Nothing says “Hello neighbors!” quite like standing on the doorstep with a petition. Yes, it’s that girl from the new house (“new” in the sense that it was recently rehabbed to something unrecognizable from its previous incarnation) here to tell you what she thinks would make the neighborhood “better”. I might as well be carrying a jello mold or a Jehovah’s Witness brochure for how off-the-charts cliche that is.
But I was actually collecting signatures to prevent an even newer neighbor from moving in – a Pawn Shop. Since hearing rumblings over the summer about the possibility, our growing list of accidental connections had landed us in a lawyer’s office down the street, commiserating with people only a stones throw from the projected business. As 1st Ward Alderman Moreno put so succinctly at the Greater Goethe Neighborhood Association meeting on September 12th – we all had prejudices against Pawn Shops without really exploring all the facts. ALL the facts. In direct rebuttal to the Alderman’s passionate defense of his decision to support EZ Pawn moving into his Ward, the more facts we began to look into on that night starting in the lawyer’s office, the more convinced we became we do NOT want this here.
Some back story. Around the corner from the Haus is a beautiful storefront (6 storefronts in a row, to be clear) in a lovely brick building (I’m guessing 20’s era, but don’t quote me on it – commercial architecture is not my strong suit) with the original terra cotta details and swirls so often removed from the buildings on, say, Milwaukee Avenue (which apparently used to be beautiful). The last tenants were the Census Bureau. Clearly, it’s been vacant awhile. Call me crazy, but I think the economy might have something to do with that. Otherwise, it seems that it would be an ideal location for a restaurant or performance space or (oooh!) yoga studio or something suitably awesome. Personally, if it couldn’t be a yoga studio, I’d hope for a rehabbed furniture/antiques store or a good, basic fabric and crafts store. But I’ve been called delusionally optimistic before, so lets move on… There it was, all empty and whatnot, and off in the distance, unbeknownst to us, a battle was brewing. That battle was between residents near Irving Park and the Alderman of our own Good Ole Ward 35, Rey Colon, over a proposed Pawn Shop. The residents won. The Alderman suggested a deal… a new location, over on Fullerton (code for “no-man’s-land”).
The first flyers went up in July, but it rained, and I never really understood the smear of ink other than “EZ” smudge smudge smudge. Rumors abounded. We asked around. Do we even have a neighborhood association? (We do.) IS anyone doing something about this? What would that something be? Weeks went by, and suddenly the story was all over Every Block, all over the GGNA Yahoo list, taking over our world. After weeks of wondering, we found out we should have had a letter telling us about the proposed business, and a Ward meeting to discuss it, but somehow they had never updated their records to include us. (We’re pretty sure they’ll have our correct info at tax time… Smirk.) People who did make it to the Ward meeting discovered Alderman Colon was unwilling to even discuss it – not only would he *not* make a Moreno-esque case for the business, he didn’t “care if you got 500 signatures” against it. (Several witnesses told me the same quote, so I’m going with it.) The polite, just-asking phase ended.
The research phase began – I passed along every University and Crime-fighting study I could get my hands on, began looking into the rules and regs on “Special Permission” Zoning Board of Appeals requests (aided by the local lawyer, and onetime Aldermanic candidate, in charge of our little band). A few of us from Ward 35 attended a Ward 1 meeting with EZ’s lawyer, gathering more info and quotes. My favorite? After expounding again and again on the statement that “Less than 1% of EZ Pawn’s transactions are later found to be stolen goods”, someone finally asked the lawyer where these stats came from. Were they published anywhere we could see? No. “They come from our experience.” I had been trying to be invisible and silent (Ward 1 is, after all, no longer our Ward, and we were there as guests to listen and learn only) but at that the laugh that escaped from me resembled the frightened bleat of a zoo animal. Really? So if you admit to 1%, with nothing to back it up, how many transactions do you have in a year? In a proposed 6,000 square foot store? How much
stolen shi… “wastage” is that?
Around this time, I said to myself “Screw this” and started walking around, riling up support. Highlights included: Good Samaritans translating my non-existent Spanish for local shop-owners, then shyly translating their irate responses as they signed; a neighbor I’d never met before shouting my name from her car to sign before she left for work (word. travelled. FAST.) then yelling at her husband to do the same; some kids down the street doing a fabulous job of scheduling my signature-getting (“Come back at 5. We’ll tell her. And if you come back tomorrow around 9, you can get my uncle”…); and Five Angry Nuns.
The Nuns were a treat. I called Our Lady of Grace School and spoke to the Secretary there. As soon as she heard the words “Pawn Shop” she said “Come here!”. So I scampered to school with my handouts and fact sheets and the petition itself. No need. The savvy Sisters already knew all they needed to – explaining, in fact, the repeated trouble over the years with a Pawn Shop that used to be in business down the street. They also mentioned their Convent had recently been “Tagged”. Really? Really, gang-members? You tagged a Convent? Stay classy.
But best of all, they made me wait in the Principal’s office, next to a very contrite 8-year-old girl with dimples and a broken leg. It’s official: I go back to school for 30 seconds, and I’m right back in the Principal’s Office. Talking to angry Nuns. Don’t tell me that’s coincidence… We left it with me harassing Sister Rita Marie to send a letter to the ZBA, since she’s clearly much too busy providing things – like an Education! – to adorable, apple-cheeked little moppets to come down to City Hall in the middle of the afternoon (ZBA meeting was scheduled for 2 pm). Leave that to the cynical, underemployed writer. I got plenty o’ time.
Which is good, because the ZBA took one look at the angry crowd that arrived on September 16th, and proceeded to bump us twice. We didn’t even begin with the first EZ Pawn location’s request until after 4:30 pm. On a Friday. Stay classy, ZBA! After the 1st Ward’s GGNA did an unbelievably impressive job of presenting their arguments – and let it be stated once and for all: I am NEVER that articulate and eloquent speaking in front a group as these three ladies were, Holy Moly, Good for you and Go Team! – Alderman Moreno got up to speak. The mood changed entirely: suddenly, we were all at the kids’ table watching cozy old chums engaging in jocular banter. The air was thick with bon mots between the Chair of the Board and Moreno; a stark difference from the Chair’s attitude toward the Ladies. Then Moreno gave his speech. I like the guy, in fact, I’ve had some Alder-Envy throughout this process, but I have to say: Proco Joe went a little off the rails this time. He had even me convinced EZ Pawn was somehow going to be great for HIS location, with HIM watching it like a hawk, after the 12th – there was no need for him to attack the legitimacy of a neighborhood association and no need to yell. Also, his spiel on banking? Not really on point. Just had to say it. If no one else will…
Colon didn’t even show up.
Our turn came. The Chair was even more combative with our lawyer than he had been with the GGNA. We had eight speakers. The Chair pointed out the time, as if somehow we hadn’t noticed the late hour. Um… we had. Thanks! Moving on… our lawyer/leader grilled the EZ team, then questioned our speakers – El Spousador spoke in his usual dashing way. He always sounds like he’s passing down the wisdom of the ages – annoying when arguing over the correct solvent for the tub, but really useful here. Our Cop/neighbor described his experiences during 5 years on the Burglary Unit (Hey! Did you know the CPD had a Burglary Unit? They did! Past tense. Great…) testimony which was, by turns, awe-inspiring and chilling. He brought unbeatable perspective on the nature of crime – who benefits, what to expect, where they go to fence the stuff. Professional activists and people who work with children and experts on crime all chimed in – when they could get a word in edgewise over the Chair. Who kept wondering aloud about the relevancy of the opinions of the PEOPLE WHO HAVE TO LIVE WITH HIS DECISION.
Oh, it was such a learning experience. I finally begin to understand some things about Chicago. No wonder the 50 people who showed up to debate a zoning issue at 2 in the afternoon looked so glum. Yes, 50. Three locations – one Texas Corporation – hundreds of signatures – 50 angry taxpayers present. Gimme an Amen if you already know how this ends!
It ends 4 to 1 in favor of the corporation. And the next election cycle, when we hear boasting about the exciting new business developments that have been brought to Logan Square since the previous election, we can all go and bang our heads on the sidewalk together. *If* the sidewalk hasn’t been stolen, that is. Or peed on by drug-addled bums who just pawned our lawn furniture for whatever panacea gets them through the day. Too much? Too bad. It’s how I feel.
Next up – Appeals! I love how much I’m learning about Da System. It’s like a cop show on tv – except better! Because it’s real and it’s our property values and safety at stake. Deelightful! Thank you, Alderman Colon!