By Justin Horowitz
Authentic Mexican restaurants, clothing stores and bodegas line Chicago’s historic 26th Street in the Little Village neighborhood. Beautifully colored murals brighten buildings, and flags of Mexican independence hang from storefront windows. Street vendors and patrons chat on the busy sidewalks that make up one of the most profitable commercial corridors in Chicago, often considered the city’s second Magnificent Mile.
Businesses owned by Little Village residents are part of the community’s economic success, but recently the neighborhood has been struggling with rising storefront vacancies, concerns of gentrification and youth displacement. To curb these complications, a three-story abandoned storefront off 26th Street will be transformed into Xquina Café, the community’s second coffee shop and its first neighborhood-focused business incubator. Thanks to a $250,000 grant from Chicago’s Neighborhood Opportunity Fund, the neighborhood will now be able to advocate for small businesses.
Incubators are business advocacy groups who guide entrepreneurs through the first years of business. These groups organize seminars, provide mentorship and offer office space rental at low costs.
Hannah Jones, director of Economic Development at the Industrial Council of Near West Chicago, one of Chicago’s largest incubators, recognizes the importance of business advocacy. “Growing a small business is pretty lonely,” Jones said. “Being next to someone who has made the same mistakes you’ve made is great to help you learn. I don’t think people need to learn the hard way.”
According to Enlace Chicago, Little Village is a port of entry for immigrants from Mexico. Enlace found between 2013-2017, Little Village residents were 84% Latino, 77% Mexican/Mexican American, 12% African American and 39% foreign born, making Spanish the most spoken language in the area.
Kim Close, the Little Village Chamber of Commerce executive partnership director, is one of the Xquina Café project leaders. “There is a lack of Spanish-speaking resources on the West side. There is a huge disconnect there. If the people who are starting businesses at the highest rate are Latinos, specifically Latinas, that is not matched with the services that are provided,” Close said.
Due to the lack of small business advocacy, storefront vacancies have risen. This is demonstrated through the Little Village’s Special Service Area budget, taken directly from the Little Village Chamber of Commerce. This information shows a decline in the dollars the community has available to spend on public improvements. Special Service Area budgets are calculated each year by a state audit through a property tax on businesses. The money is then redistributed through a neighborhood-run committee. With an increase in vacant businesses in Little Village, the yearly budget has declined.
According to Close and the Chamber of Commerce, Little Village faces not only an economic advocacy problem, but a youth population crisis: Residents aged 18 to 34, who make up 43% of the population, have begun to move to, and shop in, other neighborhoods.
Close says there are over a hundred restaurants in Little Village, but Wi-Fi is scarce. “Where are you going to go? Where is this really young population going to go to hang out and do work? They don’t. They leave,” Close said.
Coffee shops create community spaces for residents to share ideas and relax. These types of coffee shops, however, have not always been welcomed.
A coffee shop named Sip 22 was built by Paul Tsakiris, president of First Western Properties, in Little Village during 2015. Because Tsakiris is not from Little Village, his establishment faced backlash and protest. “I got a couple radicals that kept saying that I was a gentrifier,” said Tsakiris. “It was just a hodgepodge of people just protesting something and they never, never accepted a meeting with us. Never wanted to meet us and talk.”
Tsakiris said windows were repeatedly broken and chairs stolen. The shop was vandalized in Oct. 2017 with graffiti that read “F— YR COFFEE G.T.F.O.L.V.” That colorful initialism apparently translates to “get the f— out of Little Village.” “If I could go back in time, I wouldn’t have opened that place,” Tsakiris said.
According to the Chamber of Commerce, a woman named Maria “Cokys” Reyes purchased the café and renamed it La Frida. While the change in ownership relieved some tension, some residents claim they see coffee shops as a step in the wrong direction.
Santos Argueta, a Pilsen resident and carpenter, was surprised to see a coffee shop like La Frida Café. “You don’t see this kind of stuff in our neighborhood. It’s out of place,” Argueta said.
On the other hand, some residents, such as Abi Amador, a La Frida barista, sees the need for these spaces. “If they don’t have a place to go, they end up on the streets. That’s a big problem in our neighborhood. Where kids end up not having anything to do, and with that free time they end up doing things they shouldn’t. They become part of this culture around here that is very violence based,” Amador said.
Elena Duran, a business woman and Spanish-English translator sees no reason to fight commercialization. “Why would it be bad to have a Starbucks right here?” Duran said. “Why do we have to settle for mediocre everything?”
Although gentrification looms for some, Close, of the Little Village Chamber, remains confident that her team can create a space that will be welcomed. She hopes to ensure it fulfills the community’s needs in a manner that resonates with residents.
“They want something here but want it Mexican owned. They want it culturally relevant. Sometimes people are afraid of change,” Close said. “You can’t look at a trend like this and be like ‘well, we don’t want gentrification,’ and let it be. Actually, leaving storefronts vacant leads to gentrification.”
The Chamber of Commerce closed the deal on the building that will be Xquina Café in early November 2019, and construction is set to begin in mid-2020.
“There’s all different types of experiences that have value,” Close said. The Chamber of Commerce is eager to bring in and expand that value to all corners of Little Village.