Tuesday, May 12, 2009

The Landlords of Hyde Park: How to Go Ghetto at 55th and HP Boulevard

posted by chicago pop

I'm very fond of the intersection of Hyde Park Boulevard and 55th Street. It's got good bones. Take away the bus stops and contemporary signage, and a location scout might be able to convince a Hollywood producer that the panorama was vintage Chicago, ca. 1925. Looking down HPB to the south, the lawn and majestic facade of the Museum of Science and Industry; to the east, Promontory Point; to the north, the wide, tree-shaded boulevard.

It's too bad, then, that the landlord of one prominent building at this intersection has decided to go ghetto with their property, and grace it with this classy little establishment:

Extra Cheeseball Points for Big Vinyl Banner at
You Roll-em Smoke Shop
(they sell phone cards, too)

You may know the building I'm talking about. It's the handsome structure on the SE corner of Hyde Park Boulevard and 55th that has been a dynamic incubator of Hyde Park small retail, or at least an incubator of awesome cosmetology signage:

Lotsa Plastic Earns Respectable Cheeseball Points

Ooops! Mr. & Mrs. Hair Weave Don't Live Here Anymore...
All Cheesball Points Forfeited

The latest addition, the smoke shop at 5503 1/2 S. Hyde Park Boulevard, is not to be outdone in in the aesthetics of cheesy signage, which happens to spill over into public space:

Urban Loveliness of "Tobacco for Less" at the 5500 building of S. Hyde Park Boulevard

This is simply an atrocity.

Especially when you know something about the backstory of the little walk-down space at 5503 1/2: the ceiling collapsed on the former tenant, a high-end bike shop, raining mold and asbestos throughout the space. The tenant relocated elsewhere in Hyde Park, and 5503 1/2 sat empty for over a year. It's not clear what repairs were made and whether the environmental hazard was addressed. What is clear is that the former tenant, Tati Bike Shop, was the kind of unique, boutique retail operation that everyone in Hyde Park says they want.

What replaced it is not.

We happen to know that the owner of this building is also the proud landlord of a similarly maintained property at the SW corner of 53rd and Harper Avenue (west of Pizza Capri, and directly south of the old Herald Building), where you can also get bongs, smokes, phone cards, maybe a few extra cardboard cut-out Wild Turkey signs, and knock-off perfume laced with pheremones that will "drive him wild."

So we've decided to give this landlord our quarterly HPP's Favorite Landlord Award. Contestant must score high points in each of the following categories:

1) Plentiful, Cheesy Retail Signage
2) Overall Ghetto Flavor and Wide Selection of Cheeseball Products
3) Locating as Many Hair and Nail Salons on One Strip as Possible
4) Giving a Lease to the Guys who Run That Other Bongs-Smokes-and-Pheremones Place on 53rd St.

This quarter, the award goes to the landlord of 5500 S. Hyde Park Boulevard, hands down. Congratulations! Hyde Park welcomes you!


Anonymous said...

I don't really have a problem with the cheapo (relative) cigarette store except that their signs are hideous and way too big. I figure a paying tenant is better than a vacant storefront.

Before Tati was in there, it was some kind of shore store that lasted all of about 4 weeks, as I recall. It's a teeny little room, which kinda limits it.

I didn't know that huge store over on 53rd sold bongs. :-O

J/tati said...

The space is very challenging, mainly due to the <8' ceiling and exposed plumbing that would often pop six footers in the forehead. But it's a very workable space for boutique retail. Whilst renting the place, because it's a half basement maybe -- or perhaps because of the nostalgic old Chicago feels to the block as you say, I often wished that I'd secretly dealt in contraband, or hosted a backroom high stakes card club.

Perhaps the new place deals in Cubans, in which case I just might take up smoking.

Elizabeth Fama said...

The other interesting feature of the store is that NOTHING is self-serve, other than the ATM. It's all behind a transparent barrier.

Chicago Pop, thanks for showing me the hidden beauty of that corner, which I hadn't appreciated before.

The Woodlawn Wonder said...

Yet another reason to love you Pop.

Stamp out this foolishness before it takes a hold in your neighborhood. All you need to do is look a few blocks south or west to see the plethora of similar retail.

What interesting bookstore, coffee shop, or bar is going to position themselves next to a place like that? I can tell you from experience---they won't. Then some suit will start throwing "demographics" numbers at you on why you can't get a grocery store or something needed in your community.

Perception, friends. Perception.

Anonymous said...

Maybe if we replaced the El Cheapo Smokes Store with a Hippy Head Shop? College kids like head shops. Or at least they did in the mid 90s, where my knowledge-o-college is permanently entrenched. :-p

Actually that location would be pretty good for a Forex, if we had such places here (not the "Currency Exchange", which is really just a ripoff check cashing counter and place to get your Chicago sticker if you're past June).

Other possibility: candy store! Why don't we have any chocolatiers down here? I have to go to the South Loop.

Marc Monaghan said...

Please explain what it means to "Go Ghetto"

christoph said...

there is already a candy store on 52nd and blackstone, confection affection!

chicago pop said...

Marc Monaghan: In this usage, it has nothing to do with being black. Or Latino. Or Jewish. Or Chinese. Or Hmong. It connotes business practices that have the effect of bringing about ghetto-like conditions, which in this case means not investing in your property in such a way as to attract non sin-tax, non bullet-proof glass businesses, or in which retail services either appeal to various appetites such as liquor, sex, or fast food, or take advantage of folks for things they can't easily shop around for, like loans.

But if that clarification and the post above aren't enough, here's some homework: check out Woodlawn Wonder's comment above, and then her blog, Why I Hate My Developer. You'll get a sense of the things a Woodlawn resident finds objectionable in her neighborhood.

For more linguistically nuanced meanings within various American subcultures, Rap Dictionary provides this one:

1. To describe something of low or poor quality."Yo this TV is mad ghetto!"

Or, for user-generated definitions, which are all over the place, go to Slangsite or Urban Dictionary.

Or, if you think you still have a lock on the adjective and its many possible uses, go to The Ghetto Gourmet.

LPB said...

Hmmm, too bad all those folks who were upset that the proposed Marriott on the Doctors Hospital site wasn't upscale enough for Hyde Park didn't band together to keep this discount cigarette store out. Maybe they could have lobbied for an "upscale" tobacco store.

lloyd said...

so, it's an atrocity because it's a downscale place? i didn't know about the asbestos falling in on the precious bike shop, but the guy running "Tobacco for Less" is a nice guy and you're just a snob.

he's also got some cheap cigarettes, something i, as a hyde park resident actually want, unlike a custom bike i can't afford.

btw.. how long have you lived in hydge park? 55th street east of the tracks used to have half the spaces vacant.

chicago pop said...

@ lloyd: yes, it's an atrocity, and no, not because it's a downscale place. It's an atrocity because its aggressive advertising is hideous and uses chunks of the building's facade as a signboard.

There are plenty of "downscale" places south and west of Hyde Park, if that's your thing. In fact, there are so many, that many other much-needed businesses don't want to locate there, which hurts everyone.

So go get your cancer sticks. But unless Tobacco for Less calms down the defacement of that building, it's still an atrocity to that intersection.

edj said...

I think you can criticize the use of the signage, but I think use oftheterm "ghetto" seems inappropriate.

I have alot of respect for people who can getany store open, particularly in these hard economic times. I would be entirely surprised to see a boutique shop set up shop here soon.

chicago pop said...

Greg: I think Hippy Head Shop is a great idea. It would probably be much more interesting in the advertising it came up with.

edj: I know the term "ghetto" can seem inappropriate to anyone who is white and lived through the racial politics of the 70s and 80s. However, it doesn't necessarily refer to people, but to all sorts of economic and political forces that result in something that very few people would choose to replicate. It is also widely used in American slang across the racial spectrum.

In many other places on this blog, I critique "suburbia." This bothers no one. And it shouldn't, not only because it's not necessarily a racial euphemism for "whitey-town". It also connotes a constellation of land use and zoning and tax policies that result in something that we can agree has a general coherence that we are critical of.

Same with "ghetto". I have problems with suburbia, and I have problems with the ghetto. Pick the word you want to use to fit this phenomenon, but one of its characteristics is the frequent existence of retail commerce in an adversarial, or even predatory, relationship with local consumers. There also tends to be a preponderance of certain retail services at the expense of others. And there also tends to be the problem of critical mass: the kinds of places people want (real grocery stores, cafes, bookstores, even discount retailers) won't necessarily move in until someone makes a first step, and leasing visible locations to shops with bullet-proof cashier windows is not a first step in that direction.

Anonymous said...

The bullet-proof glass mentality definitely contributes to the very problem the glass itself supposedly prevents (and does its constituency a grave disservice). Seems like J/Tati mentioned something similar in one of his old blogs, which was how he justified leaving unlocked bikes in front of his old store. ;-)

But it's true. For example, I'm a veritable Harold's Chicken addict, but I very much prefer the South Loop Harold's to the Hyde Park one, simply because one has an open counter that allows me to interact with the cashier and the other one makes me feel like I'm at a methadone clinic.

Richard Gill said...

If Tobacco for Less (which carries tobacco products, junk food and little else) survives in that location, it will probably be because (1) it's on the same corner as a major CTA bus transfer point, which means a lot of people with a couple of spare minutes to run in and buy a pack of smokes, and (2) it's a block away from two U of C dorms. One of those dorms, the Shoreland, is about to be closed, which will not help the store.

Perhaps the profit on cigarettes is such that a tiny store like that can make a go of it. I would not bet money on the store's long-term prospects. We shall see.

As for the signage, I agree it's hideous, but something that shouts is probably necessary just to let people know a store is down there. However, the billboard chained to a public fixture may very well be unlawful.

I'd rather the store wasn't there, but I suppose a city neighborhood is going to have a place like that. At least it's someone paying rent and selling legal, albeit noxious, products. If it becomes a nuisance, there are laws to deal with it.

I want to point out that Everett Cleaners, in the same building's lower level, has been in business there for many years, and seems to be a well run enterprise. I regularly patronized Everett Cleaners during my working years, when I needed my suits dry-cleaned or altered, and I never had a complaint. Their signs are ugly, too, but at least they are affixed to the wall and don't hang down like the tobacco store's banner does. Too bad the landlord doesn't have a required style of signage for the retail tenants.

chicago pop said...

Too bad the landlord doesn't have a required style of signage for the retail tenants.Right on.

jmogs said...


The South Loop Harold's is just better. There is little connection between the various locations---different quality, different management, even different sauce. The Harold's outposts in the South Loop and on 85th are vastly superior to the HP version. Even the one around 45th and Cottage is a vast improvement.

lloyd said...

my cancer sticks? who appointed you everyone's mother.

and for all of you feeling a little queasy over calling this "ghetto," remember that the author has no racial prejudice, he just doesn't like poor people.

chicago pop said...

Here's where you're right. It's not my place to judge your personal habits. And you're right, I don't want to be your mother.

Here's where you're wrong: your assumptions about my personal beliefs or opinions. Your most recent claim that I "don't like poor" people, while being unsupported, also makes a big leap in assuming that all " poor people" or folks who live in a ghetto like what you do or would like the signage at Tobacco for Less or wouldn't prefer other kinds of retail. Big assumptions. If you can support them, great; otherwise, you've made you point, and thanks for reading.

LPB said...

lloyd seems to be making a leap of logic that ghetto as an adjective = low class = poor people.

I didn't interpret the above use of ghetto adj. (as defined in the Rap Dictionary) that way: ghetto = low class, but it doesn't stretch to poor people.

edj said...

I think the use of the term "ghetto" distracts from the point of the post in that it is a "loaded" word.

I do say that we have to be careful in saying that we should start dictating who a landlord should and shouldn't rent a space to. We have to leave that to zoning rules and market forces.

lloyd said...

do you people not understand what low-class is? it's the lack of capital.

now, if you'd give this guy who's opening a business in the middle of a recession a break, in another generation he'll send his kids to college and they'll come back with your yuppy taste.

Anonymous said...

lloyd, the "ghetto" term has nothing to do with people who are stuck living in poor neighborhoods. Nobody enjoys living in a ghetto.

Rather, the ghetto is a state of existence generally foisted upon people who happen to be poor. Those poor people want what everyone else wants: a decent place to buy food, some stores where they can get decent clothing at a good price, regular goods and services. Instead, they often end up with liquor stores, junk food shops, and instead of banks they get the "currency exchange". Instead of depositing their paycheck into a bank where they can build savings, they're stuck cashing a paper check with someone behind bulletproof glass and even paying a fee to do so.

The "ghetto" is not a product of poor people, it's a product of society taking advantage of those same people. Lawrence Fishburn's character in Boyz in the Hood describes this pretty well in an extended sequence.

"Ghetto" does not = poor people.

That said, you can get your cigs cheaper if you buy online. :-) Cheap cigs in Cook County is always a relative term.

SR said...

I think the use of the term "ghetto" distracts from the point of the post in that it is a "loaded" word.Agreed, and the fact that the average smoker these days is much more likely to be low income & black than high income & white is not helping, either.

I just now tried to find a statistic supporting the above claim (I'm about 100% sure it's true), and came across this article (http://www.pubmedcentral.nih.gov/articlerender.fcgi?artid=1448243) instead, about how poor people try to quit as often as rich people do, but just don't succeed as often, and become too depressed to go on.

Why? Because I quit smoking about 5 weeks ago, and my joie de vivre is gone. Everything is more depressing now. So that would be why poor people find it harder to quit, I guess; their everyday lives objectively suck rather than just seeming to (as in my case).

Greg, in yet another way the cigarette tax is massively regressive, the poorer you are, the less likely you are to have a checking account or credit card that would allow you to shop for smokes online.

SR said...

Whoopsy, typo of confusion there. That was supposed to be "became too depressed to go on" as in I did, not the subjects of the study I linked to. Well the sentence was kind of poorly constructed also, it wasn't just the typo ...

I was sharper when I was smoking, I swear.

chicago pop said...

Well, let's hope you get your joie de vivre back, however that may happen.

Famac said...

I wonder if you can buy a bag of weed in there.

Richard Gill said...

Famac, I'm guessin' the place bends over backward to do business lawfully. They must know there are people who would like to shut them down for even minor violations. However, I suppose you could go in and ask. No, huh?

Early Saturday afternoon, May 16, the tobacco store's outdoor billboard that was chained to a traffic signal, was gone. Good riddance. I hope comments in this blog had something to do with the sign's removal.

Otto said...

I wonder if you can buy a bag of weed in there.Ah, for the good ol' days when the El Rukns owned the Mobil station.

To Richard Gill's comment, from speaking with the fellows who run the Cornell Dollar Store, I don't get the impression that cigarettes are a high-margin item. While Kimbark Liquors might get away with a fixed premium of maybe $1, the discounters rely on high volume. (And if one keeps an eye on such things, tax increases seem invariably to be accompanied by a brief wave of manufacturer discounts to keep the pump primed.)

As for the Hippy Head Shop, didn't Chicago enact rather draconian paraphernalia laws in the early '90s? I do recall the head shop in "The Alley" effectively disappearing around this time. I imagine one could try to stealth the inventory of a "smoke shop," but keeping up the revenue stream in a small shop would seem very difficult. Perhaps if Illinois hadn't scheduled S. divinorum....

Richard Gill said...

The outdoor billboard was back, late this afternoon (Sunday). Yick.

Eric said...

The fact that the cigarettes are so cheap leads me to wonder if they're importing them illegally from Indiana.

Anonymous said...

What's the deal with Hyde Park Urbanist mocking everything posted here? Apparently now HPP is "intolerant".

chicago pop said...

HPP is ghetto-fabulous.

Richard Gill said...

The billboard chained to the traffic signal is again gone, and I understand Ald. Hairston's office told the store to remove it. Thank you, Alderman.

Andrew Cone said...

Here are some observations:

1) The guy who is always there told me he was the owner, but the same guy has claimed he wasn't to other people

2) Some of the cigarettes are sold below Illinois wholesale cost, according to Mason, the owner of Cornell Dollar.

3) Mason claims he didn't see an Illinois tax stamp on some of the cigarettes.

I think it's pretty clear what's going on here. So if people get tired of Cigarettes for Less and its perpetually blinking OPEN sign, they can always just call the ATF and get the guy a one way ticket to Club Fed.

chicago pop said...

@ Andrew Cone:

What's the law on tobacco products? I'm ignorant on this stuff. Where does Federal jurisdiction come in? Do merchants pay taxes to the state, or feds, or both? I guess I'm just wondering if you could flesh out your observations....

Otto said...

2) Some of the cigarettes are sold below Illinois wholesale cost, according to Mason, the owner of Cornell Dollar.I believe that's "Mazen."

I think it's pretty clear what's going on here.I think it's entirely opaque. There was street-level peddling of Indiana cigarettes centered on Washington Park a couple of years ago; I don't know how that panned out.

As a retail endeavor, bootlegging from Indiana *retail* stores seems senseless. To obtain unstamped packs would require a trip to North Carolina (I think) or theft from a distributor. I could see skimming from out-of-county vending machine operations, but all of these tactics are going to tend to limit the retail selection.

What I'd really like to know is what the "plus tax" on the sign in the photo actually amounts to (I'd guess 6.25% general merchandise). I'm too lazy to bother, but actually buying a pack would at least represent a data point on dual fronts.

Anonymous said...

I think the taxation is by State. That's why you see mobsters in old movies running trucks of cigarettes across state lines.

The idea is that if you're legal, you buy them from a licensed wholesaler/supplier in Illinois, or if they're shipped from out of state, the shipment is inspected and you pay the Illinois State tax. Each pack then gets a little stamp on the cellophane that shows tax was paid.

If there's no stamp, it can indicate that either the cigs were hijacked or stolen, were bought through the "back door" (which means an unscrupulous wholesaler declared them "damaged/destroyed/etc. during shipment" and then sold them on the cheap without paying tax), or they were bought in a different state with lower taxes and then brought over State lines (and were rewrapped to get rid of the other state's stamp).

Of course none of this matters if you're buying them to smoke rather than sell.

When I was in college, a town about 15 miles away was a major interchange on the Santa Fe railroad. Lots of boxcars went through there. And that town (and ours) had what we all called "hojack stores", where they sold all kinds of soda, candy, cleaning supplies, toiletries, etc. ridiculously cheap. The warehouse workers, shipping inspectors and even some truck drivers who went through the area had deals going with these guys where they would pull some stuff out of the boxcar or truck, mark it as "damaged in transit", the shipper's insurance would cover the loss and they would then sell it to these shady hijack store guys for pennies on the dollar. Great scam.

Richard Gill said...

Seems to me, it would be very risky for a licensed merchant to sell cigarettes on which taxes have not been paid. With competitors and anti-smokers drooling to shut the store down, and inspectors coming around, there's a good chance of getting caught and shut down, or maybe worse.

Ald. Hairston's office says they checked to be sure Tobacco for Less has all of its required business permits and licenses. Licensing doesn't prevent the sale of illicit or bootlegged merchandise, but it means the store is on the regulatory radar.

Anyway, the store's sign is now old enough for Hyde Park to grant it historical landmark protection. It's been up for 30 days, so someone around here will campaign to save it, as a "priceless and unique example of Chicago-school retailogarish artistry of the early-mid 2009s." It will no doubt find its way to the Art Institute's Modern Wing.

Elizabeth Fama said...

Greg, I like your typo, "hojack store," better than the correct version.

Anonymous said...

Haha, like Hijack and Kojak in a union of the evil and bald ...

LPB said...

Greg -- maybe we've got our own Tony Soprano in Hyde Park hijacking and then selling cigarettes. I seem to remember a couple of episodes when Tony sent Christafuh to oversee a few transfers of "merchandise."

Richard Gill said...

...which reminds me of the old Smokey Stover comic strip, which always featured a sign saying Notary Sojak. Anyone know what that meant?

FrankB said...

Just FYI - smoke shop tax evasion is apparently quite common because of the high taxes levied by the city and county, and because the normal result is just a $1000 fine. Trib: http://www.chicagotribune.com/news/chi-smoking-tax-cheats-09-oct09,0,3759836.story

Sam said...

Dear Chicago Pop,
I share your appreciation of the "bones" of the intersection at 55th and Hyde Park Blvd. having been born and raised around the corner.

I think the small businesses of Hyde Park are what's to love about the place, asbestos and cigarette smoke to boot. I think what you're missing, chicago pop, is the the beauty of the skin--however scarred and strange--of the corner.