CHICAGO—When Akbar Kurt Muhammad opened his business on a blighted block in the Woodlawn community here, he thought other businesses would soon follow.
Four years later and with his business at 611 E. 67th Street being the only functioning property on his side of the block, he decided to develop the block himself.
“I opened a laundry facility there. I rehabbed it. I thought by opening, it would attract other businesses. It never happened,” he said.
That’s when the entrepreneur talked with trusted friends and the idea of a holistic approach to developing the block emerged. Other than his business, the rest of the block consisted of boarded buildings and a vacant lot. The first task was to find out who owned the properties and acquire them.
After tedious research, Brother Akbar Muhammad learned the Cook County Land Bank Authority (CCLBA) controlled the properties. The CCLBA takes ownership of vacant and abandoned buildings and offers them for development. However, the CCLBA puts up barriers that prevent investors from purchasing properties and not developing them until the areas begin to gentrify.
“They (CCLBA) try to level the playing field to address the inequities in our neighborhoods,” Bro. Akbar said.
After putting in a winning bid for the properties, Bro. Akbar looked at the community’s needs. He found that Woodlawn—like numerous Black neighborhoods throughout Chicago’s South and West sides—was considered a food and health care desert. In addition, Black communities were being ravaged by the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, with the highest rates of infections and deaths occurring in these neighborhoods.
The areas addressed in the team’s holistic approach included health care, financial literacy and entrepreneurship, food, nutrition, and agriculture.
“Many of our business corridors are either boarded up or controlled by immigrants,” Bro. Akbar said. “We have job training programs but no training in entrepreneurship. Many of our health issues stem from bad eating habits. I want to show our community that ‘eat to live’ is more than a phrase,” he said, referring to the title of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad’s life-expanding book “How to Eat to Live.”
Bro. Akbar’s team established the not-for-profit Salaam Community Wellness Center, a health care facility that will “marry the best of non-Western medicine with the best of Western medicine.” The Wellness Center, to be located at 613 E. 67th, will be the anchor business on the block.
Non-Western approaches to wellness will include acupuncture, yoga, deep breathing, tai chi and meditation, among other methods. The Wellness Center also will serve as a training site for master’s degree level social work student interns to provide virtual and on-site case management for patients with limited transportation or who are better served in their homes.
“We’re taking an integrated medicine approach,” said Dr. Constance Shabazz, a noted health care professional who serves as CEO and co-founder of the Wellness Center. “These alternative approaches aren’t usually offered in our communities. We’ll go deep into the mental health areas. We’ll talk about post-traumatic slavery syndrome and other traumas that impact our mental health.”
Another building will house entrepreneurial training where participants will learn how to write a business plan, pitch ideas to investors and do a feasibility study, among other trainings.
A dine-in restaurant that focuses on serving nutritious food will be part of the complex. The restaurant will be supplied with vegetables from a community garden that will be planted on an adjoining vacant lot. The garden will also serve as a source for agricultural training and an area for meditation.
“We want to be of service to our community,” Bro. Akbar said. “Our approach will be mental, spiritual and nutritional.”
He said rehabilitation of the buildings is nearly complete and forecasts a spring opening if the Covid-19 pandemic allows. If not, there are plans for virtual trainings and educational opportunities.
Bro. Akbar honed his business skills under his father, Elmer D. Cargle, who owned and operated several South Side laundry mats in the early 1970s. When his father retired in the late 1990s, young Akbar assisted in the successful negotiations and selling of the businesses.
Bro. Akbar reentered the laundry business in 2007 and now operates nine self-service laundry facilities.
Another major influence on Bro. Akbar’s life has been the teachings of the Honorable Elijah Muhammad through the Honorable Minister Louis Farrakhan.
“I am inspired by the way the Honorable Elijah Muhammad controlled the fish industry, the way he established restaurants across the country,” said Bro. Akbar, a member of the Nation of Islam’s Elite 50 Plus squad. “Min. Farrakhan teaches us that self- improvement is the basis for community development. Our approach is to help develop individuals so that they can develop our communities.”
(For more information or to support the Salaam Wellness Center project, visit www.salaamcwc.org, or call 773-207-3540.)