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Austin, Garfield Park, North Lawndale

Garfield Park Businesses Forced To Close As Open Air Drug Market, Crime Scares Off Customers — With No Help In Sight, Owners Say

Business owners, already struggling through the pandemic, said police aren't trying to stop open-air drug markets along one of the West Side's main commercial corridors.

Many shops along Madison Street in West Garfield are still shut down.
Pascal Sabino/Block Club Chicago
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WEST GARFIELD PARK — One of the West Side’s main commercial corridors was in freefall after the one-two punch of the pandemic and looting that devastated many businesses.

Now an uptick in street violence and drug sales in broad daylight threaten to be the final nail in the coffin for businesses along Madison Street in West Garfield Park, business owners said.

Business owners and chamber of commerce leaders said police officers are nowhere to be found along the corridor, which has become too dangerous for customers.

What used to be a handful of dealers has escalated into an open-air drug market with dozens of dealers “doing curbside service during store hours,” said Michael Rembert, who manages MP Mall, 3973 W. Madison St.

The dealers can be pushy as they approach potential customers walking down Madison, he said, and the area has become a hot spot for violence as territorial dealers fight over customers.

In the Harrison (11th) Police District, which includes the stretch of Madison Street, shootings are up 50 percent, murders up 26 percent and robberies up 15 percent compared to this point in 2019, according to police data.

“It kills us because if you’re coming to shop on Madison Street, and you get your kids with you, as soon as you park, four or five young men approach you with drugs in their hand,” Rembert said. “You don’t want to shop there.”

‘They Couldn’t Recover’

About half of businesses along the main stretch of Madison have been boarded-up and closed for months, Rembert said. At least 10 owners have told Rembert they won’t be coming back since they can’t bring in enough customers to make up for their losses over the summer, he said.

“With the pandemic, the small businesses we had, they couldn’t recover,” Rembert said.

The Madison Street corridor is typically a busy economic center lined with dozens of small businesses. At the MP Mall, the shops were so busy entrepreneurs once clamored to rent retail space, Rembert said.

In years past, storefronts at the mall wouldn’t be vacant “for more than a week or two,” Rembert said. But now, the top floor has four vacant shops. On the lower level, about 75 percent of stores are vacant.

“No one’s interested,” he said.

Government assistance programs have done little for the most impacted Garfield Park businesses, Rembert said.

The Garfield Park Chamber of Commerce helped struggling businesses apply for emergency disaster loans and coronavirus relief funds to help them stay afloat. Nearly all the businesses at MP Mall applied for the government funding, Rembert said, but he doesn’t know of any businesses in the area who received it.

“I can’t name not one business who benefitted from this money. And I know for a fact all of them applied,” he said.

‘The Businesses Are Not Being Protected’

Police have turned a blind eye to the dire situation along Madison, Rembert said.

During the looting over the summer, police were criticized for focusing their efforts on protecting businesses Downtown. West Garfield Park businesses are still struggling because of the damage done this summer, Rembert said.

“We call the police every day. They tell us there’s nothing they can do,” he said. “They tell me their hands are tied.”

Siri Hibbler, the chamber of commerce’s president, said businesses in the area were struggling long before coronavirus hit. But the pandemic, looting and the now the uptick in violence and drugs may be the final straw, she said.

“No matter how many [community policing] meetings they go to, how many complaints they give to the commander … the businesses are not being protected,” Hibbler said.

Businesses are trying to weather the storm and stay open, Hibbler said. But they feel they are being “pushed out because they’re totally being ignored about the violence, the drug dealing.”

A Chicago Police spokesperson said the department has implemented parking restrictions on the West Side to prevent congregating in the area. Police also created a Community Safety Team earlier this year to work with community outreach teams to help prevent violence, the spokesperson said.

The department “underwent a reorganization earlier this year to move more resources into our districts and most vulnerable communities, including local business corridors on the city’s West Side,” the spokesperson said in a statement.

Tara Dabney with the Institute for Nonviolence Chicago said the group’s street outreach teams have been doing conflict mediation and violence interruption in West Garfield Park to try to address the increasing issues along Madison. Outreach workers build relationships to guide people towards a better path by connecting them to resources they need.

The neighborhood can’t “police our way out of violence,” she said, without addressing the social conditions that cause street crime.

“There’s significant mental health needs, opioid addiction and other forms of addiction. We know that people need help,” Dabney said. “We know … we need investment.”

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