Shirt store: a hopeful sign in Humboldt Park 

Humboldt Park is the kind of neighborhood where an entrepreneur is someone who opens a bar, a little restaurant, or maybe a resale joint. Where economic development usually means little more than a new Pizza Hut or Burger King. Where the local kids either go off to work someplace else or hang around like a bad debt; nothing but problems.

But the mostly Puerto Rican neighborhood just got a new home-brewed boutique, a one-of-a-kind store like those in the trendier neighborhoods to the east. It's not the product of retail gentrification; there's little chance of that near Division and California. It's a small triumph, instead, of community economic development. And some local kids pulled it off.

The store, called Figs, sells handpainted clothing. It was started by a married couple of neighborhood kids who can paint caricatures, cartoons, and animals on sweatshirts, T-shirts, and tank tops.

Twenty-three-year-old Jesus Figueroa does the cartoons and the graffiti-style lettering--which he once sprayed on walls and CTA trains. "I had to quit because all my best work disappeared," he says. "Either the authorities or another graffiti gang painted over it." Connie, who is 19, does Persian cats, exotic animals, and striking women's faces on sweatshirts. Together, they say, they can draw anything on a shirt.

Their shirts are so popular that they made $2,000 during the recent Puerto Rican Day festival in Humboldt Park. They were so successful in the park and on the street that now they're opening a store at 1041 N. California--on a tattered business strip. While it's too early to say whether the store will succeed, the fact that it's opening at all is a major victory story--for undernourished Humboldt Park, for underpraised Schurz High School (the public school where the two learned commercial art), and for the underdog couple as well. Until recently, Jesus was a $4-an-hour shoe salesman and Connie was a teenage mother and high school dropout; both have now found a way to make money doing what they love.

If a new storefront doesn't sound like much of an achievement, drive down California and you'll see that the gaily colored, graffiti-style storefront is a very big deal, indeed--an oasis of youthful hope in a bleak desert of burnt-out stores and burnt-out kids.

The store's opening is also a small victory for the city, whose inner-city economy needs more local entrepreneurs. If the store works, it will also give a small victory to the city in its trade war with the suburbs. Four months ago Jesus and Connie worked for a large suburban sweatshirt store. They earned $8 to $10 for a handpainted shirt, which the firm later sold for $40 to $60. Now the owner/artists will charge less and earn more; they will get every penny of the $20 to $30 they will charge for the same fashions.

The story behind the store would never be told in business school--in art school, maybe, or in a John Hughes movie, but not business school. Figs, as his friends call him, is an affable, small, freckle-faced redhead. He had enjoyed some success in high school, success that was capped by winning a citywide high school art contest with his portrait of Harold Washington. He couldn't afford art school, so Figs tried Malcolm X College, where he did cartoons for the student newspaper. Then he had to pull out of the College to earn money to support his wife and one-year-old daughter, Luana.

Working at the shoe store and living on a shoestring, Jesus continued to draw--everywhere and anywhere. He drew on the sides of shoe boxes, on scrap paper, anything. Then his shoe store manager quit and took a job with a suburban sweatshirt store. It was she who got Jesus hired. Later Connie, who had been staying at home with her daughter, was also hired.

"We were there only a few months, but it was enough to convince us that we could make money doing something we liked," says Jesus. He put together a photo album of their work, had a business card printed, and started a quest for customers. He visited friends, sought orders door-to-door, went to retailers, stopped at shopping malls. "As soon as people saw the book, the shirts sold themselves," he says. "When they saw the designs we painted, we got an order. It go so everywhere we went, we got into conversations, showed people our book, and got another order.

"Our big break came when I was suspended from my job. They fired me because I was doing the same thing on my free time that they were paying me for. I guess they thought they owned my designs. Getting suspended gave me more time to round up more customers," says Jesus.

Their success at the Puerto Rican Day festivities, which lasted five days, surpassed everyone's expectations. "I told the festival people that I hand painted shirts--Puerto Rican shirts, I told them--and sold them for $20, maybe $15," says Jesus. "They were doubtful. 'Are you sure you'll sell shirts? The people here are poor; they don't have money like that.' I told them I was sure, so I paid $75 for the space.

"We sold $190 the first day, another $100 the second day--a cold day--and then on Saturday we couldn't paint fast enough. We painted as customers ordered; we painted what they wanted. Lots of people wanted the Puerto Rican duck on a hammock [Jesus's cartoon design], but everybody had his or her own idea. One guy wanted a gang sign--this Cobra--so I painted it. You want it, I'll paint it. In all, we sold everything, ran out of shirts, and made about $2,000. It convinced us there was a market in all this."

Crucial to the Figueroas' success was a chance meeting with a Chicago policeman. "We were celebrating in the McDonald's," says Jesus. "And this policeman comes in--I guess to use the bathroom. We were leaving, when we saw him get into this beat-up police car. So we laughed at him and kidded him about why he had such a beat-up police car. Then we told him what we did--you know, had a friendly conversation. And he said he was very interested, said he knew all the ropes about starting a business, and to get in touch with him.

"When we tried to buy shirts wholesale from the supplier, and he refused to sell to us . . . we sent our policeman partner over, and he got the shirts for us in his name. Being a policeman, he told 'em the shirts were for a pigfest. That's what they call their outdoor parties--pigfests. Anyway, now we've found a better shirt place to supply us.

"Now that we've opened the store, a lot of people come up to us and say, 'Why did you get a store in this crummy neighborhood?' Well, I don't think it's a crummy neighborhood; it's my neighborhood. And a lot of people here think I'm giving them something--that there is nothing like this in the area. We picked an active street, California, near other active streets, Division and Augusta. Things around here are going to have to change sooner or later, and if it does, it'll happen on these streets. I figure then I'll have a shot at it.

"I really want to branch out, maybe have another store, and then go to the Art Institute or Columbia College and learn how to make animated movies. One of my goals is to make this movie, a cartoon feature, about this rock and roll band who performs in the subway. And one day a very big booking agent's car breaks down . . ."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Bruce Powell.

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