Why Is So Much of Chicago a Commercial Desert?

Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods have much less commercial activity than even a typical poor city neighborhood in America. Is it crime? Investment? History?

North Lawndale Chicago

Photo: Nancy Stone / Chicago Tribune

Ogden Avenue in Lawndale

Bloomberg Businessweek has a good piece today on the economic costs of crime in Chicago, starting with Jens Ludwig’s oft-cited calculation that gun violence costs the city $2.5 billion a year. From there, reporters Tim Jones and John McCormick look at how those costs add up: hundreds of thousands of dollars in trauma care for a single shooting (costs that often fall to the county at an average of $52k for each case of trauma care at Stroger Hospital); thousands of dollars in salary for the cops investigating the crime; lost wages from the critically injured; and on, and on.

Since it’s a business magazine, they also focus on the economic costs to the city’s retail base:

Violence has prompted the South Shore chamber of commerce to discourage businesses from staying open at night and to seek fines—and even shutter—stores that tolerate loitering. Merchants struggle with people selling individual cigarettes called “loosies” and illegal drugs.

Two months after Glinsey was fatally shot outside Budget Food & Liquors, the tax preparer next door fled. The Jackson Hewitt branch moved eight blocks north to 71st Street, near a shopping center anchored by franchise drug, electronics, grocery and sandwich outlets.

That wasn’t far enough. On the evening of April 30, three men were shot near the stores. The next morning, a 27-year-old man was killed about three blocks away.

Wertz, the executive director of the South Shore Chamber Inc., has a different challenge than her peers in most suburbs or more stable city neighborhoods.

The South Shore commercial strips she touts are defined mostly by beauty salons, wig shops, liquor stores, check cashing operations and tax preparation outlets. Wertz’s wish list: auto parts, shoes, a pancake house, a Marshalls and a T.J. Maxx.

There’s not much data behind that part of the piece. So I wish this had made it in. It doesn’t look very shocking at a glance, but it is.

Translated: that means Chicago’s poorest neighborhoods are tremendously business-poor, even compared to other cities’ poorest neighborhoods. As the author, Marco Luis Small, puts it: “In some cases, the difference is stark. Chicago has 82% fewer small restaurants, 95% fewer small banks, and 72% fewer small convenience stores than a black poor ghetto in the average city…. The average black poor neighborhood in the U.S. does not look at all like the South Side of Chicago.”

The effects go beyond mere economic loss. In Heat Wave, Eric Klinenberg notes the differences between North and South Lawndale and their effects on the death rate during the 1995 heat wave:

“In North Lawndale, the dangerous ecology of abandoned buildings, open spaces, commercial depletion, violent crime, degraded infrastructure, low population density, and family dispersion undermines the viability of public life and the strength of local support systems,” he writes. “In Little Village, though, the busy streets, heavy commercial activity, residential concentration, and relatively low crime promote social contact, collective life, and public engagement in general and provide particular benefits for the elderly, who are more likely to leave home when they are drawn out by nearby amenities.”

The same weather was ten times more dangerous in North Lawndale than it was in Little Village. In Little Village 3 people died, for a death rate of 4 per 100,000. In North Lawndale 19 people died, for a death rate of 40 per 100,000.

What struck Small when he moved to Chicago was this absence of activity—compared to, say, Harlem, which is poor but tremendously vibrant: “What I first noticed, and what took me months to get used to, was the utter lack of density, the surprising preponderance of empty spaces, vacant lots, and desolate streets, even as late as 2006. Repeatedly, I asked myself, where is everyone?”

Small doesn’t know where. I don’t think anyone knows for sure. But one theory tends to run through the city’s recent history (and histories), as you read in Boss, American Pharaoh, and Larry Bennett’s Third City. For the better part of the past 60 years, the people that ran the city—i.e. mostly the Daleys—threw their attention and the city’s money towards the Loop. And as Edward McClelland writes in “Why the Smartest People in the Midwest All Move to Chicago,” it worked. Central Chicago is thriving. And attention remains there, with news of the massive McPier renovations following on the heels of the city’s forthcoming riverwalk.

But it doesn’t actually end there. The most audacious city planning going on in Chicago—its most audacious city planning since the Great Fire—is centered way down south on the old U.S. Steel South Works site. “When built out over 30 years, Chicago Lakeside will be the site of 13,575 homes and 17.5 million square feet of stores and offices,” McClelland writes. “The North Slip will become a sailboat marina; the rocky verge of the peninsula, a bathing beach.” It will be a new Loop, on the ashes of the mills that built the old Loop.


11 months ago
Posted by luker

Great Article. The difference between the retail streets in North and South Lawndale has always been a source of interest for me. South Lawndale along 26th and 31st is full of retail, street vendors, public spaces, and culture. North Lawndale along Roosevelt, or 16th, or Pulaski, is abandoned, only contains corner food/liquor stores, and is downright scary. Maybe density has something to do with it, but I have always had a hard time figuring out why one neighborhood survives and the other just continues to get worse.

11 months ago
Posted by Truthdotcom

The U.S. Steel site will never become what is projected by developers.

And comparing the people of North Lawndale to the people of 26th street is apples to oranges. 26th street is full of industrious Mexicans who fear government (deportation), understand the basics of barter, and were not raised on the handout system. The Mexicans of 26th street do not have the same dependency as blacks. Density has nothing to do with the problem, blacks have created the lack of density, they take over a neighborhood and destroy it. They milk it of everything good. Mexicans on 26th try to get their piece of the pie through work and effort, not handouts. The problem is people look at this from the outside in not inside out. I am born and raised in Chicago, lived in Detroit for many years and came back only to see the black communities of Chicago mimic that of Detroit. Blacks in Chicago are isolated the same as those in Detroit. They do not have enough money to invest in their own communities to sustain themselves. Those that have the money leave and do not come back or invest it back into their community.

11 months ago
Posted by Bishop D

I would like to see the comp's with other cities who have both subway and bus forms of public transportation. The accessibility to remote commerce may be reflected in these stats.

6 months ago
Posted by the_peanut_gallery

I grew up in North Lawndale, and while I currently live in Wicker Park, I'm moving back to the neighborhood in a few months. I'd like to point out a few things about the article. The picture shown is several years old. In place of that abandoned laundry mat and car wash stands a multi-million dollar fitness and community center. A block or so away, an old firehouse has been converted into a new arts based youth center. Further east down Ogden is a multi-million dollar police station. Travel a few more minutes toward the south eastern edge of the neighborhood where North and South Lawndale meet and you'll see a new Lagunitas brewery in its final stages of completion. The research for this article was lazy. Now onto differences between North and South Lawndale. South Lawndale is much more dense due to immigration. The Mexican population is rising in the U.S. and South Lawndale is a major point of entry. Chicago has the 4th most Mexicans in the country, and most settle in South Lawndale. When you have those kinds of numbers, the economic activity is no surprise. Contrary to some of the ignorance spewed in some of the comments above me, the city has continued to funnel money and resources from poor neighborhoods into rich ones. Google Tax Increment Funding (TIF) in Chicago, and you'll understand. Also, teh comment about black people taking over neighborhoods is laughable. Clearly that commenter knows nothing of politics, race, and socioeconomics in Chicago.

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