Returning life to the communityBy Starla Muhammad -Staff Writer- | Last updated: Jul 3, 2012 - 12:35:46 AM
Nation of Islam's Salaam restaurant reopens as sign of economic independence and efforts to rebuild Black community.
CHICAGO (FinalCall.com) - After a 12 year hiatus, the “Palace of the People” is back and better than ever. The rebirth and reopening of Salaam restaurant, the $5 million newly-renovated Nation of Islam built facility, generated excitement and buzz that was only surpassed by the delicious cuisine on the menu.
For a city experiencing a surge of violent crimes, high unemployment and bleak outlook, the resurrection of the Salaam in the heart of the Black community is right on time, said residents and leaders.
The opening is not just a physical renewal but also symbolizes a spiritual renewal for Auburn Gresham, the 98 percent Black southwest side community where the restaurant sits on the corner of 79th St. and Union Ave.
Local community leaders, clergy, politicians and business professionals joined the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan for pre-grand opening events, including an ecumenical prayer luncheon June 27 and a special evening of elegance July 1. The restaurant fully and officially reopens the weekend of July 6 and 7.
While business people hesitate to invest and develop in low income areas, the Nation of Islam and Min. Farrakhan, in following the teachings and example of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad, did not hesitate in opening the world class facility in the middle of the “hood.”
“I have been criticized by well meaning people for putting such a beautiful place in the heart of the so-called ghetto. I was told, ‘A place as beautiful as this should be located downtown,’ ” said Min. Farrakhan. “We love our people and the best is not good enough so we put the Salaam exactly where we wanted it to be. We wanted it to be a Palace for the People and it is just that.”
Salaam, which in Arabic means “Peace,” houses a world class bakery and Crescent Café offers casual dining, take out and fine dining on the first level. An opulent second-floor ballroom offers dining upstairs suitable for 350 people and can accommodate meetings, parties and special events. A private dining room for Min. Farrakhan is also upstairs and can be used for special meetings. The Salaam is open to all, regardless of creed, class, color or religion. The restaurant also plans to compete hard in the marketplace, offering fine dining at an average cost of $18 and a fine vegetarian menu to complement lovers of beef, lamb or poultry. Salaam chefs promise there will be something for everyone, from fresh-baked breads and desserts to piping hot delicious cups of coffee and Wi-Fi. The walls downstairs are adorned with murals devoted to Black history and the history of the Nation of Islam.
The Rev. Willie Barrow, a longtime community leader and Rainbow Push board member, spoke strongly to the crowd invited to celebrate, about the necessity of building and backing Black businesses. She called the Salaam an example of the type of development Black neighborhoods need. The word must spread far and wide that the restaurant is open, said Rev. Barrow. And with the challenges facing Blacks, including foreclosures on churches as parishioners go through hard times, economic cooperation is a must, she added.
“This is not just about a place for Muslims to be but this is something that is directly for the community. And when I think about that I think about economic development. I think about some of the youth that’s out there on the corner, young men and women that’s looking for work. I think that this is a place that they can come to apply to,” said Elder Hildred Taylor from The Church of the Living God in Maywood, Ill., who attended the reception.
The reopening is very significant and when God blesses you to have something good, it attracts other things, added Elder Taylor. “For people in the neighborhood to look to see that this rebirth is actually a reality and it brings about hope,” said Elder Taylor.
Alderman Latasha R. Thomas, whose ward includes Auburn Gresham, was one of many lending a hand in bringing the Salaam back. “We are just excited from a community standpoint to have Salaam back open in our community. It will bring jobs; it will bring business and opportunities. It’s a fabulous place. We’re excited about having it here and we’re going to make sure it doesn’t leave,” Ald. Thomas told The Final Call. In a show of commitment and support, the alderman told the standing room only crowd July 1 she would be holding a community function at facility later in the month. The usually laid-back political leader bubbled with excitement, repeatedly stressing to the reception audience, “Jobs and business!”
“That they (people) will know that they can come and experience a wonderful atmosphere, fine dining, good service and to know that they are serving a useful purpose so I wouldn’t have missed it, delighted to be here even though I know there won’t be no chitterlings on the menu. I don’t need any, anyway” the congressman said laughing. He was one of the evening speakers who congratulated the Minister and the Nation and stressed the need to support Black businesses.
“It’s wonderful, and of course the Who’s Who of the African American community is here tonight. I just hope they’ll keep coming every other night and every other Sunday and every other day,” he added.
Carlos Nelson, executive director of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation (GADC), has seen the area transform dramatically over the past several decades. Having once been a nearly all-White, Irish-Catholic area, Blacks began populating the neighborhoods in the 1960s, he said.
When the Nation of Islam acquired property along 79th Street in the 1980s, Auburn-Gresham was experiencing many of the same challenges it is facing today and the business community was headed downward, he added.
As the 1980s progressed bringing with it the crack cocaine epidemic that ravaged poor Black communities nationwide, Auburn- Gresham also fell victim, further decimating the business and educational structure.
Mr. Nelson and GADC work with the public and private sector to help invest in and revitalize low income areas, through economic business development. Mr. Nelson sees the reopening of Salaam as a vital catalyst in the revitalization of Auburn-Gresham, home to 60,000 low to moderate income residents, 25 to 30 percent are over age 55. School age children also make up a significant percentage of residents. Seventy-five percent of residents average approximately $30,000 to $35,000 in annual income.
“Store owners of different ethnicities that owned the property, owned the buildings just did not put any more money into the businesses. A lot of the buildings became in such disrepair a lot of them had to be demolished. The resurrection of the Salaam couldn’t be at a better time,” said Mr. Nelson.
“This is great timing that the Salaam is reopening and that the Nation is kind of reinvigorating the section of the community that has long been key,” he added. “I look at it not just as the reopening of the Salaam but resurrecting the whole Nation of Islam campus. What we’re going to do as a community development corporation is give as much PR, we’re going to add many stories to our website, to our local Auburn-Gresham portal. I mean we’re really going to beef this up not just as a great thing that the Nation of Islam is doing but a great thing that’s happening in our community by one of our strong community partners.”
Rev. Dr. Michael Pfleger of the Faith Community of Saint Sabina, Prince Asiel Bin Israel and other clergy offered prayers for success for the Salaam at an earlier weekday ecumenical brunch that was also was packed. Muslims, Christians and Hebrews celebrated and exuded pride in the restaurant comeback and its importance as a symbol and substance of Black entrepreneurship with a higher purpose.
Basketball legend and successful businessman Ervin “Magic” Johnson sent a videotaped message of congratulations to the Minister for the re-launching and lauded the fact that the business was in the Black community and would provide jobs for residents.
Muslims and non-Muslims alike shared fond memories of the original Salaam restaurant on 83rd Street and Cottage Grove that thrived under the direction of the Most Honorable Elijah Muhammad. It is this blueprint that the Nation and Min. Farrakhan are using as a template today.
“The Honorable Elijah Muhammad wanted the original Salaam to give his people and all Salaam customers the best in food and service. It is our greatest desire to fulfill his desires for this restaurant,” said Min. Farrakhan.
Many guests said Salaam represents hope. Reverend Paul Jakes of New Tabernacle of Faith Baptist Church and president of the Christian Council on Urban Affairs agreed.
“We see there being just simply a rebirth of our community, rebirth of so many job opportunities, rebirth of a spiritual ministry that helps people health wise as well as financially. It’s a beautiful day that many of us that are from many various religious groups have come to encourage Brother Minister Louis Farrakhan and others such as Leonard Farrakhan Muhammad, Berve Muhammad who we all appreciate. That we can say to them, we will support you as you have supported us. We will have our banquets here. We will have our receptions here. We will have our meetings here and it will be a beautiful time for the community and the community ought to do the same,” said Rev. Jakes.