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Amid despair, businesses and groups vow to rebuild

After widespread looting and property damage affected at least 135 businesses throughout downtown. Stores big and small were hit, but several people said certain businesses were targeted, such as pharmacies for their drugs, banks for their cash machines and restaurants for their liquor.

The sign outside Central Camera at 230 S. Wabash remained lit a day after thieves tore through the store. The store’s owner, Albert Flesch, was hopeful Sunday about rebuilding.
Pat Nabong | For the Sun-Times

Chicago business leaders, already staggered by the coronavirus, on Sunday began intense cleanup and repair work in and near the Loop, with most promising to reopen soon even as they struggled to grasp the extent of Saturday night’s lawlessness.

The widespread looting and property damage affected at least 135 businesses throughout downtown, said top executives of the Magnificent Mile Association, citing information from the city’s Department of Buildings.

Stores big and small were hit, but several people said certain businesses were targeted, such as pharmacies for their drugs, banks for their cash machines and restaurants for their liquor.

Some sustained only a broken window or two, while others were ransacked and had fire damage. Downtown Ald. Brendan Reilly (42nd) said while damage in the Loop was severe, River North took a greater hit.

“I think it may take some businesses weeks to be back online,” he said.

City officials Sunday confirmed that more than 100 businesses were harmed, and local chambers of commerce and business owners said the cost of the damages was not clear but would total many millions of dollars. Insurance could cover many costs, but the riot created more uncertainty for large retailers such as Neiman Marcus, which has filed for bankruptcy, and Macy’s, which had two stores damaged.

A Macy’s spokeswoman said the company is assessing the damage and deciding when its State Street and Michigan Avenue stores can reopen. Target, which also was victimized on State Street, said it will temporarily close seven locations in central Chicago to guard against further trouble, ranging from Uptown on the north, Hyde Park to the south and McKinley Park to the west.

Reilly said it was a cruel turn of events for entrepreneurs preparing eagerly for at least a partial reopening under the city’s expected move on Wednesday to Phase Three of the plan to reopen the city, a plan Mayor Lori Lightfoot said is now under review.

Throughout the business district, board-up and sanitation crews, painters, glaziers and even residents with brooms and shovels took on the wreckage.

Developer Albert Friedman said he didn’t wait for the city and had his own crews at work early on several River North blocks. He said about 50 neighbors came by to help. “I was touched by that. By 3 p.m., we had some streets spotless,” he said.

“I saw the Chicago that I know, where people rally to support something,” said Rich Gamble, chairman of the Magnificent Mile Association.

In the Loop, along State Street and Wabash Avenue, staffers and volunteers with the downtown’s chamber of commerce, the Chicago Loop Alliance, helped with the cleanup.

Michael Edwards, the group’s CEO, said at least 45 Loop businesses were vandalized. Damage within his service area could run about $5 million, he said, a figure he acknowledged as low as it considers only property damage and not loss of inventory.

While describing the downtown scene as “devastating,” he said he takes heart that the glittering sign of Central Camera at 230 S. Wabash remained lit a day after thieves tore through the store. He said it symbolizes for him a return to normalcy.

The store’s owner, Albert Flesch, looked on from a home security camera as looters entered the store Saturday night. Within minutes, it was engulfed in flames.

Sunday, Flesch remained hopeful about the store’s future as he and others sifted through the rubble.

“We’re not going to let the past change our present or our future,” said Flesch, who’s originally from the South Side and now lives in Skokie. “We’re going to rebuild and come up strong and move on.”

Flesch faulted the looters for taking advantage of and sullying what he sees as a righteous protest. “They disrespected the man who the protest was all about, Mr. [George] Floyd, and it was a travesty against him, I think,” Flesch said.

At Hero Coffee, 439 S. Dearborn, looters busted through the glass of the front door and tried to break the store’s safe, damaging the floor in the process. Michelle Martinez, the owner of four Hero Coffee locations, assessed the damage Sunday morning as her store was being boarded up.

Martinez, a Pilsen native, said she empathizes with demonstrators standing against police violence, though she fears some bad actors were “taking advantage of the situation” and “almost tainting the positive aspects of what the movement is trying to cause.”

Like other small business owners hit hard by the COVID-19 shutdown, Martinez was excited to get all her shops up and running again. Now, there’s a new source of uncertainty.

“This has been my American dream to own my own coffee shop,” said Martinez, whose family emigrated from Mexico. “It’s disheartening and it’s upsetting when you see your city just looted.”

A couple blocks away, a similar scene played out at the Monadnock Tobacco Shop at 332 S. Dearborn.

Sana Awaan, the store’s owner, said she saw looters break into her store by watching a live feed of the store’s surveillance cameras from her home in Plainfield. After the store’s windows were broken, Awaan saw the thieves break into her cash register and make off with a lottery machine.

Awaan noted her shop had been closed since mid-March as part of Gov. J.B. Pritzker’s stay-at-home order, and she was excited to get back to work. Her outlook has changed completely after Saturday night’s spell of downtown destruction.

“I don’t even know if I’m going to be able to recover,” Awaan said. “I’ve never been so helpless in my life.”

Across the street, volunteers from the area helped clean up a 7-11 store at the corner of Dearborn and Van Buren.

Abby Dryer, of the South Loop, woke up Sunday morning, grabbed a broom and started walking from business to business. “I support the cause, and the only way that this works is if the community stands together and supports everyone,” Dryer said. “I will keep sweeping up glass until the color of your skin doesn’t dictate the way you’re treated by the police.”

Damage also extended into the Near West Side, including a bank, boutiques and restaurants, said Carla Agostinelli, executive director of the West Loop Community Organization. “I feel 100% helpless,” she said, while adding she expects the neighborhood to bounce back.

There also were reports of Saturday night lootings outside the downtown area. Binney’s Beverage Depot reported damage at five sites: downtown, Lincoln Park, Lakeview, Hyde Park and the South Loop.

Late Sunday, a CVS spokeswoman said the drug store chain has closed two dozen locations as a precaution. She said a few sites were damaged and others were shut to keep employees safe.