The people v. the pawnshop 

How one vacant lot became a battleground between the politically powerful pawnshop industry and the outspoken residents of a middle-class Chicago neighborhood—and what that says about the future of development in the city

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Alderman Lona Lane defends the Cash America pawnshop that wants to open in her ward: "It's not some storefront garbage place." - BRETT ROSEMAN/SOUTHTOWN DAILY
  • Alderman Lona Lane defends the Cash America pawnshop that wants to open in her ward: "It's not some storefront garbage place."
  • Brett Roseman/Southtown Daily

In fairness, complaining about the alderman is an old Chicago tradition, and Lane dismisses her naysayers as an inevitable part of the job. She says she's worked with residents all over the ward to improve public safety and upgrade the streets and infrastructure.

Not surprisingly, she faced a couple of strong challengers in the 2011 municipal elections, including businessman Joseph Ziegler Jr. and Chuks Onyezia, a patent attorney and community activist. Onyezia won endorsements from the Tribune, the Sun-Times, and the Chicago Teachers Union, but with the opposition vote split, Lane won with just over 50 percent. Then she quietly responded with one of the most potent weapons in an alderman's arsenal: the ward remap.

The old 18th Ward map looked like a stair step, climbing from 87th as far north as Marquette and from Ashland west to Cicero. What emerged from last winter's remap was more like a block, with the old sections to the north and east sliced away. In other words, the alderman managed to lose an area that includes the homes of her opponents Onyezia and Ziegler, as well as vocal residents like Brown and Lanton.

The problem, according to residents in the cutout sections, is what's happened since. Legally, the new boundaries don't go into effect until after 2015. But unofficially aldermen are already inclined to make friends in their new wards. Lane's foes—and even some of her former supporters—say she's stopped serving the part of the 18th Ward that she had trimmed out.

Tyse is among the newly frustrated. She volunteered for Lane's campaigns in 2007 and 2011. She even joined Ladies for Lona and attended campaign events on her behalf. But now Tyse says Lane has gone AWOL. "Since we've been moved into the 21st Ward I guess she's washed her hands of us."

It's not exactly clear when or how the 18th Ward pawnshop proposal was born. The stories among residents have become almost apocryphal—everyone seems to remember the day they heard about it. For some, it was at a community policing meeting or block club gathering. Others say someone told them about it at the grocery store.

The parties behind the plan haven't worked to clear things up.

For years the lot at 79th and Western was occupied by an Amoco station. But it closed in the early 2000s and was eventually torn down. The property was then cited by state environmental authorities because of leaking underground gas tanks, meaning that development would require cleanup.

In 2010 it was purchased for $150,000 by an entity called 7900 S. Western Building LLC. Documents later filed with the city show the LLC is a partnership between real estate developers Chris Athanasopoulos, whose firm specializes in acquiring bank-owned and foreclosed properties, and Weitzman Realty Associates, based in Bronzeville.

The owners declined to discuss how the pawnshop proposal came about. "We love the Reader and appreciate what you do, but we're not going to comment," says Howard Powers II, an attorney and one of the owners of Weitzman.

A spokeswoman for Cash America also declined to comment.

Alderman Lane hasn't been answering a lot of questions about it either. After she didn't return multiple calls, I caught up with her at a City Council committee meeting.

She says the lot has been sitting vacant for a decade and she wants to see it returned to productive use. "It's a great site, with lots of traffic," she notes.

Yet she hasn't had many options. She says the price tag, including the environmental work that's needed, is just too high. "We've had people out there looking at it. They all end up thinking it's too much work. Dunkin' Donuts was interested, then they went in across the street. Jiffy Lube took a look and then didn't have the money."

She says the current property owners came to her with the idea of cleaning up the site and building a pawnshop there. Worn out from the failed proposals, she was receptive.

"It's not like 50 or 100 jobs, but it's a few jobs, and people are desperate for something. They'll pay $11 an hour plus benefits. That's not bad."

She added: "I don't think people understand it's not some storefront garbage place. It's a national company. You can buy stock in it."

For more than two decades the city of Chicago's chief neighborhood job creation tool has been tax increment financing, which siphons off some property tax revenue so it can be poured back into community development. While the TIF program has generated new investment in up-and-coming areas, it's done little to reverse declines in most of the city's business districts.

Still, city development officials say neighborhood business development remains a priority. They say it's more challenging than it once was: the economy has made everything tougher, and because of big box stores and Internet shopping fewer people rely on storefront retailers. In neighborhoods that are losing population, aging, or perceived to be on the downswing, the task is even more complicated.

As a result, the city has decided to focus on "nodes" already in the sights of retailers. "We want to take our cues from the private sector and where they want to go," says Michael Jasso, the city's managing deputy of economic development. "Some people say it's based on demographics and race. Whether that's true or not, we do know that retailers look at low-hanging fruit. But when we talk to retailers we say, 'You know about Lakeview, but have you considered South Shore?'"

In the case of 79th and Western, however, the city isn't inclined to step in. "It's a private transaction at a vacant site," says Mary Bonome, deputy of business development. "Perhaps it's not the most desirable store or retail use from various perspectives, but you will have a new development that hopefully will be a catalyst. It will be a new building that will generate new property taxes and new investment."

Do pawnshops generate new investment? Communities in and around Chicago have long debated whether they bring economic benefits or signal deterioration. Earlier this year one suburb, Des Plaines, rejected a proposal to allow its first pawnshop to open, with members of the city council saying it would ruin the city's character. Another, Carpentersville, decided to allow them for the first time. "If an ordinance is blocking people from starting businesses, then it's time to change the ordinance," said the village president.

The five dozen pawnshops in Chicago are concentrated in, but not limited to, poor and working-class neighborhoods. In 2003 a plan to allow a new pawnshop was at the center of the aldermanic election campaign in the 21st Ward—the predominantly middle-class ward just to the south of the 18th, which is picking up some of the areas that Alderman Lane had mapped out.

The 21st Ward alderman at the time, Leonard DeVille, signed off on a new shop at 81st and Ashland called Big Pawn. Members of the community were angry. Challenger Howard Brookins Jr. hammered DeVille for not attracting higher-quality businesses.

"It was a huge issue in the area, even among people in my church," Brookins recalls. "They thought a pawnshop brought down the character of the neighborhood and that they would be dealing in stolen goods."

Vowing to do better, Brookins won the election.

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