The alderman’s newsletter today asks for comments from the community on a branding campaign that it’s hoped will bring business to Devon Avenue. A project of the Special Services Area #43 (SSA #43), the Rogers Park Business Alliance, which administers the SSA, and the alderman, you can go to a meeting or take the online survey to give your opinion. I used the online survey. I don’t know that the community’s opinions will matter much, if at all.
It’s clear that lots of time, money, and effort have gone into the branding concept and its expression. But I believe a branding campaign is the wrong approach at this point. Shabby stores, so-so merchandise, vacancies and boarded-up buildings, too many grocery stores and cell phone stores, the absence of true diversity and real choices–these need to be remedied before we start promoting Devon as an international marketplace. The relentless campaigns of the past few years branding Devon as Little India have deprived the merchants east of Western and west of California of recognition and thus real opportunities to build their businesses; they have no representation on the SSA, and the proposed branding campaign doesn’t recognize them either.
I think the first priority is building a business district worth a marketing campaign.
This will be a problem given the alderman’s lack of interest in economic development and the fact that the SSA is run by and for the benefit of Indian business owners. I’ve been tracking the businesses on Devon since 2014, and in that time have found that buildings and storefronts remain vacant for months–even years–before yet another sari shop, cell phone store, or grocery opens. When I check the building ownership for these properties, I find that they are Indian-owned. It’s no accident that only Indian businesses are permitted to rent storefronts on that stretch of Devon.
Devon used to be known all over the City and suburbs for its magnificent retailing. The neighborhood had everything–dress shops, toy shops, restaurants, men’s clothing stores, shoe stores, kids clothing shops, a hobby shop, linen, barber, and beauty shops, Crawford’s Department Store, a stock brokerage, bakeries and cigar stores, among other retailing offerings. In 1974, when Patel Bros. opened its first grocery store on Devon, it was welcomed to the mix. But as Indo-Americans bought the properties along Devon, , only Indian businesses were permitted to rent the storefronts. Do the Indian owners discriminate against non-Indian tenants? Yes, they do. It’s clear, and it’s illegal. I’ve tracked it for too long to believe otherwise. And I’ve talked with at least one non-Indian prospective business owner who wasn’t able to rent.
Maybe the RPBA, the SSA, and the alderman can work on that.
Here’s another hint:
An international marketplace sells quality goods from around the world. Diversity is in the merchandise, not in the merchants.
Devon includes store owners from around the world, but their businesses–which could thrive and become successful–are doomed to failure because they do not get the support and assistance they need. Many are woefully under-capitalized and need access to funding as well as basic marketing, merchandise display, advertising, and retailing skills. Devon is not a road in some dusty village where a single store sells everything from milk to suitcases. It’s a middle-class neighborhood in Chicago, and middle class people do not patronize stores with dusty bags of rice in the windows, or sun-faded boxes. If the alderman, the RPBA, or the SSA really want to build a business district rather than promote Little India, they would contact the SBA, the City’s business development office, and the State of Illinois for assistance in creating such training and making such resources available to merchants in the entire SSA area (Leavitt to Kedzie on Devon, Arthur to Granville on Western).
Creating a “branding campaign” for the current dreary array of vacancies and shabby little shops selling so-so merchandise is a mistake. Mislead people once and you won’t get a second chance.
Build a business district that’s truly remarkable and it will sell itself.