Fighting for Immigrant Businesses?

I just received a very disturbing mailing piece from Shajan Kuriakose’s campaign. Let me say that I’m aware that the text can be interpreted in different ways. It’s the subtext that concerns me. The headline reads:

“As the son of immigrants, Shajan Kurkiakose knows that we are extremely invested in this community and he will fight to protect those interests.”

The text appears over a panorama of immigrant-owned businesses. The rest of the text notes that Shahan is a former small business owner (he owned a franchise but has not been more specific) and states that he “has been involved in progressive causes since he and his father volunteered for Harold Washington’s campaign for mayor.”

Let’s dispose of the Washington claim first. Shjajan is 36; Washington ran for his first term in 1983, when Shajan was 4 years old, and for his second in 1987 when Shajan was 8. It’s unlikely Shajan “volunteered” in the normal sense but he probably accompanied his father while his dad worked on Washington’s behalf. It’s simply ridiculous to claim to have been a political “volunteer” at age 4 or age 8, and shows a politician’s disregard for truth. Not a good sign.

But the piece raises a far more important question. When did it become “progressive” to pit one group against another? In this case, immigrants against the native-born? In West Ridge we are all immigrants or the descendants of immigrants, and this kind of pandering reeks of an us vs. them mentality that is wholly unacceptable. It’s this kind of political thinking that is destroying the very idea of community in America. It also raises uncomfortable questions about Mr. Kuriakose’s true agenda.  As I’ve noted before, in his first interview after declaring his candidacy he talked about the Indian community on Devon and its need for growth, including a Diwali festival. He did not mention any other ethnic group or festivals celebrated by them.  Was this just an accidental omission from a novice candidate or did he inadvertently reveal his true focus if elected? [See full interview here.]

I find Shajan’s campaign mailer offensive. It’s not clear who his backers are or whose interests are being threatened. But it clearly has not occurred to the merchants whose “investments” he wants to protect that other merchants were on Devon before them, and that they lost their investments–and their businesses–when the current business owners decided to make Devon so ethno-specific that no other business could thrive there. Those merchants were invested in the community, too–and they lived here, unlike most of the current merchants, who live in the suburbs. By saying they will “fight to protect [their] interests” they are, in fact, signaling that they will not yield to any attempt to make Devon more inclusive or more reflective of the entire community. I find this extremely troubling.

For the record: We are ALL “extremely invested in this community,” whether we live here or own businesses here. I’ve seen property values on my block and the next one decline because of selfish business decisions imposed on the residents without any warning or opportunity for negotiation. The needs of residents have been sacrificed time and time again to the selfishness of a business community that takes and takes from the residential community but won’t give an inch to meet the needs of residents.

I’ve said before and I’ll say again that the problem of failing businesses on Devon Avenue lies in an exclusionary approach to retailing that relies on nonresident shoppers and tourists rather than the West Ridge community to support the businesses. The merchants have no one but themselves to blame.

It’s the reason that Devon has become little better than a 24-block strip mall, home to 47 businesses that sell groceries but not one shoe store.

If the merchants want a fight to retain their kind of shopping, they’re likely to get it.

See Little Tyber, Part I and Part II for a little history lesson. I called it a fable but it’s a shame.





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