“I didn’t get looted because the guys in the community understand what I am and understand the color of my skin means something,” said James Cox, owner of Double J’s One Stop Shop in North Lawndale | Photo by Darius Griffin/The TRiiBE

James Cox stood in front of Double J’s One Stop Shop on June 3 welcoming patrons inside days after the uprisings against the police murders of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor sparked protests across Chicago and the rest of the nation. Cox, the 46-year-old owner of the North Lawndale convenience store, located at 735 S. Pulaski Road, was one of the Black-owned businesses in the area that didn’t get hit by those who chose looting as their form of protest against inherently racist systems of oppression.

“I didn’t get looted because the guys in the community understand what I am and understand the color of my skin means something,” Cox said.

According to Cox, his next-door neighbor — an Arab man, he said — wasn’t so lucky. During the uprisings on May 30, Cox said, people broke the windows and trashed the inside of Pulaski Dollar & Food. They also got away with some merchandise, he added.

“I stood in front of my store with my friends the day they were looting and they walked right past my store,” Cox said. “They looted his store because he doesn’t do anything for the community.”

[Writer’s note: I walked over to Pulaski Dollar & Food to interview the owner for this story, but he shooed me away].

“I wasn’t really with the looting and the rioting. I didn’t condemn it, but I understood it,” Cox said. “We have to start shopping Black, buying Black, and building Black. It’s time for us to build our community back and own our own stores.”

The dichotomy witnessed on the 730 block of Pulaski Road revealed an often-untold story in the midst of an uprising. Despite local and national media outlets portraying the West Side as mostly violent, savage, dilapidated and impoverished — a storyline dating back to the protests and uprisings of the 1960s — there still remains a sense of community among its Black residents and Black business owners.

Though many Black-owned businesses on the West Side were set afire and vandalized during the George Floyd uprisings, Cox said he’s worked hard over the years to build trust with the surrounding North Lawndale community. He regularly gives back to the neighborhood by hosting free community events such as a back-to-school block party and offering free haircuts to local youth and residents at his barbershop, PJ’s Barber and Beauty Salon, located a few doors down at 739 S Pulaski. Additionally, he employs people in the neighborhood at his store and barbershop. 

Cox said he’s reached out to city officials, including his local Ald. Michael Scott (24th Ward), for financial support of his convenience store and barbershop, but never received any help.

Cox shooting the breeze with his employees Leontay Hayes [l] and Rodney Blackmon [m] inside the store | Photo by Darius Griffin/The TRiiBE
Cox's daughter, Jamaya Vaughn, also works at the store | Photo by Darius Griffin/The TRiiBE

“They said there wasn’t any help available,” Cox said, adding that he believes the city doesn’t have enough leadership on the West Side community to fully support Black-owned businesses. 

In 2019, Mayor Lori Lightfoot pledged more than $750 million to help rebuild 10 neighborhoods on the South and West sides as part of the Invest South/West Initiative. During a press call on June 22, the city’s Deputy Mayor Samir Mayekar said Invest South/West is going to be “moving along” and the funds have already “started to be mobilized.”

On June 5, Lightfoot announced a collaboration with The Chicago Community Trust and One Chicago Fund to launch the Together Now fund — where they’ve raised $15 million in grants to disburse to small businesses impacted by COVID-19. 

However, Cox doesn’t believe that the money will ever come to the West Side. 

“If I had more city support, I’d be able to pay my employees better,” Cox said. “I trust the community, because I deal more with the community. I don’t deal with the city officials.”

Chicago’s West Side has struggled for more than 50 years to rebuild from the despair and neglect that occurred after the 1968 uprisings sparked by the assassination of Martin Luther King Jr. that April. Similar to Floyd’s murder, King’s assassination was the last straw in 1968 for many Black cities across the U.S., including Chicago.

The 1968 uprisings in Chicago destroyed more than 200 buildings, resulting in a price tag of nearly $10 million in property damage across the city, according to the Chicago Tribune.

In 1968, President Lyndon B. Johnson’s National Advisory Commission on Civil Disorders — also known as the Kerner Commission — released a report revealing that poverty and institutional racism were the driving forces behind inner-city violence.

The Kerner Commission also gave detailed recommendations that embraced three principles: to create programs that resulted in solutions tackling the depths of Black folks living conditions, execute these programs immediately for high impact and performance, and execute new initiatives and experiments that can modify the current failed system experienced by Black folks across the country. 

Today, the West Side is proof that city officials over the last several decades did not take the Kerner Commission’s recommendations to heart.

“Those riots that happened back then here on the West Side turned this city upside down,” said Cox. “The West Side ain’t been right ever since.”

RELATED STORY

Out West: A Policed & Devastated People

“King died. The Panther leader died. Then businesses just start leaving, but you can’t leave. You don’t have the money to go anyplace else. Now you’ve got a depressed set of people.”

Since 1968, West Side communities — including Austin, North Lawndale, East and West Garfield Park — have gone without access to fresh foods and grocery more than a mile from their homes, have witnessed the closure of some of its schools and made national headlines for its violent neighborhoods. 

Now in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, which has taken more than 1,000 Black lives in Chicago since March 2020, Black business owners are faced with yet another challenge: reopening their businesses safely while the dust settles from the recent uprisings. 

Malcolm Crawford is the executive director of the Austin African American Business Networking Association (AAABNA). Crawford said that in the time he’s worked in Austin — Chicago’s largest and most populous neighborhood,— he’s noticed that the city tends to give to some organizations, but not those that need the funding the most.

“When the word comes down from these foundations deciding who they work with, the city finds the most comfortable people who really don’t do the work, but receive the funding,” Crawford said. He didn’t want to name specific businesses due to fear of backlash. “There are many resources that come to the community. It just doesn’t wind up where it should be.

In 2011, during former Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel’s first term, the West Side’s Austin and North Lawndale neighborhoods were left out of the Micro Market program — a program put in place to combat foreclosures in the city. Again during Emanuel’s second term in 2013, Austin, North Lawndale and Garfield Park were overlooked in the Mayor’s Strategic Vision, which targeted the Near West Side, but left out communities further west. 

Mayor Lori Lightfoot, now a year into her first term, said she and her administration is focused on reversing the city’s 50-plus-year neglect of the West Side. 

“This is a huge, huge problem. No one is going to be able to turn around [50] years of neglect and certainly not in a year, but we’ve gotta lay the foundation for that and make the West Side our priority which is precisely what I’ve done and will continue to do,” Lightfoot said during a June 10 press call she held with community and ethnic media outlets.

The city also is working with insurance companies, Lightfoot said, to help small businesses repair damage left behind from the recent uprisings. The city is also hosting free daily webinars to assist small business owners through its online portal, called ChiBizHub

“We are going to keep talking and listening,” Lightfoot said about businesses that have been impacted by the pandemic and now by recent uprisings. “We are very much concerned and that’s why we are incredibly supportive of our small business community.”

Sneaker Geek, located at 5943 W. Madison St. in Austin, was boarded up after the recent uprisings | Photo by Darius Griffin/The TRiiBE
Chocolate's Day Spa, located at 5965 W. Madison St. in Austin, adapting to the new way of life in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic and after the uprisings | Photo by Darius Griffin/The TRiiBE

AAABNA’s Crawford said the Lightfoot administration reached out to him to learn what they could do to better support Black-owned and small businesses during the pandemic. It was the first time city officials have ever contacted him during his 20 years in business on the West Side. 

However, he still doesn’t believe in Lightfoot’s promises to bring funding to the West Side. 

“I believe that five years from now, the West Side will still be the same,” Crawford said. “The longer Black businesses wait for the city to rescue us, the deeper many Black businesses will sink if we don’t come together and help one another.”

Deloris Prentiss owns Prentiss Florist on 5941 W. Madison Street in Austin. During her 20 years in business, she said, she’s never asked any city officials for help with her flower shop. She also didn’t get looted during the uprisings in May.

Prentiss said she’s only witnessed investment on the West Side when the city pushes Black residents out of certain areas. She used the former Cabrini Green housing projects as an example.

“The city allows certain areas to go without and then forces Black people out,” said Prentiss. “When the area changes, that’s when the city decides to invest in that area.

RELATED STORY

Some local business leaders are stepping in to support Black business owners themselves. Charles Smith is the CEO of CS Insurance Strategies, a commercial insurance company, and vice chair of the Business Leadership Council (BLC), a group dedicated to growing Black businesses in Chicago through advocacy, business development and mentorship.

Traditionally, Smith said, downtown Chicago has always received funding over the South and West sides.

“You have the downtown area, the South Side and then the West Side. They all have their challenges,” said Smith. “I think traditionally what has happened is, yes absolutely downtown needs to be invested in, but at the same time the South and West Sides and our communities need to be invested in more because we continue to fall behind.” 

Smith said that BLC has established the BLC Small Business Microgrant Fund to get the West Side out of the shadows through connecting Black businesses with work development training and mentoring Black business owners on business principles and challenges. He also said BLC  gave out thousands of meals, masks and hand sanitizers at the Uncle Remus, located at 5611 W. Madison St., on June 3.

According to Smith, BLC will be distributing at least 15 grants for a minimum of $1,000 per business. Smith said that BLC will continue to raise funds and will plan to announce some of the grant recipients soon. 

“If we depended completely just on the outside and people investing in us directly, then things probably wouldn’t happen as fast,” said Smith. “I think Black people have learned to have a mentality of doing it ourselves.”

Vee L. Harrison is a staff reporter with The TRiiBE: vee@thetriibe.com