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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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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