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Charlie Soo, the mayor of Argyle Street



A street light under the el track went out one night in December, and at dawn Charlie Soo, the mayor of Argyle, was on the phone with city officials demanding that it be fixed. Soo's not really a mayor. Argyle's only a street, and Soo's not even a politician--he's the director of a two-person operation called the Asian American Small Business Association of Chicago. But he tends to think of the two blocks along Argyle from Broadway to Kenmore as his province.

"Some people call me the mayor of Argyle," he says. "I don't like to call myself that because it gets some people jealous. But in some ways I am. I look at this street like it's my family. I won't let a streetlight go out. In a neighborhood a dark street is a problem. In the dark people are afraid of crime. I can't let one day go without that light being on. I can't let that happen to Argyle."

Soo came to Argyle Street in 1979, when it was a dimly lighted strip with a few Asian restaurants in among rough-and-tumble taverns and liquor stores frequented by hookers and drug dealers. Today about 15 restaurants, almost all of them Chinese or Vietnamese, operate there, as well as about 12 gift and grocery stores. On any given weekend buses rumble through and drop off tourists. Even the Argyle elevated stop has been renovated, and it's now decorated with a green-and-red pagoda.

In January Soo's organization sponsors a Chinese New Year's celebration at the Furama Restaurant (4936 N. Broadway). In August he puts together a Taste of Argyle festival; the street is closed, and merchants and restaurant owners set up booths along the sidewalks. Several thousand people attended last year.

Some critics grumble that Soo takes too much credit for these improvements, yet he has been a catalyst. Call him a self-promoter, but you can't deny he's a nonstop Argyle Street booster. "Charlie doesn't give up," says Michael Jones, a police officer who walks the Argyle beat. "I'll give you an example. Last year before the Taste of Argyle there were four or five potholes that had to be filled. I mean you can't have people having to sidestep the holes. Well, Charlie was on the phone for hours, demanding that the city send out a work crew. They finally sent a guy from the construction company down to do it, but the guy was mad. Charlie had really put the heat on, and this guy wouldn't even say hi to Charlie. But Charlie doesn't care. His attitude is, 'Hey, the stuff has to get done.'"

The son of Chinese immigrants, Soo was born in Hawaii. He moved to Chicago in the late 1950s to attend Roosevelt University. After college he started an import-export business, and during the early 1960s he formed his first solid political connections. "Governor Kerner put me on a trade mission. We went to Europe to promote big trade for Illinois. Before we left we went to the White House, where I met President Kennedy. I was with top officials of big companies--Caterpillar, Illinois Bell, First National Bank. That's where I learned the importance of economic development. That's where I met people who helped me." Including state senator Cecil Partee, who would go on to head the city's Department of Human Services.

"In 1978 Partee says to me that the city has money for economic development on the north side," says Soo. "I was living here. I figured this was my chance to do some good." Soo formed his group, applied for and received a grant, and set up shop in a storefront on Argyle Street. "The area was in transition. A lot of poorer Asians and blacks were moving here. I remember in the 1960s Jimmy Wong bought up some property around here and announced that it would be a new Chinatown. He was a big restaurant owner. If you go to his place downtown you see pictures of all the movie stars who eat there. He said he was going to build pagodas. It was in the papers. But then things didn't work out. It never happened. But I thought there was something there."

Not everyone welcomed Soo at first. "Charlie's a very hard worker, but there were people in this community before him," says Marion Volini, who was the area's alderman from 1979 to 1987. "There were a lot of people who felt that Charlie tried to take too much credit. That he was this outsider from Chinatown who just burst on the scene."

In the early 1980s Soo got into a tangle with other business leaders over the city's Argyle Street development plan. The city had created an Argyle Street task force composed of local merchants and civic leaders to oversee development. At the top of the group's agenda was a plan to build a parking garage on Winthrop just south of Argyle. "Charlie wanted to be the task force's leader, and that got some people upset," says one former member of the task force, who asked not to be identified. Soo wasn't selected to head the task force.

In 1984 he got into a spat with the Washington administration over funding. "The Washington administration hired some people who were very incompetent, and they didn't send my group economic-development funds that we were supposed to get," says Soo. "I talked to a lawyer, and he said to sue. So I did. That was a big mistake. After that the city basically said, 'The hell with you, Charlie. You sue us, and we won't give you any money.'" Soo says the case dragged on for three years before it was settled, and during that time he ran his organization with money out of his own pocket. "Let me give you a lesson: Never sue the city. You can't win. That case cost me $100,000. I spent all the money I had. Not only did I pay for my lawyer, but I also paid for my organization. I couldn't leave the area. I'm not that kind of guy. Once I get started on something I don't quit. That's not Charlie Soo."

Soo has refused to become a member of the Organization of the NorthEast or the Edgewater Community Council, two of the area's most active groups. "I stay out of politics, I don't want to get involved with campaigns. I don't like joining other groups because it takes too much time. You spend all your time going to meetings. You can't get any work done. Some people don't like me, I know. I think they're jealous. Other people say, 'Oh, Charlie, he's rich.' They say, 'Charlie, he owns a restaurant,' or 'Charlie, he owns property.' But that's not so. I'm not a rich man. I raise money from the merchants. I'm wise, I'm frugal. I have a saying: 'I'm not organized, I'm flexible.' I do most of the work myself. I answer my own phone.

"I don't have money. I'm a poor man--poor old Charlie Soo. I don't have a wife. I don't have children. Everything I have is in this organization. I have decided to give my life to this street. It's true."

Yet he does have good relations with the Daley administration. According to Soo, the city awards his group about $20,000 a year for economic development. And Daley named him to the School Board Nominating Task Force.

Clearly Soo has built some strong alliances. Present at a community luncheon he sponsored in October were Daley, 48th Ward Alderman Mary Ann Smith, Senator Paul Simon, and state senator William Marovitz.

"You have to say that Charlie has left his legacy on Argyle," says Volini. "Over the years he has worked so hard that he has won people's respect. People can no longer say he's the outsider from Chinatown. He's legitimate--a real promoter of Argyle Street."

Nearly every day he's taking some visitor--a reporter, a city official--on a tour. "These are the best restaurants in the city--better than Chinatown," he says as we walk along Argyle. "In Chinatown it's all Cantonese. Here we got Vietnamese and Cambodian too."

He walks into a local gift shop. "The stuff they sell here, you have to spend ten times as much to get it at Marshall Field's--easy." He points to a porcelain statue of a Chinese princess. "That lamp costs you 30 bucks here. It's 100 bucks at Field's. Come on, I'll take you to a grocery store where they got shrimp at $5.75 a pound. It'll cost you 18 bucks a pound at Jewel.

"We got a great street here. I want the whole city to learn. People don't believe I'm a poor man, but I don't care. I've given everything I've got to Argyle Street."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Jon Randolph.

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