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Business District Managers Hit Streets

For the last couple months, the 20 participants in LISC Chicago’s Business District Leadership program have been getting to know one another via retreats, strategy days and leadership sessions, where they’ve traded expertise and ideas about how to make their neighborhood commercial corridors more prosperous and vital. They’re all economic development veterans, from Little Village to Edgewater, who’ve signed on for the six-month training that’s intended to hone their business and leadership skills.

BDL participants Nick Wolff, Tom Otto and Tina James get organized - and fed - at Janik's Cafe before heading out to interview residents and merchants on West Division Street.

Photos by Gordon Walek

On a Wednesday morning in late March, they substituted the street for the classroom, converging on the 2000 block of West Division Street to perform a sort of kick-the-tires analysis of what makes a healthy corridor tick. Or not. 

It was immediately clear that Janik’s Café, at 2011 W. Division St., makes that block tick. It was open at 8:30 a.m., whereas FatPour, the spacious tavern next door where the group intended to gather, was not. Hence the corridor managers, under the tutelage of LISC Chicago’s Dionne Baux and consultant Larisa Ortiz, shoehorned themselves into the coffee shop and did what good students of local businesses do – ordered breakfast. Much to the delight of the proprietor. 

Not that Janik’s was desperate. Plenty of others were there, slurping coffee, nibbling on delicious egg dishes and in some instances conducting business meetings. Lesson one: a thriving corridor needs merchants who can deliver what customers want, and customers to consume what businesses offer. By all accounts, the Wicker Park neighborhood through which Division Street runs has lots of both. 

Baux and Ortiz are directing the Business District Leadership program (BDL) based on the award-winning Coro New York Leadership Center’s Neighborhood program. 

Ally Brisbin, center, of the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce, and Alexis Esparza, right, of the Eighteenth Street Development Corp. in Pilsen interview a man on West Division Street about what he likes about the neighborhood. And doesn't.

“We wanted to study a community with an active business district, surrounded by engaged residents, but also with its own challenges,” said Baux. “We wanted to look at a corridor that other corridors would aspire to, and that none of our participants lived or worked in.” 

Wicker Park, and the stretch near Division and Damen, fit the bill. Long gone are the hustlers and characters celebrated by Nelson Algren more than half a century ago. In their place are upwardly mobile hipsters, nesting in renovated apartments and new condos, partaking of the coffee shops, bars, yarn stores, bakeries, restaurants, and other businesses that occupy Division Street storefronts. It’s the rich urban fabric that many struggling neighborhoods aspire to. Or is it? That’s what the intrepid BDL crew was assigned to find out. 

Back at Janik’s, the BDL participants organized themselves into five teams – each charged with interviewing local business people or residents, many of whom were selected with the help of Erik Harmon, executive director at the Wicker Park Bucktown Chamber of Commerce. They then hit the streets for a couple of hours and re-convened at FatPour (now open!) to compare notes. 

The Alliance Bakery was one of the businesses the BDL crew focused on during an assessment of the West Division Street commercial corridor.

Organizing the teams, which Baux and Ortiz intentionally left to the devices of the group, was in itself an exercise in leadership. Certain people emerged and took control. Somebody had to. 

Ally Brisbin, of the Edgewater Chamber of Commerce, led the charge for the team doing man-on-the-street interviews. With her were Jaime di Paulo, of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce, Wally Rozak of Uptown United, and Alexis Esparza of the Eighteenth Street Development Corp. in Pilsen.

East they headed on Division, interviewing Brazilian visitors, a storeowner, an upwardly mobile resident, a fashionable bakery employee and an old-timer who seemed a refugee from the Nelson Algren days. They all liked the street and the community, citing the variety of goods and services, the public transit connections, the pedestrian traffic, the demographic diversity, the entertainment. 

Meanwhile, Brisbin’s counterparts on other teams fanned out to interview two restaurateurs, a retailer, and a few others who live and work in the neighborhood. After returning to FatPour, each team presented its findings. 

The results? Generally positive, though there were some apparent frictions between businesses and residents. Street festivals, for example, which attract crowds and generate business revenue, can annoy residents who don’t appreciate the tourists and partyers. 

“It was a very effective way to learn how a business district works,” said Brisbin. “I went in with the preconception that it (Wicker Park) was a neighborhood of trendy hipsters and that people probably weren’t as community-oriented as in Edgewater. But that’s not the case. They have problems like every other neighborhood and they want to fix them.”

How, though, do the BDL participants apply the elements that make West Division Street so appealing to their own commercial corridors? Is it even possible? 

Wally Rozak of Uptown United, Jaime di Paulo of the Little Village Chamber of Commerce, and Alexis Esparza of the Eighteenth Street Development Corp. in Pilsen de-brief their colleagues following their man-on-the-street interviews.

“Their charge,” said Baux, “was to listen, practice interview skills, and help them self-reflect and begin to identify gaps they may have in regard to assessment and stakeholder engagement in their own districts.” 

This month, the program is focusing on small business resources and will meet with city and federal officials to learn about issues facing small business and the variety of small business resources available to them. The day will begin with a lending panel and end with a co-hosted happy hour with Goldman Sachs 10,000 Small Businesses initiative. The formal meeting element of the BDL will conclude in July, but participants will gather again in October to share the successes and challenges of accomplishing their neighborhood change projects that each are working on during the course of the training. 

The BDL program is funded by the Polk Bros. Foundation, PNC Bank, Associated Bank and the City of Chicago.

Learn more about the BDL participants and their Neighborhood Change Project.

For more information, contact Dionne Baux at

Posted in Economic Development


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Local Initiatives Support Corporation Chicago connects neighborhoods to the resources they need to become stronger and healthier.

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