Neighborhood retailers pin hopes on new city leaders

January 3, 2011

By Odette Yousef

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Avrom Fox moved his bookstore from Devon Ave. to Skokie because business never rebounded. (WBEZ/ Odette Yousef)

 While Chicago has given away millions of dollars in incentives to lure corporations like Boeing and United Airlines, most residents look elsewhere for signs of the city’s economic health. For many Chicagoans, it’s not what happens downtown that matters – instead, it’s the quality of stores and services in their neighborhoods. Their voices could get louder, now that Chicago is choosing a new mayor and many aldermen. Those communities that have seen their business corridors decline in recent years are hoping that a new city hall can give them a leg up.

One of those communities is Devon Avenue on Chicago’s far north side, where Ann Kalayil grew up and still lives. On the holiday of Diwali, the Indian Festival of Lights, the street was filled with cars and people buying groceries in the many ethnic fruit markets. But Kalayil pointed to a South Asian clothing store where she used to work part-time as a teenager. “This is one of the oldest clothing stores on Devon Avenue,” said Kalayil, “and it's empty. We used to have a tremendous amount of people coming to shop on Devon Avenue.”
 
Kalayil co-founded the South Asian American Policy and Research Institute, which did a study in 2008 about the troubles facing the Devon Avenue retail corridor. She said that weekend holiday foot traffic may indicate that it’s a thriving business community, but the reality is quite different. “I still think you walk into a store during the week here, and they'll say they have no business,” said Kalayil. “Traditionally they have depended on customers coming here on the weekends, and that hasn't been happening. Then, of course, now you have the rise of unemployment, and people are not spending money.”
 
There are also other signs that business is struggling on Devon, said Kalayil. She said stores are turning over more quickly than she’s ever seen, and properties are sitting vacant longer than they used to.
 
Walking through the cluster of Indian and Pakistani clothing, food, and electronics stores, Kalayil stops at a gaping hole along the south side of the strip. “This looks to me like (a) war zone,” Kalayil said. The charred, littered, and graffitied lot is where a building burned down four years ago, and has sat empty ever since. “This is actually symptomatic of what's happening here on Devon Avenue,” said Kalayil. “Why is there this, this... it's not even an empty lot. It's literally a big hole in the the ground, that's unused, and it's smack in the middle of one of the most busy sections of Devon Avenue.” Despite this, Kalayil feels optimistic the street can bounce back, with strong leadership and a vision. 
 
But further west on Devon, others have given up hope. Avrom Fox, owner of the Jewish bookstore Rosenblum’s, decided after years of waiting for Devon to improve that his business would be more viable in the northwest suburb of Skokie. “I don't have any confidence that Jewish Devon has any future,” said Fox, referring to the nickname that the street once had when its stores overwhelmingly catered to Chicago’s Orthodox Jewish community. “I think the street is done. And I think we have to move on,” said Fox.
 
Rosenblum's had a 40-year history in Chicago, and Fox said he wishes it could have been longer. But he said he’s jaded after waiting for others to join him in trying to keep the street clean and vibrant. “I can tell you that it's been a lot of talk, and a lot of advocacy, but at the end of the day, all you have to do is look at the street, and see what it looks like,” said Fox. “The city can't be proud of the way it looks, can't be proud of the huge vacancy rates, can't be proud of the fact that the streets are dirty, that there's garbage all over the place.”
 
Fox blames a lot of people are to blame for Devon’s decline, but he points a finger partly at city government. “I think the city should recognize that Devon Avenue is a historic shopping district which needs to be beautified so it can be reinstated and maybe someday become what it was more than a generation ago,” said Fox. He thinks fewer Jewish business would have fled Chicago if the city had acted sooner in offering them large grants from tax increment financing districts. The grants can be used to make capital improvements to stores. They’re available now to Devon Avenue merchants, but Fox said they're too little, too late.
 
Amie Zander understands Fox’s situation, though as Executive Director of the West Ridge Chamber of Commerce, it’s her job to keep businesses here. Zander helped start the Devon Avenue Special Service Area, a business taxing district that cleans the street and removes snow. She said it has helped improve the look of the street, but Zander says she needs more help from the city. “I think that we're forgotten a lot. We're way up on the North Side,” said Zander.
 
Zander points to rusty light polls and crumbling sidewalks, and lamented that Devon Avenue hasn't had a streetscape in more than twenty years. She said the local alderman, Bernard Stone, should have pushed harder for one. Stone contends the city hasn't given him the money.
 
Beyond infrastructure, Zander said she feels that far-flung retail corridors are not on the city’s radar the way downtown is. “You hear a lot in tourism about come to see Navy Pier. Well, that's great. But what about going into the neighborhoods?” said Zander. “We've had very little assistance from city hall on really designating us as a tourist attraction and telling people about it.”
 
Zander, Kalayil, and Fox note that city hall is not entirely to blame for Devon's struggles. They say the alderman, business owners, residents, and community organizations haven't worked together on a common plan to save the street. Joel Bookman with the Chicago office of Local Initiatives Support Corporation, a non-profit neighborhood development group, believes all those ingredients are important.
 
Bookman cites Chicago’s Chinatown and Little Village neighborhoods as good examples of where residents and businesses work together to make their retail strips enticing and accessible to shoppers. But Bookman feels City Hall can lay a foundation for that development by improving streets, sidewalks, trees and benches. And in this recession, Bookman hopes the city will get even more involved by trying new things, like encouraging skittish banks to start lending again to small businesses. 
 
“We have some very active, bustling, vibrant commercial districts that are the heart of our communities,” said Bookman. “They are the main street of our communities, the public square in our communities, and all too often around the country we see that without a viable commercial corridor, neighborhoods begin to fall apart.” Bookman believes Chicagoans will evaluate their next mayor and city council according to what they can do not just for downtown, but for the neighborhoods.