BY LATRICIA POLK
CHATHAM — The once-thriving 79th Street retail corridor in Chatham is dotted with vacant storefronts, but of the shopkeepers who remain, some feel more welcome than others.
Immigrant business owners are common on Chatham’s main strip. Though the shopkeepers bring economic activity and jobs to the area, black customers and black-owned businesses complain the newcomers are taking money out of the community. The racial tension is fueled by economic gaps, cultural differences and language barriers, among other issues, residents said.
“They come to our neighborhoods and take advantage of a business opportunity,” said Michael Muhammad, a 39-year-old African-American who owns the Uniform Store, a small storefront at 79th Street and Eberhart Avenue.
“They come to a place [where] they know the fabric of the economic cloth is dead. They know we are not producing the way we should. They are unified and benefit from our disunity,” he said of immigrant store owners.
In June, U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush (D-Ill.) announced the Greater Chatham Initiative, a public-private partnership to rebuild the business corridor and surrounding neighborhoods. The leader of that initiative, Chatham-raised Nedra Fears, acknowledged the tension, and said that bringing more black-owned businesses to the area could alleviate the problem.
“Criticism can be valid, but if you want to see change collectively, what are you doing to make that change?” she said. “What do we need to do to be able to make people believe that they can start their own businesses?”
Fears said the initiative will include programs that train and support entrepreneurs. Self-employment can “be a ladder for wealth,” she said, adding that there also should be programs for ex-cons.
Interviews with shoppers and on the business strip reveal some deep-seated misconceptions.
For instance, some residents believe that immigrant business owners get tax breaks and have used them to buy up commercial property, which prevents African-Americans from buying or renting in their own community.
“Black owners very rarely get business in our own communities,” said Randy Davis, who co-owns DGI Inc Help Center at 7910 S. Cottage Grove Ave. The business helps consumers expunge criminal records, repair their credit and deal with bankruptcy.
Chatham resident Raymond Noble, 41, said, "When you come over from foreign countries, you are able to get a lot of different amenities that the average person here cannot get in terms of loans.”
But Omar Hamdan, a business owner from Jerusalem, refuted Noble's claim.
“People think because I’m from the Middle East, the government gives me [my merchandise] for free," he said. "They think I don’t pay taxes, and [so] I showed them the tax bills.”
Hamdan added, “I work hard. I pay $2,000 a month in rent for business here.”
Hamdan, 50, opened his first small business in Chatham in 1994. He now owns three small business along the strip, a dollar store and two cellular phone stores.
“It was a good opportunity. Because it was a good business, I don’t care which area [I opened my shop],” Hamdan said.
The father of five lives in southwest suburban Burbank and came to the U.S. in 1992. He says he was advised to open his business in a black community.
“I knew the history of black people. In our religion [Islam], we respect all humans,” said Hamdan.
Immigrant business owners in predominantly black communities are not uncommon, says C.N. Le, a sociologist at the University of Massachusetts-Amherst.
“Most of it is due to the fact that, quite simply, rents are lower in neighborhoods that are predominantly black,” he said. “Because of the legacy of racism, much of the black population has been segregated into low-income, disadvantaged areas. It just so happens that the rent and property prices for these areas are lower compared to other areas, so it basically comes down to a financial decision.”
Studies show immigrant business is helpful
Whites used to own businesses in these predominantly black areas but began selling them to new immigrants such as Asians and Muslims in the 1980s, Le said. Scholars call this process “racial/ethnic succession,” because many of the white business owners move up the supply chain and become wholesalers who sell to the new immigrant business owners. In essence, these new Asian and Muslim business owners became a "buffer zone" that insulates whites from their former black customers, he said.
Some studies have found that immigrant business owners can help revitalize struggling neighborhoods by bringing commerce and much-needed investments to storefronts on depressed commercial strips. But research, news stories and years of documented clashes also reveal serious tensions between African-Americans and the immigrant business owners who find untapped opportunity in black neighborhoods.
Some Chatham residents feel that immigrant owners profile them.
“Everybody looks at you like you’re a gangbanger. They always look at the negative point of view of our race instead of looking at what we are doing positive,” said 25-year-old Erik Bentley, a Chatham resident.
The cultural differences and language barriers can also foster distrust and dislike.
For the last seven years, Don Williams has worked at Top Collection, a clothing store east of the 79th Street business strip. His Pakistani boss, known as “Pops,” speaks very little English, and Williams assists him with translations when interacting with black customers.
“I understand both of them, so I try to relay the message of what they are trying to say to each other,” said Williams.
Hiring local black residents as employees can ease the tension. Hamdan said he has two employees, but that his businesses can’t support more — an issue that Fears hopes the initiative can fix by bringing more economic activity to the area.
“I welcome people who want to do business in our community, because collectively we will thrive,” Fears said. “We want people to be good stewards: I don’t care who you are. If you invest in the community, we want you to step it up, we want you to do a high-quality investment, we want you to maintain your property, we want you to have high-quality goods and services, we want you to be a good neighbor.”
Either way, the process will require more understanding and empathy on both sides, Le said: “The business owners have been trying to become more involved and integrated into the communities that they serve,” and customers have to try to be more understanding of the cultural differences and not immediately conclude that some unpleasant interaction is because the business owner is racist.
“We're here because we’re after the American dream, and when you get here and start working, you realize the American dream is possible,” said Faye Ellis, an immigrant from Colombia, who owns Grab 'N Go.
Before Ellis opened her business at 7906 S. Cottage Grove Ave., the storefront sat abandoned for two years.
“I don’t think it’s fair to resent us, because a lot of us come here with nothing,” Ellis said.
This report was published in collaboration with DNAinfo Chicago. Additional reporting by Adeshina Emmanuel.