#975: Will Tomorrow Smell Like Chocolate?

September 3rd, 2018

The smell of chocolate wafts around the building.

It has for years, decades. That smell permeates the building and spreads out onto the North Branch of the river. When the wind is right it scents the whole downtown with a short, tangy reminder of cocoa and jobs. On summer days, it’s what Chicago smells like to me.

Inside the factory door of the blankface warehouse, there’s a glass booth decorated with hygiene requirements for any visiting subcontractors. A few workers pile out the door, their shift done. They laugh wearily and joke, like kids at the end of a school day.

The hefty man behind the glass sees me and nods me in what’s clearly the right direction. I enter the shop. 

It’s not much of a shop. Little by way of decoration, just a small, industrial room with racks of candy and one lonely worker waiting by a scale. There’s an exit to the rear with a Sharpie sign marking the route to the employee-only wholesale section.

The woman by the scale smiles and understands when I ask for something wholly made here. The racks of candies in tidy red packages had been sent out to other places for finishing. She points me to the back wall, where there are Ziploc bags hand-stuffed with cracked bits straight off the factory floor. They look like bags of loose stone.

I choose two Ziplocs — a Meadowlands Milk because I figure it looks good and a Saratoga Dark because it intrigues me. It looks raw and unbrushed. There are bits of sandy tan on the inside. It hasn’t been tempered to a smooth sheen yet, and never would be. But it was made right here, and that’s all I wanted, while I can get it.

Blommer Chocolate Factory, one of the last holdouts of industry in the West Loop, a blankface warehouse on a burgeoning, Rahm-ening corridor of condos and fancy restaurants, a strip of factories and machine shops one by one being picked off by the 21st century economy, could go away.

I ask the woman about the article, the one that said the family that owns it was thinking of selling. No more chocolate shop. No more smell wafting through the city.

“We found out the way everyone else did,” she said, and after that I don’t feel comfortable sharing more of our conversation.

I left. I wandered.

Sacks of stone-like chocolate shards in hand, I walked by the old Tribune printing plant that’s going to be a gleaming mixed-use development of, based on the online renderings, Borg-like glass condos and interracial unity. I walked by factory workers on smoke breaks and miniskirted hostesses arriving early to guide well-coiffed diners to their seats at upscale restaurants. I walked by cyclists on Treks that ran into the four digits and I walked by two old Italian men, hair swept vertical with pomade, who set up chairs to smoke cigarettes and shoot bull outside a bar painted like an Italian flag.

I perched for a bus by Western and Grand. Bikes rushed past the shops of HVAC repairmen and a boxy glass condominium building smashed like a game-ending Tetris piece into a space it doesn’t fit.

A space it doesn’t fit yet. The sci-fi box with the built-in coffee shops will be the norm, the last-standing old warehouse the kitchy anomaly.

A cabbie blocked the rushing bike lane to let out a passenger, and I hated him and loved all bikes. A biker spat on the cabbie’s window, and I loved the cabbie and hated all bikes. A white man spat on a Middle Eastern man, but he thinks it woke because he rides.

In a town that’s knows it’s post-industrial but doesn’t know what it’s pre- of yet, things I loved battle against things I loved. The environment fights against jobs. Upscale coffee joints eye the real estate of longtime dive bars. I’ve never spat on an immigrant, but I’ve been the biker racing up the corridor. I’ve dined at some of those high-end restaurants, and I’ve drank at the Italian-flag bar and its equally-belligerent-in-Irishness twin on the corner. I like gourmet coffee, fancy food, bikes and dive bars, but to see these things I love individually mashed together and fighting for existence made me realize how unsustainable and mutually exclusive my love really is.

The world’s being remade in my image, and I don’t like how it looks.

I have so many questions for this neighborhood where you can buy a Ziploc of chocolate shards or a $60+ updo with special rates for bridal parties. Are we ever again going to be a place that makes things, or just one that enjoys what others produced? Are we a building a city for tourists, where posh, drunken whites spend posh, drunken 20s and then skitter to suburbia? Or can we create a place for people to lift, haul and manufacture better lives?

Can we have both?

I don’t know what the future holds, and I can’t see a way past this war of money. I just hope that the combination of glass box and blankface warehouse we’ll soon call Chicago finds a way to smell of chocolate.

Read more about that smell

Read more about chocolate and wealth

Read about a South Side candy haven

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