Chatham business owners discuss the decision to cancel the Cafe Street plan for 75th

A socially distanced line at Lem's Bar-B-Q. Photo: James Porter
A socially distanced line at Lem's Bar-B-Q. Photo: James Porter

Cafe Streets, roadways that are pedestrianized to make room for socially-distanced outdoor restaurant and tavern seating during COVID-19, on gentrified corridors like Randolph Street in the West Loop, Rush Street ion the Near North Side, and Broadway in Lakeview, are proving popular with Chicago diners. That’s good news for the struggling restaurant industry, as well as city tax revenue coffers. (We’ll leave it to the Chicago Department of Public Health to determine whether this initiative is a success from a pandemic standpoint.)

But so far predominantly Black- and Latino-owned restaurant strips haven’t been participating in this experiment. The city of Chicago originally planned to implement Cafe Streets on 75th Street from Calumet Avenue to Indiana Avenue in the African-American Chatham community, and 26th Street from Central Park to Harding Avenue in the Mexican-American Little Village neighborhood. But ultimately the 75th plan was changed to placing tables on the sidewalk, rather than in the street, and the 26th proposal was cancelled altogether.

The Randolph Cafe Street. Photo: John Greenfield
The Randolph Cafe Street. Photo: John Greenfield

Chicago Department of Transportation Commissioner Gia Biagi told Streetsblog that Little Village restauranteurs were concerned about the impact on curbside pickups, although the layouts and uses of successful Cafe Streets like Broadway are similar. And local merchants and leaders told Block Club Chicago they were worried about having a similar drop in sales as what typically occurs when 26th is pedestrianized for festivals. However, during festivals, food stalls and other vendors compete with brick-and-mortar restaurants and shops, while Cafe Streets attract people to business strips who spend money at local eateries and other retail establishments.

In addition, there are real concerns about public safety on the South and West sides that lead many residents to drive to local business districts, and merchants and community leaders may worry that pedestrianized streets will attract unwanted and unsafe congregation. These issues typically aren’t factors in privileged North Side neighborhoods.

Streetsblog recently checked in with business owners on 75th to get their perspective on the issue. (6th Ward alderman Roderick Sawyer, didn’t respond to interview requests.)

Brown Sugar Bakery. Photo: James Porter
Brown Sugar Bakery. Photo: James Porter

Outdoor seating is nothing new on the strip. Since 2017, the business association Chatham Center Chicago has organized Dining on the 5, an outdoor restaurant festival on the 75th Street strip, including Lem’s B-B-Que, Original Soul Vegetarian, and Brown Sugar Bakery, and other beloved establishments. During a visit to 75th in warm weather last week, the few eateries that were open seemed to be doing good business, and social distancing rules were being followed closely.

Jaidah Turnbow, general manager of historic Frances’ Cocktail Lounge, tragically lost her husband to the coronavirus. After closing the bar for months during Illinois’ Stay at Home order, she reopened it on June 26, when limited-capacity  indoor drinking was legalized again. The extended wait time, coupled with her personal loss, made this spring an extremely trying time. “For the safety of everyone involved, we understood,” she said. “We still had bills that had to be paid, with no income coming in, so we applied for some of the grants and loans. It was still devastating because our business had been open for 55 years.”

Turnbow argued that pedestrianizing 75th would have had a negative impact on car traffic. “All of the businesses that were part of the planning agreed that opening up the street would not be beneficial, because 75th St. is a main artery on the South Side. Some of the streets on the North Side and downtown that have been closed have many other options around them.”

The street grid around the proposed 75th Street pedestrianized zone. Image: Google Maps
The street grid around the proposed 75th Street pedestrianized zone. Image: Google Maps

But Stephanie Hart, owner of Brown Sugar Bakery, who spoke at Mayor Lori Lightfoot’s press conference on the Cafe Streets plan several weeks ago, argued that the increased sales without have far outweighed any inconvenience for drivers. “I was in support of [having seating] outside in the street,” she said, noting that the plan would have replaced moving and parked cars with “tables that service the whole community.”

Still, Hart said having tables on the sidewalk is better than nothing. “People are able to use them, and that’s really all I wanted, is for my community to enjoy some ‘sit-down’ outside.”

While bakeries were classified as essential businesses in Illinois, so Brown Sugar never had to close its doors, Hart says the pandemic has still been challenging financially. “We’re social distancing inside the business, so it’s harder to produce. It takes longer to service the customers because we can only have a few at a time. Things have slowed down, and that affects the money.”

Cafe seating outside Frances' Cocktail Lounge. Photo: James Porter
Cafe seating outside Frances’ Cocktail Lounge. Photo: James Porter

Both Turnbull and Hart remain optimistic in the face of economic headwinds. Turnbow said “Business has been pretty good for the amount of people that we have been able to have… a lot of our regulars were ready for us to open.” Will the current situation be the new normal for the indefinite future? “Only time will tell.”

Hart added that a silver lining of this difficult period is  that the pandemic has brought her closer to her colleagues on the strip and local residents. “I think 75th Street is going to be stronger because of it in the future.”

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