Economy Serves Diner's Customers Tough Times

As part of a series of conversations, David Greene talks to Izola White, 88, who has owned a diner on Chicago's South Side for more than 50 years. It closed recently because of financial troubles. Listeners first heard from her two years ago, as part of NPR's cross-country trip discussing President Obama's first 100 days in office.

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DAVID GREENE, host: To understand how the nation's economic troubles have evolved, we've been returning to some conversations from 2009, during President Obama's first hundred days in office. Back then, the president was trying to lead the country out of a recession. At the moment, he's trying to prevent another one.

In 2009, I took a road trip across the country and one voice that stuck with me was the voice of Izola White. She ran Izola's, a soul food spot on the south side of Chicago. I'd actually met her when I stopped in a year earlier.

IZOLA WHITE: So what does it look like that y'all would like to have for breakfast: chicken, pork chops, or whatever? Liver and onions...

GREENE: For nearly 50 years, Izola White made her restaurant a haven for people to get off the streets at late hours, even inspiring a former gang member to start his own business. One of her regulars, Sherman Nelson, put it this way.

SHERMAN NELSON: Because Izola's been here as a stabling force for over 50 years, you always know that Izola's is open 24 hours a day, six days a week.

GREENE: In 2009, Izola White told me that things were getting tough.

How soon do you think this recession's going to be over? When do you...

WHITE: Oh, I don't know.

GREENE: Can you make it through, I mean if it business kept getting...

WHITE: I hope I can make through. Just praying to God to help me.

GREENE: How old are you now?

WHITE: I don't mind telling you. I'm 85.

GREENE: Have people been talking about the economy? I mean is the neighborhood struggling? Are people out of work? Like, what's the situation?

WHITE: A lot of people out of work, yeah. I don't even talk about it 'cause it's so depressing. It's that bad.

GREENE: People coming to you for help?

WHITE: They come in hungry, I'll feed them.

GREENE: If they're hungry, you'll feed them. I have Izola White back on the line. Ms. White, I understand you're 88 years old now.

WHITE: Yes.

GREENE: I heard a bit of sad news, that you had to close down the restaurant, at least temporarily.

WHITE: Right, I had to because there was no help, and there was no money.

GREENE: Were you just not getting customers anymore? What was the problem?

WHITE: A lot of people didn't have jobs.

GREENE: When did you have to close?

WHITE: Oh, when I got sick, about two years ago I think, and I'm getting just back.

GREENE: And are you planning to reopen again?

WHITE: If I can get some help, yes, I will. I need it bad. I need to work.

GREENE: I understand you had a fundraiser recently, right?

WHITE: Yes, it was last Friday. It was nice. Wayne was the one that set it up and Wayne is a nice young man. Wayne was always coming in my place, and I adopted him as being my godson.

GREENE: Hmm.

WHITE: And he helps me a lot. Without him I don't think I'd be able to make it, but with any person I've got I'm holding on.

GREENE: He's right with you? I could get on the phone with DeWayne?

WHITE: Yes, hold on.

GREENE: OK. Thank you so much, Ms. White.

DEWAYNE MASON: Hello.

GREENE: DeWayne?

MASON: Hi.

GREENE: Well, DeWayne it - given the current economic climate...

MASON: Yes.

GREENE: ...in the country, I suppose this is a tremendously difficult time for a small business to get back on its feet.

MASON: Not only small businesses, small businesses in the neighborhood where her store is at. Now the minority races that service that area are going through a very, very deep depression and many people don't know. You know, and I was listening to the news and it was talking about how the poverty level is just really, you know, stricken right now.

So, yes she's a victim of that and her store is, and so is the neighborhood.

GREENE: Tell us, I remember the neighborhood on the south side of Chicago. Tell me a little bit about it.

MASON: OK. Chatham is a neighborhood that's 60 to 70 percent black, and they hit really hard when the depression hit us, because, like Izola said, people stopped coming in. Then her reaching out and helping all these people who were in need of food and need of jobs, she catered to them.

GREENE: White families are 20 times richer than African-American families, right now, and, you know, the gap has never been so large. And you're describing the neighborhood there as predominantly African-American. I mean, discuss some of those unique challenges.

MASON: Well, one thing is for sure, is that with no money, with no jobs, with no resources, there's crime. Crime continues to spread rapidly, and it gets to the point to where the neighborhood, the community, especially the bad seeds start to prey on each other because they don't see any light, you know, at the end of the tunnel.

So yes, the neighborhood is deteriorating. And if it wasn't for older, and more prominent members of the neighborhood, the neighborhood would be suffering ghetto-like conditions.

GREENE: We've been talking to DeWayne Mason who's a 56-year-old Chicago police officer who is trying to get Izola's restaurant back open again. DeWayne, thank you for talking to us.

MASON: You're welcome.

GREENE: And could I - could I just say one more goodbye to Ms. White?

MASON: She is right here.

WHITE: Hello.

GREENE: Hi, Ms. White.

WHITE: Yes, uh-huh.

GREENE: Ms. White, it was very nice catching up with you. I really appreciate the time and I hope I can come for a visit - a visit to Izola's soon and it will be back opened and you'll be feeling good.

WHITE: I hope so.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

GREENE: You're listening to MORNING EDITION from NPR News.

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