Candy houses are quintessential to Chicago summers. Back in the ‘90s, when I was a child, a kid could go to any South Side community and find local homes that doubled as candy stores. They sold sour and hot kosher pickles, fruit chews, chewy sour balls, Flamin’ Hot Cheetos with cheese and, if you really had the money, with cheese and beef. There was so much to choose from, including the lemon and strawberry cookies that no one could name, but everyone remembers.
“I would buy Flamin’ Hots with melted cheese and ground beef and that was like a whole damn meal. We would buy penny candy, lemon and strawberry cookies, snow cones. We would buy anything related to snacks or junk food now that would be a health hazard,” said Val, a Black South Side native who has lived in Chicago her entire life.
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A candy house is a business run by a homeowner who sells candy and snacks. But they were also a source of fun for children and income for women in areas of Chicago the media consistently portrays as violent, unhealthy, and poor, and that have suffered due to policies that hurt Black homeownership, exacerbate segregation, and affect food quality.
According to the Racial Justice Project, Black people have access to half as many grocery stores as whites. Many big grocery store chains avoid low-income spaces altogether.
But we had candy houses. They were symbolic to South Siders.
There are no longer as many as there used to be, though. Growing up, there was a candy house across from my elementary school, then called Myra Bradwell, on S. Burnham Ave. Whenever I had the money, my favorite things to purchase were sour candy balls, specifically the blue ones, and dill pickles. The store wasn’t always open, but when it was, there were always children purchasing candy and running to school. It’s gone now.
In 2006, while I was in high school, another candy house existed for about four months in the summer. I used my money from an after-school job and bought tons of candy and chips to eat each day. But that candy house also closed. I knocked on the door, and the woman simply said that she was no longer selling candy, and that was the end of that.
Traditionally, people on the South Side of Chicago purchased their candy from one wholesaler: L&P Foods, located on 7047 S. State St. And despite median Black household income in the ‘90s being just $21,420, money never seemed like a problem when children and candy were involved. Depending on the candy house, a child could receive candy on credit, an adult would purchase candy for neighborhood children, or other children would purchase candy for their friends.
This was the case with Etholia, 33, a former Auburn Gresham resident, who with $10 in her pocket shared her wealth with other children. “It had to be third grade and I told everybody that they could get something, all my little friends. We spent that money up and I almost got in trouble. When I came home, they asked, ‘Where’s your [money]?’ I was like ‘Oh, I spent it at the candy store,’” she said.
When children and adults purchased candy for other children it was a way to look out for each other. Doing so built a community of trust and brought people together, because the same people buying candy were also looking out to make sure you didn’t get into trouble, that you made it to school, and that you felt safe. Purchasing candy for children was more than a kind act. It was built on a foundation of Black traditions of acceptance and care.
And the houses were about more than just community building. Economically, they were important to Black ownership, and Black women were the center of the business.
“As far as I knew [it was] women. I never knew any men running it. Also, their older kids too,” Val said. “It was clear that many of those women were much older, and they didn’t have the sort of income that we have now, so candy houses were a way for them to get extra money.” In Chicago in 2016, only 2 percent of businesses were Black-owned despite Black people being 17 percent of the population.
Not only did these businesses provide extra income for necessities, they provided women money without strings attached.
“[My grandmother] loves money. I admired the hustle in her and that was her way to make extra income, because my grandmother was a [stay at home mom]… so she never really had income of her own,” La’Shon, a fourth generation South Side native, said.
The young relatives of these women also received a benefit, because children of candy house owners received automatic “cool” points from their peers.
“It gave me some type of extra street cred because my house was the candy house. If your house was the candy house, it put you on another level because your house was the house,” La’Shon said.
There is no single reason why candy houses are no longer as widespread. But among them are candy house owners growing older and retiring, safety concerns in Chicago’s enclaves due to the small population of violent offenders, and the ease of internet shopping.
“We have different type of community now. A lot of people who were not a part of the community infiltrated the community and made [corner stores] that really were the antithesis to those candy stores,” Val said. “[Illinois] started cracking down on people having businesses in their home, so people would actually get in trouble for it.”
“I think now everybody doesn’t live by the code, which is ‘don’t snitch when it comes to that.’ People are scared of getting shut down,” Etholia said.
The rise of internet commerce has also played a role in making candy houses a thing of the past. “The internet,” La’Shon said. “It’s definitely the major reason. I couldn’t tell you where a candy house is today… and I can go on the internet and buy chews, Frooties, and all those unique candies that I couldn’t find anywhere else. I can go on the internet and buy it now.”
With so many changes in communities and technology, these Black-owned businesses may never see their former glory. However, what will never change was that they built community and long-lasting memories that bonded communities together.
“Just knowing that we grew up in a time where you had a community, you had people that you could go to, you had people you could talk to, you had places where you could get fresh air and run around and be silly and be a kid,” Val said. “And I don’t necessarily think that a lot of times we think about Black children being children and that was the moment we were not held to this inhumane standard. It makes me think how wonderful it was to at least have some form of childhood and think about happy experiences.”