’ve seen the people who sold drugs. My dad and them sold drugs and they ended up dead or in jail, and I don’t want to be neither. I want to be there for my son because I didn’t have a father when I was growing up.
I decided to open LiFE restaurant [in 2017] because this area was a food desert. It was worse than it is now. You can go from Western to Cicero on Madison Street, you can probably even go to Austin. And that’s a long stretch, but I bet you can’t count more than 10 restaurants.
When you come from the outside toward our restaurant, you’ll see the beautiful park, Garfield Park. It’s been around since the 1800s, but it hasn’t really had any love. So you got that beautiful scenery, but then you come down Madison, it’s nothing but the trash, glass, broken bottles, crack pipes maybe. It used to be desolate. But you got good people in this community who come out every day, the older women, the older men. They sweep up and clean up their property every day.
So when you come through the neighborhood, you see all of that. And then you see LiFE just standing there. And then you come inside and you see all this wonderful, beautiful artwork that’s custom painted by me. I paint different messages to inspire the people. Whether we’re open or closed they can see the walls [with messages] like, “love each other,” or “stay peaceful,” or “think about it,” you know, something that’s thought provoking, to make them think.
My wife is the chef and she is a culinary artist. And she gets the smells going and it just draws the people in and we give them a lot of love. It’s such a pleasure to put smiles on people’s faces. When you see the kids looking up at you like, “I don’t know what you’re doing, but I want to do it.” The fact that we get to come here every day, and, yeah it’s in the hood, but all that’s missing is a neighbor. You put “neighbor” in that hood” and what do you get? Neighborhood.
If we can get rid of the violence, we’ll have the best community in the world.