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The people v. the pawnshop

How one vacant lot became a battleground between the politically powerful pawnshop industry and the outspoken residents of a middle-class Chicago neighborhood—and what that says about the future of development in the city

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21st Ward alderman Howard Brookins Jr. says of Big Pawn owner Alvin Bell Jr., "He's a decent guy doing a decent thing. He runs a family business." - ANDREA BAUER
  • Andrea Bauer
  • 21st Ward alderman Howard Brookins Jr. says of Big Pawn owner Alvin Bell Jr., "He's a decent guy doing a decent thing. He runs a family business."

Once you start looking, you see them everywhere. There are empty storefronts on Irving Park Road in Portage Park, on Commercial Avenue in South Chicago, on Division Street in Austin, even on Clark Street in Lincoln Park. Still more striking are the empty lots dotting the landscape—the city alone owns more than 15,000, in each neighborhood on every side of town. That doesn't include thousands more in private hands.

Meanwhile, unemployment remains implacably high: 9.1 percent statewide in August, the highest rate in six months. In the city's African-American neighborhoods joblessness is two to three times as high—even among the working and middle class. Worse, the crime rate in those communities often follows the same track as the unemployment.

All of this explains why residents of Chicago's 18th Ward alternately speak of the intersection of 79th and Western as a scene of both great potential and festering decay. Both streets are among the busiest in the city, so the steady traffic supports a number of retailers, including Walgreens and CVS, an old-timey drive-in restaurant, and fast food places such as McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts. The surrounding residential areas are mostly quiet, well maintained, middle class. In other parts of the city, or during other, more prosperous times, a location like this would appear perfect for a breakfast spot, a Starbucks, or a supermarket.

Still, it's easy to notice the symptoms of urban distress—more unused storefronts, an abandoned car wash, and, on the northwest corner of the intersection, a wide vacant lot encircled by a chain-link fence. On the fence hangs a sign: "Applicant seeks a special use to establish a pawn shop."

This is what it's come down to in the 18th Ward: a choice between a pawnshop or a long-empty lot. Except that residents don't believe it's a choice they should have to make.

Meetings of the zoning board of appeals don't exactly have the drawing power of the Bears hosting the Packers at Soldier Field. The board is an obscure panel of mayoral appointees that reviews zoning proposals and disputes, and on the days it meets in City Council chambers the room is often empty enough that board members and attorneys address each other without microphones. It's not uncommon for voices or laughter to spill in from the adjacent council lounge.

But dozens of people were in the stands when a board meeting was gaveled to order on the afternoon of August 17. One of the first items on the agenda was an application for a permit to allow Cash America, a national chain, to open a new pawnshop at 79th and Western. And the spectators wanted the application killed.

That was no secret to the backers of the plan. As soon as the board called it up, a man who identified himself as Michael Castellino, an attorney for the proposed pawnshop, asked for the matter to be held until October so that his clients could "get more information to the community."

The board agreed to the delay. But before moving on to the next item, board chairman Jonathan Swain noted that some members of the audience had signed up to speak in opposition to the pawnshop. He asked them to identify themselves.

Almost everyone in the audience stood up.

"What we want to know is if they can keep continuing this," one woman called out to Swain. She said she and her neighbors wanted their voices heard, but they were worried the proposal would slip past when they were too busy to notice. "We have jobs and they know it."

Swain told her it was possible the issue could be postponed again, but for now it was on the agenda for October 19. He looked at Castellino. "Counsel, let's try and see if we can resolve the issue." To the people in the stands, he said, "Thank you all for coming down."

Many of the residents hurried out to catch a bus to shuttle them between the meeting and 79th and Western (few knew that a rival pawnshop had arranged the ride). Others stood in the hallway worrying aloud that the pawnshop proposal was still alive.

"This is not going to help our community," said Marie Tyse, who's lived a few blocks southeast of the proposed pawnshop for 40 years. "The alderman says we need a business in there, and I'm sure we do. But not that business."

Tyse is not an image of timidity. She's tall, with pipes for arms and high sharp cheekbones, and as a former police officer—she ended her career as chief of the UIC campus force—she seems practiced at commanding authority.

Two weeks after the zoning postponement, Tyse briefed about 40 members of the North Beverly Civic Association at the group's monthly meeting in a church at 85th and Damen. "The only way we're going to stop this is if we spread the word that we've got enough problems in our community," she said. "It already takes 30 minutes for the police to respond to us, and it's only going to get worse if this comes in here."

There were murmurs of agreement from the group, mostly middle-aged and senior residents of the surrounding blocks.

Tyse went on, noting that 18th Ward alderman Lona Lane had been invited to the meeting but hadn't shown up. "So as far as we can determine, we are not going to get the support of our alderman."

More murmurs. Tyse urged everyone to sign a petition opposing the pawnshop and circulate it among their neighbors so they could present it to the zoning board. She asked them to pass on their ideas for businesses they'd like to bring to the community instead.

"We've got a whole list," she said afterward. "It just takes a business or two to come in and show that it can be done. We've got money to spend."

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