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Immigrant-owned Stores Face Tension in Wary Chatham

Immigrant-owned Stores Face Tension in Wary Chatham


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.

Misconceptions abound

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.

A storefront on 79th Street in Chatham. (Maria Cardona/City Bureau)

A storefront on 79th Street in Chatham. (Maria Cardona/City Bureau)

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.

Learning From Each Other

Learning From Each Other


Leonard McGee is the civilian who runs the monthly Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy meetings in CPD Beat 211. The beat runs from 31st Street to 35th Street and from the Dan Ryan to Lake Michigan, serving the neighborhood within Douglas known as “the Gap.” At the most basic level, he acts as a liaison between the community and the police. The sixty-three-year-old has lived within the beat’s boundaries for the past thirty years; he first served as a beat facilitator for the 21st District and switched to the 2nd District after the district boundaries changed. At a meeting this month, McGee talked about why CAPS meetings in Beat 211 differ from other beats, why it’s best that civilians (and not police) run these meetings, and how residents can build a healthy relationship with beat officers.

(Maria Cardona/City Bureau)

(Maria Cardona/City Bureau)

Can you tell me a little bit about the history of the CAPS program in this particular beat?

We were meeting before there was a CAPS. The Gap Community Organization, which I’m also the president of, met with the police department at the 21st District station, and then the CAPS program came along. We have seen CAPS when it was most effective: years ago, when they used to have marches, we had drug houses in the neighborhood and [we] confronted people directly. In the last ten years CAPS has been more politicized. It has gotten away from its core mission of engaging people and engaging the community. Some of the funding was taken out of CAPS, where they used to give out gifts and little prizes in the community. That detracted from the program. It incentivizes people to come if they can win something in a raffle every month. [The program] gave out whistles, door knockers to keep you from breaking into somebody’s house. It had a sense of community.

The CAPS program on Beat 211 has been very successful. Last year we had a march and we must have had over 150 people come out to march on 31st Street, which is one of our hot spots. It has been effective. When we call the police, they come. Years ago we used to call and they did not come. We are training people in this beat on how to [call] 311, what do you look for, how do you talk to the police, how do you interact with the police. Our call rate has gone up. It is holding the police accountable but the residents as well. We are an anomaly [compared to other beats]. We are not the norm.

How would you describe the relationship between CAPS officers and the residents of Beat 211?

If you listen to the conversation [in our beat meeting], there’s no hostility. There was a calmness in the room, because they have faith and confidence in the person they talk to. The officer is very respectful. It’s like, you are just my mate and we are just going through the process and getting things done.

Is there something you would do to improve the CAPS program in your beat? If so, what would that be?

Figure out a way to get more people to come, to see there is value in having a relationship with the police on your beat. That relationship goes a lot further than just “Hey you, I need help now,” but actually building a rapport, building a relationship, building respect, and that gets results. The residents are now taking pictures and sending them to the police. They are not hiding behind the phone. They are saying: I am involved, I am engaged. And when the police have support from the community they actually police better, because now they are not harassing people, they are being dispatched based upon a call. When you are visible, if you stand up, speak out, they can make change. But if we do not stand up and speak out, [they] cannot help.

Is there something you would do to improve the CAPS program in general?

People who speak up need to get credit. When people get recognized for speaking up, it becomes a norm. Right now when people speak up, it seems like it is an anomaly, because it is not recognized. For example, the officer said tonight, “Thank you.” A real simple word but it speaks volumes because they think, there is an appreciation for what I am doing as a resident. They applauded the police because they felt that they were getting service, not protection. We stress the issue of service. We do not want protection. We do not want guns blazing. We want service.

What are aspects of the CAPS program that you consider the most effective and why?

The most effective thing is when civilians run the meeting. It is among peers, residents to residents, citizens to citizens, versus having the authority figure running it.

Is it common for civilians to be running meetings or are most meetings run by police officers?

Years ago it was always the civilians running the meetings, who were unpaid volunteers, but I noticed that’s not the case anymore.

What are some obstacles or what is not working within the CAPS program in your district?

The biggest obstacle is trust. People in my neighborhood have called [police] and they were afraid to leave their name. I have told people in my neighborhood that you do not want to be anonymous, because when you stand up and you speak out, people respect that. It may seem risky at first because you are not accustomed to doing that, but if you leave your name, there is accountability.

When you say I am anonymous, it is a so-so call. [The police] will go but the results will be a lot different. If you stand out[side] and wait for the supervisor, you will find out that that supervisor wants the same thing you want. The supervisor recognizes you are committed. When people recognize you want a better community, from a policing side, they police better because they realize they have got backup. We generally only talk in terms of a one-way street, but the police have to be backed up by the citizens and the citizens have to be backed up by the police.

What could the community do to improve these issues and what could CAPS officers do to work with the community and improve these issues?

In our area we have used an app called GroupMe. The way the app works is that you can sign people up so they can get [group] text messages directly to their phone or to the app. When someone sees something, they call 911, they describe it and they alert other people to call on the same issue [via GroupMe]. So now there is a pool of calls going on the same issue, with the same address, with the same description. We have gone to another level of organization to ensure that we can better service and better support the community and the police.

What could you do to improve the communication among beats?

Get rid of boundaries and start doing best practices, [learn from] what works in another beat. And communicating across beats, rather than [beats being] silos. There is a silo between our district and the 1st District, even if we share boundaries. We even suggested that they have joint beat meetings, [so] people now learn [from] other people and make a bigger family.

This report was produced in collaboration with the South Side Weekly. An introduction to important concepts relating to CAPS and restorative justice can be found here.