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Out of Luck

Economic Development: Why can't Lawndale get it together?

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"The revitalization of North Lawndale's Roosevelt Road commercial strip is a tremendous undertaking," concluded a 1991 study by R.J. Dale Advertising for Chicago's Department of Economic Development, "but it is not hopeless." The last few years might lead you to believe otherwise.

In 1988 William Henry, the 24th Ward alderman, pushed the idea of a Lawndale chamber of commerce. Henry, a short, colorful man who favored expensive clothes and big cars, was watching his reputation go into decline. The year before he'd been one of the few black aldermen to vote to elect Eugene Sawyer acting mayor after Harold Washington's death, and this made him an outcast among African American activists.

But many businessmen in Lawndale admired Henry for his enthusiasm and verve. "Henry got things going," says one retailer. "He never asked for money, at least he never asked me, and when you wanted anything done he did it." Hughzell Davis, owner of the Davis Speed Wash, is of two minds: "He had a lot of enthusiasm, but his follow-through wasn't what it should have been. He was a lot of talk, but slow to action." Nevertheless, the chamber Henry wanted became reality, with a city grant for operations, a part-time executive director, and an office.

But few merchants joined. "The most dues-paying members we had in any one year was 16," says Elbert Betts, chamber president and owner of Elbo's barbecue stands. "We'd send out 400 meeting notices and five people would show up." The Arabs stayed away, says Betts, although Sam Al-Taher, a leading Arab grocer, claims to have attended one or two meetings. "The Arabs had their own interests," Betts insists. Indeed, three years ago the Arab stores set up the Arab American Merchants' Association of North Lawndale, which today numbers 55 members.

The chamber's meetings left Davis cold. "There would be a lot of talk," he says. "People from the city would come out and make presentations but nobody could get together enough to do anything." The chamber was also riven by infighting, and last December 31 it disbanded with no discernible accomplishment to its name.

Meanwhile, to ease tensions among black residents and Arab merchants, Henry convened meetings in his office, across from the Davis Speed Wash. Davis didn't attend, but plenty of local leaders did, attracted by the alderman's logic. "Bill Henry's philosophy was, the Arabs are here so let's learn to deal with them," says Elbert Betts. In April 1990 Henry led a trip to Cleveland to visit Roosevelt Coats, a city councilman there.

In 1988, tensions in Coats's ward in Cleveland had been exacerbated when a clerk in an Arab grocery shot and killed a black customer in a dispute over a can of sausages. Afterward, a committee of ward residents originated an "action committee" to monitor grocers on questions of courtesy, cleanliness, quality of products, and investment in the neighborhood. Coats reports that the monitoring system led to the issuance of many citations and even some short-term store closings.

In Chicago, representatives from the nonprofit Greater West Side Development Corporation and the city's Commission on Human Relations joined the discussions, which eventually yielded a Lawndale plan similar to Cleveland's. Called "A Pro-Active Approach to Community Business Relations," the document had the potential, many thought, to allay the tensions between merchants of one race and clientele of another.

In November 1990, however, a federal indictment charged Henry with taking a kickback on a Chicago Housing Authority contract and planting ghost payrollers on the City Council licensing committee. Henry lost a reelection bid in '91, and he died in '92.

The new alderman was Jesse Miller, the longtime executive director of the activist Lawndale People's Planning and Action Conference. He'd once led a brief boycott of Arab stores, and some of the "Pro-Active" plan's advocates distrusted him. Plus, there were lingering divisions among the negotiating parties. "The Arabs never really showed any real interest in this," says Elbert Betts. "We got close enough to kiss their asses, but the closer we got the more they walked away." Salameh Zanayed, Arab American liaison with the Commission on Human Relations, says that's untrue: "As far as the Arab businessmen, they were willing to go along." Whatever, in October of 1991 Miller wrote CHR chairman Clarence Wood asking him to defer the monitoring plan "until I can bring about more participation in our community." Discussions went no further.

One venture that did see results was Lawndale's participation in the Commercial Area Revitalization Effort (or C.A.R.E.) program. The C.A.R.E. program was established by the city in 1988 to spur retail development in declining neighborhoods. In 1989 a dozen commercial strips won designation as C.A.R.E. areas. One was Lawndale, where improvements were to be overseen by the Greater West Side Development Corporation.

Trash receptacles appeared along a ten-block section of Roosevelt Road. Street banners bore Lawndale's new slogan, "Unity is strength." Some 60 designated businesses, principally along Roosevelt, became eligible for immediate security evaluations by the police, low-interest loans for either capital improvements or working capital, and rebates of up to 60 percent for redesigned facades.

Obie Wordlaw, a medical-equipment supplier with an office on Roosevelt Road, was denied a loan to build his inventory, yet was authorized a loan to renovate his entryway; however, he has yet to proceed. Hughzell Davis had discussions about spiffing up the front of the Speed Wash, "but they never got back to me. 'Course, I never got back to them, either." Some businessmen also had security checks, says Wordlaw.

Pat Dowell-Cerasoli, the deputy city planning and development commissioner administering the C.A.R.E. program, says the Lawndale effort has suffered from a poor economy and a lack of cohesion among local businessmen. Wordlaw says there's been too little hand-holding by city officials. "There just wasn't enough sensitivity to us on the part of the city," he says. Now officials are considering phasing out the program. "C.A.R.E. hasn't been all that successful, because it's one tool in a vacuum," says Valerie Jarrett, commissioner of planning and development.

A greater boon to Lawndale would be new stores. Wallace E. "Mickey" Johnson, a former Chicago Bull who runs an extermination company on Roosevelt Road, dreamed for years of building a shopping center near Homan and Roosevelt, on land controlled by the Pyramidwest Development Corporation, the city, and private owners. Firm plans took shape in the last years of Henry's reign. The shopping center, to be put up by Johnson and developer Marc Kahan at a cost of $13 million, would be 156,000 square feet in size. It would encompass the existing Community Bank of Lawndale, owned by Pyramidwest, and a McDonald's.

Both Dominick's and Jewel said no to stores ("They were a little afraid," says Johnson), but Walgreen's, Trak Auto, and McCrory Stores, a discount variety chain, were lined up as anchor tenants. In addition, the Buddy Bear supermarket would relocate from its present location on Roosevelt Road. The city was also prepared to help out. The site had been designated a redevelopment area, meaning that as a last resort land could be acquired by eminent domain. And adjacent sections of land were to become a tax-increment financing district, enabling bonds to be sold to complete infrastructure and work-site improvements.

But there was a snag: The Martin Luther King Health Center, a federally financed clinic that had long ago ceased to operate and been gutted by fire, occupied a piece of the site. Henry ensured that this parcel wouldn't be sold out from under Johnson and Kahan, but freeing the property from federal control took until last October, when the city bought the parcel from the General Services Administration for $67,500.

"By the time the city finally purchased that property the economy had gone down," says Johnson. "Then there had been rioting around the Bulls' [second championship] win and the Rodney King case." McCrory Stores, a 763-store chain based in York, Pennsylvania, filed for bankruptcy last year. Phillip DeGeratto, Buddy Bear's owner, had died under mysterious circumstances the weekend before he was to enter federal prison for having conspired to sell stolen pork and turkey. Worse, a Springfield-area carpenters union that had promised financing backed off, as did other investors.

There is a sense that Lawndale is as far out of the loop as it's ever been. Other neighborhoods have gotten good news lately. In March, Woodlawn, similar to Lawndale in its economic profile, rejoiced over the announcement that two banks--Cole Taylor and First National--would be opening branches there.

Tensions remain strong among Arab merchants and black customers. Many habitues of the Davis Speed Wash, for instance, take a dim view of the Arabs. "Those A-rabs don't give a fuck about us niggers," says Frank Ware. "They can drop meat on the floor, pick it up, and put it right in your cart. And prices are high."

"We give good service, and the customer's always right," says Sam Al-Taher, proprietor of Super Jumbo Food and Liquor, a supermarket alongside a parking lot that succeeded the apartment building in which Martin Luther King stayed while leading demonstrations in Chicago in the 1960s. "We hire people from the neighborhood and offer free delivery within a reasonable distance. Last Thanksgiving the Arab stores collected $10,000 and bought turkeys for poor people." Taher concedes that small ghetto operators, be they Arab or not, are burdened with high insurance and wholesale food costs and often have to charge over the market rate.

For now, the revival of Lawndale hinges on plans by the Charles H. Shaw Company to erect 600 units of moderately priced housing--homes, town houses, duplexes, and apartments--on the site of the old Sears headquarters. The project, a joint venture of Sears, the city, and Shaw called Homan Square, is supposed to start with 80 units. The Shaw Company also intends to turn the old Sears buildings into business and commercial space; the Chicago Park District has already bought a warehouse for storage, administrative offices, and a gymnastics center and indoor track.

But some in the neighborhood, suspecting the Shaw project augurs the coming of gentrification, have been critical. A January community meeting on the project turned tumultuous. A "blue-ribbon" committee convened by Alderman Miller is demanding commitments of jobs and housing to local residents. The Plan Commission was to weigh the Shaw Company plans on June 10; then they'd move to the City Council.

Valerie Jarrett, who backs the Shaw plan, thinks Lawndale needs "a comprehensive, community-based planning project" before it will truly come back. Jesse Miller talks vaguely about the city, institutions like Mount Sinai Hospital, businesses, and residents forging a consensus on what should be done in Lawndale.

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