The people v. the pawnshop | Feature | Chicago Reader

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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21st Ward alderman Howard Brookins Jr. says of Big Pawn owner Alvin Bell Jr., "He's a decent guy doing a decent thing. He runs a family business." - ANDREA BAUER
  • 21st Ward alderman Howard Brookins Jr. says of Big Pawn owner Alvin Bell Jr., "He's a decent guy doing a decent thing. He runs a family business."
  • Andrea Bauer

Once you start looking, you see them everywhere. There are empty storefronts on Irving Park Road in Portage Park, on Commercial Avenue in South Chicago, on Division Street in Austin, even on Clark Street in Lincoln Park. Still more striking are the empty lots dotting the landscape—the city alone owns more than 15,000, in each neighborhood on every side of town. That doesn't include thousands more in private hands.

Meanwhile, unemployment remains implacably high: 9.1 percent statewide in August, the highest rate in six months. In the city's African-American neighborhoods joblessness is two to three times as high—even among the working and middle class. Worse, the crime rate in those communities often follows the same track as the unemployment.

All of this explains why residents of Chicago's 18th Ward alternately speak of the intersection of 79th and Western as a scene of both great potential and festering decay. Both streets are among the busiest in the city, so the steady traffic supports a number of retailers, including Walgreens and CVS, an old-timey drive-in restaurant, and fast food places such as McDonald's and Dunkin' Donuts. The surrounding residential areas are mostly quiet, well maintained, middle class. In other parts of the city, or during other, more prosperous times, a location like this would appear perfect for a breakfast spot, a Starbucks, or a supermarket.

Still, it's easy to notice the symptoms of urban distress—more unused storefronts, an abandoned car wash, and, on the northwest corner of the intersection, a wide vacant lot encircled by a chain-link fence. On the fence hangs a sign: "Applicant seeks a special use to establish a pawn shop."

This is what it's come down to in the 18th Ward: a choice between a pawnshop or a long-empty lot. Except that residents don't believe it's a choice they should have to make.

Meetings of the zoning board of appeals don't exactly have the drawing power of the Bears hosting the Packers at Soldier Field. The board is an obscure panel of mayoral appointees that reviews zoning proposals and disputes, and on the days it meets in City Council chambers the room is often empty enough that board members and attorneys address each other without microphones. It's not uncommon for voices or laughter to spill in from the adjacent council lounge.

But dozens of people were in the stands when a board meeting was gaveled to order on the afternoon of August 17. One of the first items on the agenda was an application for a permit to allow Cash America, a national chain, to open a new pawnshop at 79th and Western. And the spectators wanted the application killed.

That was no secret to the backers of the plan. As soon as the board called it up, a man who identified himself as Michael Castellino, an attorney for the proposed pawnshop, asked for the matter to be held until October so that his clients could "get more information to the community."

The board agreed to the delay. But before moving on to the next item, board chairman Jonathan Swain noted that some members of the audience had signed up to speak in opposition to the pawnshop. He asked them to identify themselves.

Almost everyone in the audience stood up.

"What we want to know is if they can keep continuing this," one woman called out to Swain. She said she and her neighbors wanted their voices heard, but they were worried the proposal would slip past when they were too busy to notice. "We have jobs and they know it."

Swain told her it was possible the issue could be postponed again, but for now it was on the agenda for October 19. He looked at Castellino. "Counsel, let's try and see if we can resolve the issue." To the people in the stands, he said, "Thank you all for coming down."

Many of the residents hurried out to catch a bus to shuttle them between the meeting and 79th and Western (few knew that a rival pawnshop had arranged the ride). Others stood in the hallway worrying aloud that the pawnshop proposal was still alive.

"This is not going to help our community," said Marie Tyse, who's lived a few blocks southeast of the proposed pawnshop for 40 years. "The alderman says we need a business in there, and I'm sure we do. But not that business."

Tyse is not an image of timidity. She's tall, with pipes for arms and high sharp cheekbones, and as a former police officer—she ended her career as chief of the UIC campus force—she seems practiced at commanding authority.

Two weeks after the zoning postponement, Tyse briefed about 40 members of the North Beverly Civic Association at the group's monthly meeting in a church at 85th and Damen. "The only way we're going to stop this is if we spread the word that we've got enough problems in our community," she said. "It already takes 30 minutes for the police to respond to us, and it's only going to get worse if this comes in here."

There were murmurs of agreement from the group, mostly middle-aged and senior residents of the surrounding blocks.

Tyse went on, noting that 18th Ward alderman Lona Lane had been invited to the meeting but hadn't shown up. "So as far as we can determine, we are not going to get the support of our alderman."

More murmurs. Tyse urged everyone to sign a petition opposing the pawnshop and circulate it among their neighbors so they could present it to the zoning board. She asked them to pass on their ideas for businesses they'd like to bring to the community instead.

"We've got a whole list," she said afterward. "It just takes a business or two to come in and show that it can be done. We've got money to spend."

The intersection of 79th and Western is an attractive spot for a pawnshop, according to 18th Ward alderman Lona Lane. "It's a few jobs, and people are desperate for something. They'll pay $11 an hour plus benefits." - ANDREA BAUER
  • The intersection of 79th and Western is an attractive spot for a pawnshop, according to 18th Ward alderman Lona Lane. "It's a few jobs, and people are desperate for something. They'll pay $11 an hour plus benefits."
  • Andrea Bauer

The corner of 79th and Western is roughly the center of the 18th Ward, as well as the meeting point of several neighborhoods—Wrightwood and Ashburn to the west, Auburn-Gresham and North Beverly to the east—that have evolved from all-white to predominantly African-American since the 1960s. But longtime residents, many of them the first to integrate their blocks, are quick to tell you what hasn't changed: the ward remains a community of teachers, cops, and other middle-class workers who are invested in their homes. It's common to encounter lawn-care workers, joggers, and jump-roping children on the quiet side streets, and nearly every block is organized into a block club. Citizen volunteers patrol the neighborhoods, watching out for unkempt yards and strangers who look like they could be up to something.

"We're working people and we're trying to send our kids to college," says Robert Brown, a correctional officer at the Cook County jail who lives on the Auburn-Gresham side of Western. "People in this community typically do not patronize pawnshops. So why attract those businesses here?"

The issue isn't merely one of taste. Brown and other residents note that there's already a pawnshop in the area—Big Pawn, at 81st and Ashland. They worry that another store will attract thieves and drug users. Pawnbrokers are required to submit reports to the police to prevent them from dealing in stolen goods, but that's little consolation to a neighborhood already clamoring for more police on patrol.

Everyone seems to have a story that explains why they think the neighborhood is at a tipping point for crime—and how the addition of a pawnshop could push it over the edge. Brown's block of South Winchester Avenue is still shaken by a 2010 shooting that left a teenager wounded and a 26-year-old neighbor dead. Police said it was a gang incident. "When something like that happens on your block, something in your block dies," Brown said at the time. "Your sense of security dies."

Brown and the members of his block club asked for more police patrols and city services; Alderman Lane said she was doing all she could "except getting a gun and going out there and shooting someone myself." Last summer, almost exactly a year after the first incident, there was another fatal shooting on the block. Brown and his neighbors redoubled their efforts to communicate with police and maintain several vacant properties on their street, but they remain wary.

And that's just one block—there have been other incidents, including a slaying in June at the gas station across from the empty lot at 79th and Western. Still, while gun violence remains relatively rare across the neighborhoods of the 18th Ward, burglary isn't. Between 2002 and 2010, reported burglaries in the three police beats around 79th and Western nearly doubled, and though they've dropped the last couple years, they're still much higher than a decade ago.

Dorothy Burnett moved into Wrightwood with her family when her daughter was eight, "and she's 32 now." "We're a great community," says Burnett, a retired medical technician. "We try to look out for each other."

But she says her home has been burglarized three times in the last year and a half. Once the thieves took their Christmas gifts. Another time they cleaned out the garage. "They didn't even leave us a shovel," she says.

The third time they made off with the family's three pugs. One was eventually found in the suburbs and returned.

Residents have theories about what's happening. They blame the recession and suspect that police staffing has dropped too low. And many argue that when public housing was dismantled over the last decade, it disrupted old gang and drug networks and sent desperate people into their neighborhood (a contention that's both irrefutable and unprovable because officials haven't tracked where most former public housing tenants ended up).

If the neighborhood falls further, residents worry, it might not ever come back.

"It used to be that when the garbage men came and they dropped something, they would pick it up, but now when they drop something they keep on going," says Tanya White, an accountant who's lived in Wrightwood for 27 years (she and her family were the first African-Americans on their block). "It's a shame to see the downgrading of your community."

Lona Lane was a respected community activist before she was appointed alderman in 2006, and by all counts she's affable and tries to get along with people. Her critics say that she works especially hard to get along with the mayor. Since taking office in 2006 she has only voted against two measures backed by Rahm Emanuel or Richard Daley. One prohibited aldermen from hiring their relatives. The other set up a program to sell vacant land.

She doesn't speak much from the floor of the council, either, but when she's been heard from at all, it's been for the regulation of food and animals that almost no one else knew were in need of regulation. In 2007 she tried to get the council to ban pet chickens inside city limits; it didn't go anywhere, but the next year she successfully had ice cream trucks prohibited from her ward after she said she witnessed one dealing drugs. She then returned to the chicken ban, this time limiting it to the 18th Ward. But the council didn't act on it, leaving roosters free to crow across the southwest side.

Meanwhile, some residents were wishing they could get the kind of attention she was paying to fowl. Like every other 18th Ward alderman dating back to the 70s, Lane lives in the western part of her ward, and many of her constituents on the other side of Western Avenue say she's been inattentive as they coped with issues ranging from burned-out streetlights to foreclosed homes used for drug dealing.

"The aldermen are all doing what Rahm Emanuel wants them to, so we're not getting any representation over here," says Margaret Lanton, who's lived in Auburn-Gresham for four decades. "They can make stupid laws about dogs or whatever, but they can't figure out how to get their hands on a house that's been vacant for ten years."

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.

Ironically, Brookins has since become allies with the owner of Big Pawn, Alvin Bell Jr. "After I met him, I saw that he's a decent guy doing a decent thing," Brookins says. "He runs a family business. He supports events in the area."

He also supports politicians. Over the last decade, Bell has given about $47,000 to south-side elected officials, including about $18,000 to Brookins. Bell, who started off as a jeweler, has four stores in Chicago. He says he hires people from the neighborhood and has donated at least $180,000 to churches, the Urban League, and other charities. In 2010, after holding a series of job fairs and promising to put people back to work, pawnbroker Scott Lee Cohen won the Democratic primary for lieutenant governor. Party leaders then pressured him to end his bid.

Meanwhile, as the economy has suffered the last few years, business has boomed for pawnshops. National chains like EZ Pawn and Cash America bought up independent stores and smaller chains and opened new locations of their own. They also became hot commodities themselves: the stocks for both companies more than tripled in value between the end of 2008 and 2011 before dipping a little this year.

But as they've looked to expand in Chicago, they've taken no chances. Both companies have hired high-power lobbyists. EZ Pawn has enlisted Reyes Kurson, the firm founded and led by Victor Reyes, once the top political aide to former mayor Richard Daley. Cash America hired Chico Nunes, whose partners include former Daley aide and mayoral candidate Gery Chico. For help with the zoning changes they need, they brought on the Del Galdo Law Group, a firm that's been hired to represent several suburban governments at the behest of state house speaker Michael Madigan.

Cash America has also donated more than $130,000 to Illinois politicians in the last decade, from aldermen and state legislators to Cook County board president Toni Preckwinkle.

Alderman Lane has not reported any donations from Cash America. But council dean Ed Burke has. Last year Alderman Burke attended a grand opening for the company's new pawnshop in his ward, at 48th and Kedzie, an event that was broadcast live on Spanish-language radio. It was Cash America's 17th store in Chicago.

"The Cash America guys have been pushing me," says Alderman Brookins. "They want to open two in my ward. They said, 'Hey, we're a nationally traded company and Lona Lane supports us.'"

He says he's talking with Bell and other pawnbrokers about new legislation to limit the number of stores in Chicago, or at least make sure they're not concentrated in particular areas.

It's not always clear who's on which side of the 18th Ward pawnshop debate, especially since some of the key players aren't broadcasting their involvement.

Last winter Alderman Lane asked board members of a community group, the Wrightwood Improvement Association, if they would allow her to make a presentation about a new store at 79th and Western. They agreed.

After she made her pitch, she asked if members of the association supported the idea. "The majority of the people kind of raised their hands, but that wasn't sanctioning it," says Wrightwood board member Bill Mabry. "There wasn't a vote. It's an emotional issue. The board and the community are divided on it."

Mabry says strip malls and commercial districts in the area are struggling to attract quality tenants. At last month's meeting of the association, members lamented the closing of a restaurant that had only been open a few months. "We're not going to get big businesses coming in there," he says. "I guess I'm one of those guys who's willing to give somebody an opportunity."

Lane felt she had the community backing she needed. In April she introduced an ordinance to the City Council to change the zoning for the pawnshop. With Lane's support the measure was given routine approval.

But word was only just spreading through the ward, and people weren't happy. Eventually, after she was barraged with questions about the pawnshop, Lane felt compelled to bring in Cash America representatives for a public meeting. It was scheduled for August 13, in a modest-sized room at the Wrightwood library.

Residents say Lane's staff did little to publicize the event. "She didn't think anyone would come," says Tanya White, the accountant and longtime Wrightwood resident.

In the days before it, though, flyers started appearing in the doors of homes throughout the ward. "NO PAWN SHOP," they declared. The flyers noted that the proposed shop would have "no local ownership, they are they are a national chain and therefore most of the money leaves the community."

"TELL ALDERMAN LONA LANE, 'NOT IN OUR COMMUNITY.'"

It later turned out that the flyers had been circulated by Alvin Bell Jr., the owner of Big Pawn.

Bell concedes that he isn't wild about having to compete with a new pawnshop just a mile from his store on 81st and Ashland. But he says his primary issue is with the way Cash America does business—he claims they have a poor record of hiring African-Americans and don't have adequate security. "When someone operates in an unsafe manner, it puts my stores at risk as well. People think, 'It worked over there, so let's try it over here.'"

The meeting that ensued was either a great example of democracy at work or the verbal equivalent of a tarring and feathering, depending on your perspective.

In front of a packed house, Cash America officials touted the endorsement of the Wrightwood Improvement Association—who quickly insisted they'd given no such endorsement and didn't intend to.

Company officials then told the overflow crowd they had strong support from other communities where they had stores. They presented a letter from Alderman Burke—which didn't go over well, as many south-siders remember when Burke was one of the leading opponents of the city's first black mayor, Harold Washington. "One guy said, 'That's the worst you could do,'" Tyse recalls.

It didn't get any better for the pawnshop officials. A resident asked how many jobs the store would bring. The answer: four.

When another resident wanted to know why Cash America had decided to set up a store in the 18th Ward, one of the reps candidly said the company focused on communities with median incomes of $40,000 or less. It upset almost everyone in the audience—most of them earn much more, and those who don't were even more offended.

White says it left her with a feeling she could only describe one way: "We're being pimped out."

The matter went before the zoning board four days later. Most residents were so intent on getting to the meeting to show their opposition that they didn't realize the bus that took them there was arranged by Alvin Bell, the Big Pawn owner. Those who did know didn't care.

Lane wasn't at the zoning board meeting, but when I spoke to her after it, she acknowledged that the pawnshop plan wasn't going over well in her ward. "They think people are going to steal from their homes and it will end up there."

The alderman said she'd thought about tabling the idea. But she's not giving up yet because Cash America deserves another chance to ease the concerns. "They want to try to communicate with some members of the community in a more intimate setting. In that public meeting—oh my god. Everyone was so riled up, they didn't even have a chance to make their presentation."

The pawnshop's opponents are encouraged. For the last several weeks residents have complained to police and the alderman about suspected drug dealing outside a 24-hour convenience store just around the corner from the vacant lot at 79th and Western. Now Lane is leading an effort to have its license revoked. "That's something good that's come out of all this," says Tyse.

Tyse and other pawnshop foes believe their campaign against it online and door to door is gaining momentum. One night in mid-September I accompanied several women, including Tyse's daughter, Michelle Tyse Thomas, as they gathered signatures for a petition against the plan in their corner of Wrightwood.

Thomas—a tall, friendly city employee who wears a short Afro dyed blond—had little trouble. A number of residents urged her to talk with their neighbors as well, or shared their own stories of being burglarized.

"Have you heard about the pawnshop proposal?" she asked a bearded middle-aged man through a screen door on 83rd Street.

"Oh yes," he said, shaking his head.

"Would you be willing to sign our petition?"

"Yes, please!"

A couple of doors down a man listened to Thomas's pitch with polite skepticism. He said he understood that the area around Western had experienced some crime problems, but he wasn't sure that should rule out the pawnshop.

"Did the alderman vote for it?" he asked.

"Yes, she did."

He nodded. "Well, I'm her husband."

Thomas couldn't help but laugh. "I guess you won't be signing, then."

"I have to talk to my wife first," he said. But he took one of the flyers.

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