Reeling Chicago communities ask, ‘Who invests in us now?’
‘There are neighborhoods in the city that will never recover,’ the Rev. William Hall says. But business leaders say merchants will return despite the spasms of destruction,
“They were in control. There was more of them than there was of us. That was the message that they were putting out.”
Melinda Kelly, executive director of the Chatham Business Association, summed up her Sunday night interaction with rioters near 83rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue.
She has promoted business growth in the area for more than 10 years. But that didn’t matter during a tense exchange when she and several others sought to save small businesses.
Kelly described the exchange as a “negotiation,” one that saved a florist — “Just be glad we don’t like flowers anyway,” one person told her. But she said she was powerless against a mob’s desire to attack a PNC Bank, an AT&T store and a Nike store.
“These aren’t locally owned, but they have been anchors in our community for years,” Kelly said.
She isn’t confident that merchants already reeling from the COVID-19 shutdowns will be quick to rebuild. The damage and the possibility riots could resume compound the risk of investing in minority communities, where returns are lower even in the best of times, she said.
Two big retailers, Target and Walmart, wouldn’t say whether they will reopen ransacked stores.
Business leaders said there is a strong corporate commitment to invest and rebuild in disadvantaged neighborhoods. After the double whammy of the coronavirus and civil unrest, “Businesses have two choices: Give up, or double down. And I believe people want to double down,” said David Casper, BMO Harris Bank’s CEO.
Casper said corporate leaders understand social injustice impedes economic growth. “Money will come from businesses that view this as a positive investment in the future,” he said.
“We have heard a profound commitment to rebuild,” said Samir Mayekar, deputy mayor for economic development. “We are not concerned that the business community will leave our neighborhoods.”
Some efforts could build on Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s initiatives, such as her promise to direct $750 million in improvements to low-income areas on the South Side and West Side. BMO Harris has backed that with a $10 million pledge.
Lightfoot also created a $100 million loan fund for businesses affected by the coronavirus and $10 million in grants for those harmed in the unrest that followed George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. These stand alongside private fundraising efforts led by the Chicago Community Trust and the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, among others.
Bank of America committed $1 billion nationally in a four-year pledge to help businesses and improve access to health care, job training and decent housing in black and brown communities.
Paul Lambert, Chicago market president for Bank of America, said it has helped customers during the economic crisis and that its initiative to defer mortgage and auto-loan payments became a model.
Regarding investment in troubled neighborhoods, Lambert said: “We’ve got to start with the dialogue first. This is not a time to be silent.”
Some are skeptical the money will go where it’s needed or that the city can follow through.
“Ten million here, 750 million there. Where’s this money coming from when the city’s running a huge deficit?” said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), a Lightfoot critic.
The Pullman Walmart was untouched by looters because Beale worked with police to close street access. He’s been in touch with Walmart executives and said, “I would bet that they are pulling out of some stores that are not profitable.”
There’s particular concern over a heavily damaged store at 83rd Street and Stewart Avenue, once a community showpiece. Looters also focused on drugstores.
The Rev. William Hall, pastor of St. James Community Church, 8000 S. Michigan Ave., said he spent hours protecting property at 47th Street and Cottage Grove during Sunday night’s destruction.
“What took 20 to 30 years to build in our community was destroyed in 24 hours,” Hall said. “We went from pandemic to pain.”
Hall has promoted the services of independently owned 200 Pharmacy, 9133 S. Stony Island Ave., as an alternative for customers of closed Walgreens or CVS stores.
Walgreens didn’t respond to questions about reopening plans. CVS said it intends to reopen all closed stores in the Chicago area.
South Side developer Leon Walker said neglected areas will attract investors willing to adopt a five- to seven-year timeframe for a financial return.
But others might lack such patience.
Hall said inequities such as poor police service on the South Side were on vivid display last weekend, with police in riot gear working downtown and on the North Side and his area fending for itself.
“There are neighborhoods in the city that will never recover,” Hall said. “I don’t have a grocery store. I don’t have a local bank. If I were running a small business, I would have to ask if I open back up in a city that betrayed me.”