“They were in control. There was more of them than there was of us. That was the message that they were putting out.”
Melinda Kelly, executive director of the Chatham Business Association, summed up her Sunday night interaction with rioters near 83rd Street and Cottage Grove Avenue. She has promoted business growth in the area for more than 10 years. But that didn’t matter during a tense exchange when she and several allies sought to save small businesses and engaged a lawless foe.
Kelly said her group wasn’t threatened. She described the exchange as a “negotiation,” one that saved a florist — “Just be glad we don’t like flowers anyway,” one person told her. But she said she was powerless against a mob’s desire to attack the PNC Bank, an AT&T store and a Nike store, among others.
“These aren’t locally owned, but they have been anchors in our community for years,” Kelly said.
She isn’t confident that merchants, large or small, who already were reeling from the COVID-19 shutdowns, will be quick to rebuild. The damage and the possibility that riots could be repeated compound the risk of investing in minority communities in which returns are lower even in the best of times, she said.
Two of the largest retailers, Target and Walmart, wouldn’t say whether they will reopen ransacked stores.
A Target spokeswoman said, “We are providing our team members with direct communication regarding any impact to the store where they work.”
A Walmart spokeswoman said the company is still assessing damages.
Business leaders, many of them working with Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s recovery initiatives, said there is a strong corporate commitment behind investing and rebuilding in disadvantaged neighborhoods. After the double whammy of the virus and civil unrest, “Businesses have two choices: Give up, or double down. And I believe people want to double down,” said David Casper, chief executive officer of BMO Harris Bank.
Casper said corporate leaders understand that American social injustice impedes economic growth.
“Money will come from businesses that view this as a positive investment in the future,” he said.
Samir Mayekar, deputy mayor for economic development, said corporate leaders are giving him the same assurance.
“We have heard a profound commitment to rebuild,” he said. “We are not concerned that the business community will leave our neighborhoods.”
Some efforts could build on Lightfoot’s initiatives, such as her signature promise to direct $750 million in public improvements to low-income areas of the South Side and West Side. BMO Harris has backed that program with a pledge of $10 million.
Lightfoot also created a $100 million loan fund for businesses affected by the coronavirus and $10 million in grants for those harmed in the unrest that followed George Floyd’s death in Minneapolis. These stand alongside private fundraising efforts led by the Chicago Community Trust and the United Way of Metropolitan Chicago, among others.
Bank of America, declaring that the pandemic has worsened economic and racial injustices, committed $1 billion nationally in a four-year pledge to help businesses and improve access to health care, job training and decent housing in black and brown communities.
Paul Lambert, Chicago market president for Bank of America, said it has creatively helped customers during the economic crisis and that its initiative to defer mortgage and auto-loan payments became a model for a city effort that other banks joined.
As for investment in troubled neighborhoods, he said: “We’ve got to start with the dialogue first. This is not a time to be silent.”
But some in Chicago are skeptical that the money will get where it’s needed or that the city can follow through.
“Ten million here, 750 million there. Where’s this money coming from when the city’s running a huge deficit?” said Ald. Anthony Beale (9th), one of Lightfoot’s most fervent critics on the Chicago City Council.
The Pullman Walmart in Beale’s ward on the far South Side was untouched by looters because he worked with police to close street access. He said he’s been in touch with Walmart executives.
“I would bet that they are pulling out of some stores that are not profitable,” Beale said.
There’s particular concern over a heavily damaged store at 83rd Street and Stewart Avenue, once a community showpiece. Looters also focused on drugstores, forcing people needing prescriptions to head elsewhere or do without.
The Rev. William Hall, pastor of St. James Community Church, 8000 S. Michigan Ave., said he toured his neighborhood and spent several hours protecting property at 47th Street and Cottage Grove during Sunday night’s destruction.
“What took 20 to 30 years to build in our community was destroyed in 24 hours,” Hall said. “We went from pandemic to pain.”
With the Rev. Michael Pfleger of St. Sabina Church, Hall has promoted the services of the independently owned 200 Pharmacy, 9133 S. Stony Island Ave., as an alternative that can provide prescriptions to customers of Walgreens or CVS stores that have been closed.
Walgreens did not respond to questions about its reopening plans. CVS said it intends to reopen all closed stores in the Chicago area.
South Side developer Leon Walker, who works with retailers to fill his shopping plazas, said he’s positive about rebuilding prospects, saying neglected areas will attract investors willing to adopt a five- to seven-year timeframe for a financial return.
But others, with the destruction of last weekend still fresh in mind, might lack patience for medium-term thinking, wondering whether looters will return.
Hall said the city’s inequities, including poor police service on the South Side, were on vivid display, with squadrons of police in riot gear working downtown and on the North Side but with his area fending for itself. City officials have denied neglecting commercial districts in minority areas, saying officers stayed near sensitive targets while coordinated groups were trying to distract them with looting.
To Hall, it amounted to standing down amid the pillaging that will have a lasting impact.
“There are neighborhoods in the city that will never recover,” he said.
Despite recent progress, Hall said: “I don’t have a grocery store. I don’t have a local bank. If I were running a small business, I would have to ask if I open back up in a city that betrayed me.”