Black businesses cry foul over street construction closures

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Street construction to put in new sewer lines down 75th Street, from Indiana to Eberhart Avenues, came at minimal notice to the businesses in the district, and at a huge price tag, many owners said.

DEFENDER STAFF WRITER

Street construction to put in new sewer lines down 75th Street, from Indiana to Eberhart Avenues, came at minimal notice to the businesses in the district, and at a huge price tag, many owners said.

The two-lane strip on 75th Street – from Prairie to Eberhart, including the intersection at 75th Street and King Drive – has been cut off from traffic since late July, leaving many Black-owned businesses along the corridor without enough customers to stay afloat.

Several owners told the Defender that with no parking options along the strip, coupled with construction equipment and debris blocking their entrances, they’ve had to lay off employees, cut their hours of operation and find a new home for their business.

Charlotte Coats of Charlotte Shoes said since receiving less than a week’s notice in July that work would be done for the next few months, business has been dead. She’s struggling to pay shoe vendors and the store’s rent. At this point, she’s waiting to be served by the Cook County sheriff with eviction papers, she said.

"I’ve been here for seven years and we averaged about $1,500 each week in sales. We’re down to nearly zero dollars in sales each week. I can’t make my monthly rent of $1,000. I have to take the shoes and try to sell them at flea markets each week. Shoes that normally go for $100 in the store, I’m left to try to unload them at the flea markets for about $5," Coats said.

Coats said she and her husband Tyrone Coats use Twitter and MySpace social networking Web sites, flyers, e-mail and text messaging to inform customers they’re still in business, but it hasn’t made an impact.

"We’re getting no business. I should be selling boots right now, instead of sandals, but I can’t pay my vendors to get merchandise. The business will mostly likely be closed within the next 30 days," a tearful Coats said Tuesday during a news conference in the intersection of 75th Street and King Drive.

The sewage line down that portion of 75th Street hasn’t been replaced in 100 years – a long overdue project, said Ald. Freddrenna Lyle (6th), whose ward includes the shopping strip dubbed "Renaissance Row."

A spokesman for the Dept. of Water Management said the expected completion date is late October.

Regarding whether or not the workers could extend their hours to expedite the project, the issue has been conveyed to the proper officials, said Tom LaPorte, spokesman for Water Management.

"The Business Economic Revitalization Association has expressed the concern and I’ve relayed the message. It’s not up to management at the water department to extend the hours. It’s a union matter with the city and there may be some collective bargaining issues regarding it. I simply can’t answer that right now," LaPorte told the owners.

Lyle, who stressed she’s a major supporter of the Black-owned businesses in the area, said there were meetings about the project before it began, but only a few businesses that would be impacted were present.

"I don’t want anyone going out of business," the alderman said, adding that ample notification was given to all the businesses, and nothing was sprung at the last minute.

When entering the business district at 75th and State Streets, a sign alerts consumers that all businesses are open while improvements are underway, said LaPorte, whose office sponsored the signage.

"While I know it’s a huge inconvenience, it’s not a project that you want sped along. You want it done right and it’s technically on schedule. Listen, we’ve become so comfortable with just driving up to the front door of the businesses, that we don’t want to park on another block if we need to. When you go to a mall, you can’t always just pull up in front of the store you want to go to. You will have to do some walking," Lyle said.

Stephanie Hart of Brown Sugar Bakery said no regard by the city was taken for the businesses along the strip and too many blocks are without access to 75th Street. Nothing has been done to ease the business owners’ pain, she said. Hart’s been in operation for the last two years.

"I’ve had to lay off people and my business dropped about 75 percent. I’ve lost thousands. Luckily my landlord is also on this street and I’m not being kicked out. The only reason I’m getting the business I am is from family and friends," said Hart, who questioned whether the project was being stretched farther than necessary.

A well-known soul food restaurant that’s been a staple in the community for decades has seen business drop about 40 percent, resulting in keeping the eatery open for three days a week instead of a full week.

"It’s interesting that in the middle of a recession, we’ve been faced to struggle like this. This construction has hurt the business. I’m now open on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays," said Delores Reynolds of Army & Lou’s restaurant.

Lyle said she’d talk to U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-1st, whose district encompasses the 6th Ward, to see if funding assistance is possible.

To continue enticing customers to the district, several events will be held this weekend, including a Bid Whist tournament at France’s Lounge, and a Shop, Dine, Walk campaign called the Movable Celebration.

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Copyright 2009 Chicago Defender. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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