By Ben Joravsky
The merchants of Mount Greenwood outlasted bad times only to get kicked in the face by prosperity.
That's the painfully ironic lesson many are drawing from a redevelopment proposal that proponents say will draw thousands of shoppers to the commercial district centered at 111th and Kedzie. "Basically, they're proposing to kick one set of businesses out for another set of businesses, just as vacancies are down and sales are picking up," says Sharon Freeman, who with her husband Chip owns Village Supplies, an art supply store at 3215 W. 111th. "It makes no sense. Why do they have to try to make the place fancy and frilly at our expense?"
There's nothing fancy about the commerical district, which is a hodgepodge of one-story offices and storefronts. But as Freeman says, "You can get almost anything you want on 111th Street." There's a beauty parlor, a fingernail designer, a tattoo parlor, a comic book store, a pharmacy, a beeper store, a public library, a Walgreens, a Burger King, a White Hen, a couple of taverns, and a diner.
"It's your basic working-class commercial strip, a bunch of merchants looking to make an honest buck," says Freeman. "We started last November because we saw some promise here. I know all artists are supposed to live in north-side lofts and wear black leather, but a lot of us live in south-side bi-levels and have golden retrievers."
One week after their store opened, they were visited by Mary Kiedrow, executive director of the Mount Greenwood Local Development Corporation. "It was November 18, my birthday," says Freeman. "Mary invited me and my husband to a meeting. We were supposed to go out to celebrate my birthday. But I decided to accept her invitation. I figured it was a welcome-to-the-neighborhood meeting."
Instead, the Freemans watched representatives from Camiros, Ltd., a planning consultancy, unveil plans to radically change the neighborhood. "They had drawings taped to a big presentation board, which by the way they didn't buy from us," says Freeman. "They called it Camiros's vision. To me it was a nightmare."
Formally, it was the 111th Street/Kedzie Avenue Business District Improvement Plan, prepared by Camiros at the request of Kiedrow's organization for $30,000 in city funds. According to Camiros, Mount Greenwood's commercial strip is obsolete. It has no "strong sense of place...nothing distinctive to draw people" to its stores. It needs "ambience" to compete "in an era when shopping is viewed more as a form of entertainment rather than a utilitarian activity to sustain daily living."
In other words, if Mount Greenwood wants more than a funky strip of small-time stores, it will have to plant more trees along sidewalks, replace many old buildings, and provide much more parking. In addition, Mount Greenwood will have to modernize its zoning code to "insure that all zoning supports the creation of a healthy, attractive, family-oriented business district."
To the Freemans, it was all gobbledygook. "The presentation was set up as though we were really stupid," Freeman says. "I mean, to show how bad things supposedly are they were showing old pictures of vacant buildings--which are no longer even vacant--taken on a cloudy day. In contrast, to show what things could be like, they were showing sunny scenes from some town in Colorado. They kept talking about some unnamed developer and big-time stores that might come in. I was steaming. I kept trying to object and they kept saying, 'This is only a vision. Don't get upset.' I thought it was going to be 'Thanks for coming to Mount Greenwood,' and it was more like 'We don't want your kind, we want something better.'"
But why--the Freemans wonder--must Lincoln Park be the development model? Must every neighborhood consist of upscale boutiques, brand-name outlets, high-rent strip malls? What's wrong with nail designers, hairdressers, tattoo artists, comic book sellers, and other ma-and-pa shopkeepers?
"They say they want to be more family oriented--what's that all about?" says Freeman. "We're all good neighbors. We keep our stores clean. We provide a service that people want.
"They say they want to bring in more businesses--well, there are already businesses here. I guess we're insignificant. We're only the fourth-largest art supplier in Chicago, but those dorks never heard of us. They just don't understand. These things are cyclical. Businesses come and go. They can spend millions rebuilding this strip and businesses will still come and go. Knocking us out won't change that basic fact."
As the merchants see it, the Camiros plan will force them out, no matter how many assurances to the contrary are offered by the local development corporation. "They tell us, 'We're not trying to kick you out,' but I look at their map and see a new building slated to go where I am now," says Tim Davis, who owns the comic book store, Alternate Reality. "They say, 'Don't worry. You can come back when the new building's built.' But when will that be--one year, two years? How am I supposed to survive in the meantime? And how do I know I'll be able to afford the new rents, which I'm sure will go up?"
Since the November meeting, Freeman, Davis, and other merchants have been openly clashing with Kiedrow and her allies. "They say not to be upset, and we say, 'You're proposing to put us out of business--why shouldn't we be upset!'" says Freeman. "Finally, at one meeting Mary [Kiedrow] says, 'Well, I guess we could put together a relocation committee.' And she looks at Tim [Davis] and says, 'Tim, you can head it.' Tim just looked at her in disbelief. I mean, it's so patronizing to put him on the relocation committee when he doesn't want to be relocated! Mary said, 'Sharon, you're taking this personally. If you need to find a different store, you can ask Tim--he's the head of the relocation committee.' I said, 'I don't need you telling me where to go.' And the people in the room went, 'Oooh'--like we were going at it. That's when I knew I had to lie low. Because I was starting to look like I was a foaming-at-the-mouth nut, which only plays into Mary's hands."
Kiedrow continues to offer the current merchants reassurances. "I know many of them are angry. I know they don't like me and I'm sorry about that," she says. "But we are trying to be reasonable. We want them to stay, we really do. We're willing to work with them. We'll grandfather them in from zoning changes. They say rising rents will force them out. And I don't know how to answer that. I guess the rents will go up. But I hope as the rents go up so will their business. They ask, 'How do you know this will work?' Well, you're not going to get more businesses the way it is, that's for sure."
Kiedrow says the area desperately needs new zoning provisions, such as a requirement that beauty parlors provide more parking. "These days everyone drives," says Kiedrow. "If you have a beauty parlor, you have the shampoo girl, the receptionist, and two or three stylists with their own cars. That's five parking spaces that could go for shoppers. We have to be aware of that--we have to keep up.
"We're not trying to evict any of the current businesses. We want them to stay. We want them to be a part of the plan--that's why we invite them to our meetings and ask them to work with us. But we want to improve the area. It's that simple. We want to create a shopping district where you can park your car and shop and eat lunch and stay awhile. Listen, I live in Mount Greenwood--this is where I raised my children. I love this community. I don't want it to go down."
For the time being, Kiedrow's group has the upper hand, as it's supported by 19th Ward alderman Ginger Rugai (who would not comment). But the merchants are finding allies among local residents, some of whom would be forced to move if the most radical features of Camiros's redevelopment proposal are adopted.
"No one I know wants this. Everyone's terrified of it, especially the seniors," says Colleen Eisinas, a longtime Mount Greenwood resident. "The local development corporation keeps saying they don't want to take our homes, but they have new buildings going up where our homes are, right there on their map. I keep wondering, why do we need this? These businesses are good neighbors, even the tattoo parlor. For her first communion, when she was seven, my daughter went there to get her ears pierced. They were nice. I wouldn't take a family outing to look at tattoos, but they were great with my daughter." o
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tim Davis, Sharon Freeman photo by Bruce Powell.