Hac Tran, communications manager of Business Partners, The Chamber for Uptown.

Hac Tran, communications manager of Business Partners, The Chamber for Uptown, has worked to help businesses along and near Argyle Street.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

As Argyle businesses struggle, younger generation fights for their community

“It’s just desolate. It’s not as thriving,” said Hac Tran, who often visited Argyle while growing up.

Jennifer Pham remembers when Argyle began to change.

The 37-year-old Uptown native said as a kid, the West Argyle Historic District — called “Asia on Argyle” or just “Argyle” by locals — had a strong sense of family.

“Everyone kind of knew each other,” Pham said. That includes her family; she’s co-owner of Mini Tx Pharmacy, 1069 W. Argyle St., started by her father over 30 years ago.

Southeast Asian shops and restaurants filled the area from Broadway east to Sheridan Road and from Winona Street south to Ainslie Street. They served many nearby Uptown residents — mostly Vietnamese but also Cambodian, Thai and Laotian.

Over the years, Pham saw the community transform. More non-Asians moved in. New housing was built. Streets were rebuilt. Businesses closed.

Pham didn’t really mind, at first. She didn’t think she’d be hanging around much longer anyway.

But six years ago, when her dad considered selling their pharmacy to CVS, it hit her.

“I didn’t realize I was so connected” to the pharmacy, she said, which serves a largely Vietnamese customer base. “Right away I was like, ‘Oh s---, a CVS on the corner.’”

Some who grew up in Argyle feel like what they once knew has slowly been slipping away.

While many Southeast Asian businesses remain, others have left, weakening that sense of community Pham remembers. Four CTA stations in the area are being revamped, starting early next year — good news in the long run, but for now it means congestion and parking problems, keeping customers away.

Even so, the younger generation who own businesses or work in the area have tried to bring back visitors — and a sense of community.

Hoa Nam, one of a few Asian supermarkets in “Asia on Argyle” neighborhood, closed early in the pandemic when the owners retired. A mural in the window depicts the different immigrants who settled along West Argyle Street.

Hoa Nam, one of a few Asian supermarkets in “Asia on Argyle” neighborhood, closed early in the pandemic when the owners retired. A mural in the window depicts the different immigrants who settled along West Argyle Street.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

A changing Argyle

In Argyle, newer layers of paint coat some storefronts in decades-old buildings. Neon signs line the windows of many long-standing Vietnamese restaurants.

Many go there for its authentic Southeast Asian and Chinese cuisine, or to grab some bubble tea. Others may visit to buy specialty Asian ingredients from one of the few supermarkets, get their hair done at a handful of Vietnamese-owned salons, grab some bonsai plants or visit one of a few shops specializing in Eastern medicine.

But since 2015, at least two dozen businesses in Argyle have closed or changed hands, according to Hac Tran, who works for Uptown’s business association, Business Partners, the Chamber for Uptown. Reasons ranged from management problems to building damage. At least four have shuttered during the COVID-19 pandemic.

As a kid, Tran remembered Argyle being a lot busier — its streets packed with people, mostly Southeast Asian and Chinese.

“That’s my memory,” said Tran. “Just that camaraderie that existed before from different generations.”

Now, Argyle has a sprinkling of vacant storefronts.

One change that hit Argyle was older residents moving to the suburbs to give their children a better life. Pham’s own family moved to Lincolnwood, then Morton Grove, she said.

But another change in the community was construction. In 2015, work began to turn West Argyle into a “shared street” — one without raised sidewalks. The project was completed the next year.

Tran said many, perhaps most, business owners he’s spoken to don’t like the result. Among the complaints is that some restaurants aren’t eligible for sidewalk dining permits, since the new sidewalk design doesn’t give them room to set up seating while still allowing 6 feet of clearance for pedestrians.

“So if you have space on the sidewalk that allows for it ... then you could benefit from the sidewalk cafe during COVID,” Tran said. “But if you don’t, you’re pretty much screwed.”

A person walks along West Argyle Street by the Friday afternoon, Nov. 13, 2020.

The Argyle CTA stop in the Uptown neighborhood. Plans call for this station and three others along that stretch of the Red Line to be rebuilt.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

The upcoming CTA project calls for rebuilding four stops — Lawrence, Argyle, Berwyn and Bryn Mawr — over the next five years. Temporary stations will be built near each.

First Sip Cafe, 1057 W. Argyle St., opened about three years ago. Co-owner Erin Hoang worries construction will affect businesses owned by older residents.

Hoang, 27, said patrons of Vietnamese restaurants and grocery stores tend to drive to the neighborhood, and construction could mean a loss of already-scarce parking.

“We’re not opposed to change, but we also want to be careful of it,” said Hoang, who grew up in the area.

Among the worried business owners is Quang Le, owner of Pho Loan, a Vietnamese restaurant at 1114 W. Argyle St., near the CTA station.

Smoke and dust during the shared-street project drove away business, he said. So has the coronavirus.

“COVID has given me trouble,” he said. “There’s no business.”

Now, he’s bracing for CTA construction, which Le says may cost him 80% of his business.

Pre-pandemic, when Vietnamese business owners decided to sell, they usually could get someone in the community to take over, Tran said. But with COVID, he said, interest has waned. Vacant spaces stay vacant.

“It’s just desolate. It’s not as thriving,” Tran said. “The business district won’t be as strong.”

Erin Hoang, co-owner of First Sip Cafe, 1057 W. Argyle St. in the Uptown neighborhood, photographed on Friday, Nov. 13, 2020. | Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Erin Hoang, co-owner of First Sip Cafe, 1057 W. Argyle St.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Fighting for the future

Despite the community’s struggles, those who grew up there are still trying to highlight Argyle, even during the pandemic.

HAIBAYÔ, a community organization founded by Tran and Pham, held “Operation: Argyle Takeout” over the summer, where essential workers, creatives like artists and musicians, or those jobless due to the pandemic could get a $20 refund for money spent in Argyle.

Tran said refunds totaling about $3,800 were distributed; the money came from Pham, Tran and another friend of theirs, as well as from community donations.

“The idea is so that people can continue to come to Argyle, spend their money, and also we’re giving back money to people that are out of jobs and who have been hit by the pandemic,” Pham said.

Tran also has helped businesses in Argyle during the pandemic apply for loans and grants, as well as permits for sidewalk dining.

Another Argyle-based organization, Axis Lab, also held summer events, including “Food Not Cops,” where they distributed food, face masks, hand sanitizer and other necessities — but without any police standing guard.

The event was a response to the one-day suspension Mayor Lori Lightfoot ordered for Chicago Public Schools’ meal distribution program after looting in the city. The program was reinstated the next day with police on hand.

Patricia Nguyen, executive director of Axis Lab — an arts and architecture community organization based on Argyle Street — said such events not only tackle issues affecting the city, but also teach people about the neighborhood’s history and culture.

This includes the stories of not only those in the Southeast Asian community, but also Black, Latino and Native residents, she said.

“Our work is about archiving this history, writing this history and fighting to ensure the future of the livelihood of the people who have been living there for generations,” said Nguyen, who also grew up in Argyle.

A person walking is reflected on a closed store along West Argyle Street in the Uptown neighborhood Friday afternoon, Nov. 13, 2020.

A closed store along West Argyle Street in the Uptown neighborhood.

Pat Nabong/Sun-Times

Uptown also held its annual Argyle Night Market, where local restaurants, cafes and other businesses set up booths. This year, however, it was a virtual marketing campaign encouraging people to travel to Argyle and support the businesses there.

People who collected receipts could receive T-shirts and enter a raffle for gift cards redeemable at Argyle businesses.

As for the CTA construction, Tammy Chase, a spokeswoman for the Red-Purple Line Modernization Program, said the CTA will use social media and a special web page to promote small businesses near the stations.

Chase added the CTA has been working with local groups like the Chinese Mutual Aid Association and the Vietnamese Association of Illinois to tell business owners about the project.

“We know Argyle Street businesses were really affected by the streetscape program just from what we heard anecdotally, and we want to help them through this major project,” Chase said.

Tran knows efforts to help today’s Argyle won’t bring back the neighborhood of his youth, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing.

“It’s that memory that drives us to actually put in the work and create new memories of community,” Tran said.

And although Pham said change is inevitable, she hopes the efforts they’re making — especially during the pandemic — can help preserve the culture of the area.

“I would love to see more color here,” Pham said. “I would love to see all the businesses thriving here.”

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