Mississippi sits at a desk in the parking lot of Uptown's Gerber Building, where he has lived for two years. Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago

UPTOWN — For two years, a man named Mississippi had the parking lot of the rehabilitated Gerber Building largely to himself.

Now, he is sharing the lot with the Uptown Farmers Market, the new farmstand organized by Chicago Market, the co-op set to open in the historic Gerber Building at the base of the Wilson Red Line station.

In the works for years, Chicago Market is moving forward with plans for a co-op store in the building, which has been rehabbed to resemble its 1920s glory. But those plans have caused clashes with the residents of the Gerber Building’s parking lot — namely, Mississippi.

After an attempt to evict Mississippi was met with backlash from neighbors, activists and co-op members, Chicago Market officials paused efforts to remove him. Instead, they are sharing the parking lot with Mississippi on days of the farmers market. But it is an uneasy alliance.

“I cleaned up this area,” Mississippi said of the parking lot next to the Red Line Wilson station. “People doing drugs, I’ve been busting that up.

“But they said, ‘You know, Mississippi, this is going to come to a head.'”

The Uptown Farmers Market debuted May 5, giving neighbors one of the first glimpses inside the the rebuilt Red Line station building. The building’s parking lot, under the CTA tracks, was sectioned for the event, with one half for the market and half for Mississippi.

The Uptown Farmers Market debuted last week, sharing a parking lot with Mississippi. Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago

Both parties hope the situation is temporary, but that’s because Chicago Market is seeking to move its market under the CTA tracks south of Wilson Avenue. While housing officials are working with Mississippi to find him a permanent residence, activists and neighbors have asked the co-op group to do more to fix the situation.

“Whether the co-op can share this space peacefully, it’s still an encroachment on his home,” said Adam Gottlieb, an activist and advocate for people who are houseless who is among those who have rallied to Mississippi’s cause.

“What we’d really like to see is some action … and an understanding of gentrification as a cause of homelessness.”

A ‘Pause’ On Eviction Efforts

The situation between Mississippi and the Chicago Market co-op came to a head in March, when an effort to evict Mississippi from the parking lot caused a community firestorm.

After five months of talks with Mississippi about leaving the parking lot went nowhere, Chicago Market reached out to the city for help. City workers on March 15 posted a seven-day notice for a cleanup of the Gerber Building parking lot, where Mississippi and his friend, Jerome, were residing. The cleanup effort included a plan to relocate Mississippi and his belongings, the co-op group wrote in a letter to members.

City workers came to the parking lot twice to move him, but they were twice rebuffed by Mississippi and community members who support him. Both times, the co-op group called police to be on hand for the eviction efforts, a move that enraged some co-op members and neighbors who said doing so endangered Mississippi’s life.

Community members showed up at the parking lot for the second eviction attempt, seeking to protect Mississippi from officials. Advocates for people who are houseless and a collective of neighbors known as Uptown Action have had a steady presence in the parking lot since the eviction efforts.

After the outcry over the eviction attempts, Chicago Market officials said they hit “pause” on efforts to remove Mississippi. They held a late March community “listening session” about the situation, where neighbors and co-op members slammed the group’s actions.

“This decision has been really horrifying,” a co-op member said at the community meeting. “I’m really ashamed that I became a member of an entity that caused so much harm in the community.”

A sign posted in the parking lot of the by Uptown activists who are working with Mississippi. Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago

At the meeting, co-op officials apologized for their actions and said they would change course on the situation. Chicago Market has enlisted the help of Heartland Alliance in finding permanent housing for Mississippi and won’t seek to have him removed for the time being, said Matthew Ruffi, the co-op board president.

“We do apologize for the harm, for the hurt we caused,” Ruffi said at the meeting. “We do this because we believe in the Chicago Market.”

Six weeks later, the situation has not been resolved. With the Uptown Farmers Market being held at the Gerber Building on Wednesdays through the summer, Chicago Market and Mississippi find themselves sharing the space.

Before the market’s first day May 5, Ruffi said the co-op and third party groups that have worked with Mississippi talked to him about the upcoming farmers market and how it could work for both. They agreed to give Mississippi his space and asked that he wear a mask and walk his bike through the parking lot.

“That’s just common courtesy,” Mississippi said.

The first day of the market was well-attended and seemed to go smoothly for the market and Mississippi. The Chicago Union of the Homeless placed a booth along Broadway during the event, passing out information about homelessness and selling Mississippi’s book of poetry, “The Once Brave, Warrior Disciple: A Man In The Cold.”

Mississippi shows off the memorial he erected to victims of police brutality and violence against the homeless people. Credit: Joe Ward/Block Club Chicago

Seeking ‘Sanctuary In Chicago’

Mississippi, 43, has for two years lived in the parking lot of the Gerber Building. That’s where he settled after coming to Chicago in spring 2019 with only the clothes on his back and $75.

Mississippi grew up around gang culture and had trouble with law enforcement in the home state that is his namesake. He came to Chicago to escape his past life, he said in an interview last week.

There have been other residents of the Gerber Building parking lot recently, but it is thought of as Mississippi’s home. He has cleared the lot of drug paraphernalia and other debris, he said. He’s also recently created a memorial to victims of police violence and for people who were homeless who have died because of a lack of housing and available resources.

“Because the system will say it’s suicide or overdose,” he said.

The memorial was inspired by the protests over police killing George Floyd, one of which saw protesters accuse police of violence on Broadway and Wilson Avenue near Mississippi’s home. That night, Mississippi said he was among the people stopping looting along Broadway.

Starting in November, the co-op began asking Mississippi to move. The situation escalated when some of his belongings were cleared from the parking lot and again when city workers and police were called to the scene.

Despite these efforts, Mississippi said the co-op group has not offered to help pay for his relocation.

“They won’t reimburse me with nothing,” he said. “Put me in a motel or something, at least a few days a week.”

These days, only Mississippi resides in the parking lot of the Gerber Building. His friend, Jerome, left recently. But he has the company of Uptown neighbors, some of whom have stayed in the parking lot in shifts, making sure authorities don’t bother Mississippi.

More recently, the members of Uptown Action have held weekly barbecues with Mississippi and others in the parking lot.

“This is a better way of being here,” said Gottlieb, referring to earlier in March and April when activists essentially stood guard for Mississippi. “We’re here to talk to people and have a dialogue.”

The Uptown Farmers Market debuted May 5 and will run on Wednesdays through November. Credit: Malcolm Haar/Chicago Market

Co-Op Moves Forward

After years of fits and starts, concrete action is being taken toward opening the Chicago Market co-op in the Gerber Building.

In March, Chicago Market’s board hired Dan Arnett as the co-op’s first general manager, luring him from California after years of running co-ops in dense urban markets similar to Uptown. Chicago Market has also received a $75,000 grant from the Chicago Region Food System Fund, and it will begin holding more events at its space this summer, including the farmers market.

The Uptown Farmers Market is giving neighbors a preview of sorts of what the co-op will look like, Ruffi said. Over 20 local vendors are signed on to attend the farmers market, and Chicago Market is hoping that vendor lists grows throughout the summer. The group is looking to move the market just south of Wilson, near the Red Line tracks where there is more space, and is working with CTA on the request, Ruffi said.

The market connects neighbors to locally produced goods much in the same way the co-op will, Ruffi said. It therefore doubles as a community asset and a marketing tool for the co-op, which is seeking members.

“We started it as a way to connect to farmers,” Ruffi said of the co-op. “It is the quintessential pick of who we’d love to have” at the co-op.

But it is not tenable for the co-op and Mississippi to share the space moving forward, Ruffi and other co-op board members have said.

Mississippi’s presence in the parking lot could pose a safety hazard to himself and others when the parking lot is in use, the board said in a letter to members. Market officials also accused Mississippi of lighting a couch on fire in the parking lot, something Mississippi said he did to keep drug users from being in the area.

Having residents living in the lot is a possible insurance liability and could violate the terms of the co-op’s lease with CTA, which owns the Gerber Building, the co-op has said.

In the meantime, the two parties are coexisting. After the earlier eviction efforts soured the relationship between the co-op and Mississippi, they have managed a working agreement, Ruffi said.

“The fact that lines of communication are open, we’re happy about that,” Ruffi said. “We’re expecting to continue to work with him.”

Mississippi said the situation could be solved if the co-op was willing to help him financially. Either way, Mississippi said he is using the time to better himself. His first book of poetry has been published, but another could be on the way thanks to some of the recent connections he’s made.

He’s come up with 300 poems over his two years living in the Uptown parking lot, he said.

“This is only temporary,” he said.

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