Ald. Maldonado accused of going easy on ‘troubled’ Humboldt Park food mart

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Evergreen food mart, 3301 W. Evergreen Ave., has “a troubled history,” city officials say. | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Since 2011, the city of Chicago’s Department of Business Affairs and Consumer Protection has slapped Evergreen Convenient Food & Restaurant in Humboldt Park with more than 50 citations.

They’ve been for violations like selling “unstamped and outdated merchandise” such as baby formula.

Outside the corner store, there have been two shootings this year. And the store at 3301 W. Evergreen has become a magnet for gang activity, even as it has changed names and owners over the past decade, according to neighbors.

They’ve turned to Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) to help, asking him repeatedly to intercede to get City Hall to crack down, but say he has done little, questioning whether he is too close to the store and its landlord.

Maldonado acknowledges he is a longtime friend of the store’s landlord, Sergio Rosario, president of the company that owns the three-story, century-old, red-brick building, who leases space on the ground level to Evergreen.

Rosario and Evergreen also are Maldonado campaign contributors.

In June 2017, two and a half months before City Hall reached a settlement with Evergreen for selling unlicensed tobacco products for the third time in two years, a Maldonado political committee reported a $2,500 contribution from Rosario, records show.

That settlement laid out improvements Evergreen had to make, including hiring security “to address and abate loitering, drug sales, drinking and urinating on the public way.”

Previously, Maldonado had gotten $8,000 in campaign contributions from Rosario in 2016, including $5,000 that April, the month that city inspectors ordered the store closed for a week for violations that included “failure to cooperate with the police,” records show.

The other $3,000 came in November 2016, about six weeks after a shooting outside the store galvanized community residents and prompted a news report about the store and crime.

Evergreen gave $600 to a different Maldonado fund in 2014 and $500 in 2015, records show.

Neighbors question whether City Hall hasn’t moved to close Evergreen for good because Maldonado is an ally of Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

“I don’t see any other reason why they’re remaining open,” says Adam Corona, who has lived around the corner from the store for nearly 20 years and works for Emanuel as 45th ward superintendent for the Department of Streets and Sanitation.

The measures taken by Emanuel’s administration have amounted to “a slap on the wrist, slap on the wrist, slap on the wrist,” Corona says.

The Chicago Police Department can move to shut down a business deemed to pose an ongoing “public safety threat” under what’s called “summary closure” — a step the police have taken 21 times citywide in the past two years.

And the business affairs agency can pursue license revocations that can stop businesses from operating.

A police spokesman says: “CPD does not believe any of the shootings have a connection to the store. There is an ongoing gang conflict in that area not related to the store.”

Business Affairs Commissioner Rosa Escareno says her agency has been tough on Evergreen and will continue to be. Escareno says her office employs “progressive discipline,” with the primary aim not of punishment but of getting a business to comply with city regulations.

According to city officials, businesses that get into trouble sometimes change ownership to thwart enforcement.

Ownership of Evergreen was passed from one family member to another in recent months. It’s unclear whether that might affect enforcement efforts.

Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th). | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th). | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Maldonado says he was behind the inspection blitz that led to the store’s temporary closing in 2016. And he says Rosario — whom he’s known for decades and who attended Maldonado’s wedding — wasn’t happy about that.

“I got into a very heated argument over the actions that I took,” the alderman says. “I have done my part.”

Escareno says her agency doesn’t have any record showing Maldonado pushed for the enforcement, though he filed a complaint against the business in 2013.

Business Affairs Commissioner Rosa Escareno. | LinkedIn

Business Affairs Commissioner Rosa Escareno. | LinkedIn

Maldonado says of the campaign money he’s gotten from Rosario, “Why would I reject it?”

And he says that never kept him from acting to protect the public: “At no point did I stop doing my job.”

Though City Hall has said the store has “a troubled history,” Maldonado says its troubles have been overblown by Corona, who unsuccessfully ran against him in 2015 in a challenge Corona says he mounted because Maldonado wasn’t doing enough about Evergreen.

Emanuel’s political fund poured more than $20,000 into Maldonado’s campaign about a month after Maldonado’s victory, records show.

Corona says he’s thinking about running against Maldonado again next year.

Rosario used to run the store himself. Now, it’s run by a tenant.

Rosario says the store is important to the community, especially to the elderly people who buy food there.

He also says there are many parts of the Near Northwest Side that have similar crime problems.

Shakespeare District Cmdr. Fabian Saldana wouldn’t comment.

Yaser Saeed, whose family has run Evergreen for about seven years, says that, “When we got there, there were a lot of problems. We cleaned up most of the problems . . . It’s not perfect. But it’s getting better.”

Saeed says gangs are “bad for business,” and he’ll do whatever is necessary to make the community happy.

Last year, Escareno’s agency “found the store selling unstamped cigarettes for the third time within two years and revoked their tobacco license.”

As part of a subsequent agreement with the city last August, the owner agreed to not sell tobacco until this summer at the earliest and to make improvements including the “installation of a security camera, increased lighting on the street and alley and hiring security to monitor loitering, drug sales, drinking and public urination.”

In a written statement, Escareno’s agency says: “We are keeping them on a short leash . . . Either the store complies, or they lose their license to operate.”

Despite that deal, no security guard was working during a reporter’s visits to the business. Rosario says he didn’t realize that was required and would talk with Evergreen’s operators.

Saeed says the city “didn’t ask us” to add security.

After a shooting in January outside the store, a neighbor who asked not to be named says his home’s surveillance camera captured the gunfire, and he offered a copy to the police who responded. He says the cops said somebody would be in touch with him, but, after a couple of hours passed, the neighbor called 911 to repeat that he had video of the shooting.

The neighbor — who has his children sleep upstairs in a room shielded by a brick wall because he fears stray bullets — says two uniformed officers came to his home, looked it over and said detectives might reach out but never did.

“Nobody was hit, and since nobody was hit, nobody did anything,” the neighbor says.

The neighbor’s wife says: “We can’t afford to move, but we can’t afford to stay . . . It’s scary . . . I’d love to be able to walk [outside] without fearing for my life . . . The alderman isn’t doing anything.”

Adam Corona on whether city officials are going easy on Evergreen food mart: “I don’t see any other reason why they’re remaining open.” | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Adam Corona on whether city officials are going easy on Evergreen food mart: “I don’t see any other reason why they’re remaining open.” | Ashlee Rezin / Sun-Times

Corona says he wrote to one of Emanuel’s aides days after the January shooting, asking for a meeting about the crime problems. He says the only response he got was an acknowledgement the note was received.

Another neighbor who moved to the neighborhood late last year says he emailed Maldonado in January, asking to speak with him about, among other things, crime and the store.

The letter said: “Unfortunately, we have had some scary encounters since moving into our house in October. All of these have included gun violence. An accelerator of the issue seems to be the store at 3301 W. Evergreen. . . .”

“I would like to hear what is being done to hold the store owners and operators accountable. . . . I hate to reach out with a problem first, but I suppose that is how community involvement often starts.”

According to the neighbor, who asked not to be named, Maldonado never responded.

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