Wednesday, April 1, 2015

Taken to the Cleaners

To me, one of the most disheartening sights in big American cities is the proliferation of empty storefronts on our major commercial avenues. When I was growing up, those storefronts hosted all sorts of businesses serving the everyday needs of people who lived in the communities where the establishments were located. Today we bemoan the demise of the neighborhood baker, delicatessen and butcher shop, whose days were numbered with the advent of the automobile and with it, the supermarket, the strip mall, and the big-box store. Then along came the internet...

But I think the demise of the American storefront goes deeper than that as few children grow up in our country dreaming of one day opening up their own "mom and pop" store. It's hard work, the hours are terrible, competition from the national chains is strangling, and let's face it, owning your own store usually is not lucrative or glamorous work.

One could do a case study on me, as I had the opportunity to take over my father's paint and wallpaper store when health issues forced him to retire back in the eighties. As much as I loved my dad and was proud of all the work he put into building up his business, I'd have just as much relished the thought of jumping off a bridge as spending the rest of my life eking out a living by selling paint in suburban Cicero, Illinois.

There are exceptions to the desolate commercial streets bereft of successful storefronts. Go to a trendy neighborhood like Andersenville or Lincoln Square in Chicago and you'll find plenty of occupied storefronts featuring boutiques, and other off-beat, specialty businesses that you simply won't find in the malls. Another exception are the commercial streets that run through neighborhoods with high concentrations of immigrants. On those avenues you'll find entrepreneurs fulfilling their own American Dream by owning small shops catering to the appetites, fashion, and entertainment of their compatriot neighbors. A good example is Devon Avenue, a few blocks from our home, once the heart of Jewish Chicago, now the commercial heart of Indian and Pakistani Chicago. There, sari emporiums, halal butchers, and Indian spice shops mix in with the ubiquitous electronic shops and a variety of restaurants featuring the varied epicurean delights of South-Central Asia. Unlike the vast majority of commercial streets in Chicago, on Devon, empty storefronts are the exception, not the rule.

I don't have numbers to back it up but would be willing to wager that the majority of small retail businesses in the city of Chicago are owned by foreign-born Americans.

While local bakeries, butcher shops and other businesses once common to storefront Chicago have all but disappeared, there are certain types of businesses that have not been replaced by national chains in the malls. Most of them provide services rather than merchandise, such as hair and nail salons, auto repair shops and dry cleaners.

It's the dry-cleaners that caught my eye several years ago. There is something to me that is timeless about these businesses. they could have opened up fifty years ago, or yesterday. Perhaps it's because they fulfill such as basic need therefore are not in danger of disappearing, that their propriators don't feel compelled to upgrade or change their appearance. If it ain't broke, don't fix it, or so they say.

Driving by the cleaning establishment pictured above on Touhy Avenue, a few blocks from our home inspired me to think of a photographic project centered around storefront dry-cleaner businesses about town.

As is the case with about ninety five percent of the projects I've come up with in my career, nothing ever came of it...

...until now that is. Equipped with my new iPhone which follows me wherever I go, I'm in a better position to follow my muse which today is pointing me in a cleaner direction. 

Perhaps in the near future you'll be seeing on these pages more images of these little pieces of the city that seem to never change.

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