McDonald's moved into the neighborhood, in the 1400 block of North Clybourn on the edge of Cabrini-Green, in 1971 but pulled down its yellow plastic arches in 1977. The company claimed poor revenues were the reason for the rare failure. It's not often that Big Mac suffers a black eye.
But denizens of this all-night neighborhood say sales were brisk at the McDonald's joint. What really did in the business, they say, were the stickups at the counter, sometimes twice a week.
The familiar structure has since housed a variety of eateries and, most recently, a doctor's office. The large windows were long ago replaced by stones to protect whatever was inside.
Today what one finds inside is Lee Samawi, a bearded, smiling entrepreneur who two months ago took over the cavelike building. A Jordanian immigrant, he opened up the Seven Brothers Supermarket with his younger brother, Jesse, 26. (The name of the grocery pays tribute to his brothers, several of whom remain in Jordan.)
Samawi doesn't have an MBA; his venture, like his life in the United States since he arrived here in 1974, is based on his gut instincts. They tell him that this grocery in this forgotten place can survive. It might even thrive. He retains the optimism of the 21-year-old who arrived on U.S. soil seeking freedom of thought and commerce. Samawi, who has another grocery store on the south side, concedes his latest venture is risky, but he is intent on making friends here.
He points to ads posted in front of his place: smoked ham hocks, 89 cents a pound; pig ears and feet, 3 pounds for $4.99; a mega-special of ten pounds of lunch meat and head cheese for $17.99.
After two months, Samawi says he is breaking even and managing to pay the rent ($1,100 a month) on time. Some 80 percent of his customers pay with food stamps. Most walk over from the nearby high rises, where on a recent morning a self-styled disc jockey pointed a stereo speaker out a 17th-story window.
"I'm not afraid of anything here," Samawi says. "We just keep a watch out for thieves."
He is counting on his customer base of about 800 to grow. "The keys are service and security," he says, eyeing a row of large butcher knives. "Those are for meat only." Samawi is proud of his security network, saying his security guard, Brooker Banks, is a reassuring lure to customers. Banks is a friendly, portly 45-year-old man who grew up in the neighborhood. He carries a gun, but his job is to keep familiar troublemakers in line.
At mid-morning, Marvin Gaye's "Let's Get It On" is pouring out of the store radio and Samawi is looking with some pride at his meat display. Samawi's shelves are loaded with neat rows of diapers and baby food, marshmallows, soda pop, and an assortment of condiments. "I came here for a better life, and this is what it's all about," he says. "Giving people what they want."
Samawi has opened up shop about a mile south of the tony Treasure Island on Clybourn. But he does not expect the gentrification to creep south, unless the public-housing high rises are torn down. And he doesn't want that to happen, because those are his people.
"McDonald's got stuck up twice a week, and they finally couldn't take it," Samawi says, looking at a stream of fancy cars cruising south on Clybourn toward the Loop. "But I will have better luck. We want to be part of the family."
But the success of the Seven Brothers Supermarket is not completely under Samawi's control. He and his brothers could use a little help from the state.
"What this place really needs," he says, "is a Lotto machine."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/John Sundlof.