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Bringing Business Back to Cottage Grove

By Deborah Alexander, LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program

Adolph Parker opened his furniture store on South Cottage Grove Avenue in 1934, at the height of the Great Depression.

Despite record unemployment, Parker’s business grew because he established good relationships with his customers, offering payment plans and credit, said Loron Kaplan, Parker’s great grandson and a member of the fourth generation to run New Age Chicago Furniture Co. at 4238 S. Cottage Grove.

“My great-grandfather laid a foundation based on trust and nothing else,” said Kaplan. “We would trust customers and help them get credit established. We were able to build relationships early on with our customers. The relationships continue with their kids and grandkids.”

While today’s economy isn’t as bad as it was during the 1930s, the economic issues Kaplan sees – high unemployment, foreclosures, limited discretionary spending – are similar to what his great grandfather faced when he started the family-owned business 75 years ago.

New Age Chicago Furniture, photo by Juan Francisco Hernandez
New Age Chicago Furniture, photo by Juan Francisco Hernandez

But Kaplan and other business owners on Cottage Grove, between 43rd and 47th streets on Chicago’s South Side, aren’t confronting the current recession alone. Many are members of CG43, a business association designed to develop marketing strategies that help local retailers spotlight high-quality products available in the community. (To read about a complementary effort to conduct retail tours in Bronzeville, please click here.)

The business association, which serves North Kenwood, Oakland and portions of Douglas and Grand Boulevard, is a program of NCP lead agency Quad Communities Development Corp. (QCDC).

“CG43 creates a sense of density and allows the participating businesses to co-brand and co-market,” said Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, QCDC’s executive director. “The key for a lot of businesses is to give them the tools to move forward, to be a little more prepared.”

One of those tools is Chicago Community Ventures, a consulting firm that develops, manages and provides coordinated business assistance to residents and business owners in underserved neighborhoods. Johnson-Gabriel said that CCV helps businesses “make forecasts properly in this downturn and make sure everything is O.K.”

Chicago’s bid for the 2016 Summer Olympics also focused attention on the Cottage Grove corridor with nearby Washington Park as the proposed site for the Olympic Stadium.

Despite the poor economy, economic diversity in the area has improved. Since 1990 households making more than $50,000 have increased by 88 percent.

But along with this increase in income diversity, the area has experienced a modest population decrease and a modest decline in family size, as has been true for the rest of the region. Age diversity, however, is continuing to grow. In addition, rates of homeownership have increased since the early 1990s. These factors all imply that the Quad Communities area has a stable residential base for neighborhood-oriented retail.

$2 out of $3 spent elsewhere
The corridor, a prime area for commercial and residential development, has an annual buying power estimated at $675 million, according to a recent analysis by LISC/MetroEdge. Currently $2 out of every $3 is spent outside of the neighborhood – revenue that could be coming directly to local businesses. In particular, the area lacks dining opportunities and has unmet demand for general merchandise stores.

QCDC and the CG43 members want to keep those dollars close to home. The agency, said Johnson-Gabriel, worked with the city to get sidewalks repaired and bicycle racks installed on Cottage Grove, making the street more pedestrian friendly.

Planters in front of Sensual Steps, photo by Juan Francisco Hernandez
Planters in front of Sensual Steps, photo by Juan Francisco Hernandez

Distinctive acorn lighting fixtures were added, as were 16 planters and four murals between 43rd and 46th streets. The effect, said Johnson-Gabriel, was to “create a sense of place and beauty; to tell people something is different here.”

Those amenities alone, however, haven’t been enough to stop business from falling at Kaplan’s furniture store. But were it not for rebuilding in the area during the last five years, Kaplan said the impact on his business could have been worse. Construction and rehabbing in the Cottage Grove corridor “helped quite a bit,” he said.

In general, other CG43 business members also reported a decline in foot traffic earlier this year. As a result, many of them are taking innovative steps – such as renting out their space for other events – to promote their businesses.

Sales at Sensual Steps, a shoe store at 4518 S. Cottage Grove, are down 20 percent this year, said owner Nicole Jones, former NCP director at Greater Auburn Gresham Development Corp.

“Business was a little tough and it took a strong effort to sell,” she said, “but I’m not waiting for foot traffic.” She’s using Facebook and MySpace pages to promote her store.

“It allows products and services to be seen across the board – not just locally,” she said. “It‘s a way to be proactive, retain business and reach out via the Internet.”

The store, which opened in April 2005, is also the site for special events when Jones rents out the space. “It’s a way to bring in revenues during this economy and partner with other CG43 businesses,” she said.

Jones also offers Heels on Wheels, where she brings her shoes and accessories to customers through private parties. “I’m very hopeful that everything will work out,” she said. “It’s not easy right now. Customer service is everything to me.”

Margo Strotter and Ed Singleton, owners of Ain’t She Sweet Café at 4532 S. Cottage Grove Ave., said business earlier in the year was “decent, but it could be better.” Like Jones, Strotter also rents out the café for meetings and workshops during off hours.

Toughing it out
And so it goes for businesses throughout the neighborhood; for Chris Brack and Milton Latrell, owners of Agriculture, an upscale men’s clothing, shoe and accessories store at 532 E. 43rd St.; for Trez Pugh and Richard Chalmers, of the Bronzeville Coffee and Tea, 528 E. 43rd St., who recently opened a second store, Regents Cup, at Regent Park at 5020-5050 S. Lake Park Ave.; for Adama Ba and his brother, Djibi Ba, who opened Goree Shop five years ago at 1122 E. 47th St., selling authentic African clothing, jewelry and accessories; for Tim Schau’s Zaleski & Horvath Market Café at 1126 E. 47th St., which he describes as a neighborhood store; for Faye Edwards, owner of Faie African Art at 4317 S. Cottage Grove Ave. They’re all toughing it out.

Bronzeville Coffee and Tea, photo by Juan Francisco Hernandez
Bronzeville Coffee and Tea, photo by Juan Francisco Hernandez

Edwards participates with other CG43 members in events to promote the Cottage Grove corridor and rents out gallery space for special events. “This year feels better,” she said. “More people are coming in. Some of the fears about what is happening in the economy have dissipated a little.”

Despite the slow economy, the business climate in the Cottage Grove corridor is looking up, said QCDC’s Johnson-Gabriel. “We try to attract retail to the community. People are interested, despite the downturn. It’s not doom and gloom.”

Johnson-Gabriel acknowledged that the neighborhood isn’t without challenges, particularly considering that for so long there was “so much disinterest in the area. It takes a while to get things done. It’s important for people to see something tangible. The planters, the acorn lighting, the murals and the businesses – there’s an investment in this community,” she said.

And there’s the example of Adolph Parker, whose business started in the hardest of times 75 years ago and is still going strong.

CG43 Business Members:
•    Faie African Art, 4317 S. Cottage Grove Ave. Gallery specializing in quality African art and education.
•    New Age Chicago Furniture, 4238 S. Cottage Grove Ave. Furniture, appliances and electronics.
•    Goree Shop, 1122 E. 47th St. Hand-crafted, authentic African wear for men and women.
•    Agriculture, 532 E. 43rd St. Upscale men’s clothing, shoes and accessories.
•    Sensual Steps, 4518 S. Cottage Grove Ave. Women’s designer shoes, handbags and accessories.
•    Bronzeville Coffee and Tea, 528 E. 43rd St. Community coffeehouse with high quality coffee roasts, teas and pastries.
•    Ain’t She Sweet Café, 4532 S. Cottage Grove Ave. Healthy sandwiches, smoothies and desserts.
•    Zaleski & Horvath Market Café, 1126 E. 47th St. Specialty grocery and café offering sandwiches, coffee and catering.
•    Little Black Pearl Café, 1060 E. 47th St. Art café offering a variety of beverages and pastries.

For an article about retail tours being conducted in Bronzeville, please click here.

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