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Rent a Movie Tonight, and Put a Drug Dealer Out of Business

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If you streamed a movie from Netflix to your TV or computer this week, you might have made a drug dealer’s job easier.

Last night, Your Ward Room Blogger went to a meeting at my neighborhood elementary school, at which the police commander announced the bust of a $1.6 million drug ring on Howard Street, which resulted in the arrest of 17 Gangster Disciples. After making dozens of undercover buys -- all within 1,000 feet of the school -- the police seized cash, crack, a vehicle and two handguns.

On my way to the meeting, I walked along Howard Street, and passed United Video, which had a “Going Out Of Business” sign in the window. It’s not much of an operation -- a few shelves of un-alphabetized movies, which provide cover for the real moneymaker, the porn hidden behind a whitewashed wall. But it is commerce, and there’s a clerk behind the counter 10 hours a day, a Chinese man or his daughter, watching the street. The rest of Howard Street is maybe half occupied, mostly with liquor stores, a Laundromat, take-out joints and dollar stores. In the last year, the most exciting commercial activity was the pawn shop, Howard Jewelry & Loan, moving to a bigger, fancier location. Howard is, easily, the most forlorn shopping strip on the North Side.

In 2010, I wrote a story for The New York Times Travel section, pimping Rogers Park as an “emerging” neighborhood. I began with a visit to a West African restaurant on Howard Street. The week before the story was scheduled to run, the photographer went to take a picture of the restaurant. It had closed the week before. I called the owner and suggested he should give it another month, but I could not tell him that publicity in the world’s most famous newspaper could help him make a go on Howard Street. 

During Tuesday's meeting, the owner of a Jamaican restaurant stood up and asked why Howard Street, which for most of its length is the border between Chicago and Evanston, can’t take advantage of its location as the place where the city meets the North Shore, the stop where L riders change from the Red Line to the Purple Line.

“Why can’t we be like the Gold Coast?” the restaurateur asked.

The police commander didn’t have an answer for that, but he did say, “You don’t have an open-air drug market on the Gold Coast.”

Because the Gold Coast is a thriving commercial district. As I said, United Video wasn’t a great business, but I did rent a lot of (non-porn) videos there, especially after the Hollywood Video on the corner of Clark and Howard closed, victim of the same DVD-by-mail and movies-over-the-Internet trend that’s killing this little dad-and-daughter operation. Nothing has replaced Hollywood Video. I can’t imagine what will replace United Video, either. That means one less lighted storefront, and less foot traffic, as people retrieve movies from their mailbox or log onto a website, instead of walking down Howard Street. Drug dealers like dark, empty streets.
   
After the meeting, I met a woman from a more prosperous part of Rogers Park, who was afraid to walk down Howard Street alone.

“They need a Gap on this street!” she lamented. “Or even a Starbucks!”

I hope she comes back up to Howard Street and eats lunch at Tickie’s Belizean Cuisine, or buys a set of pots and pans at the discount store. We’re a long way from the Gap, but it may help keep the drug dealers away.  

Buy this book! Ward Room blogger Edward McClelland's book, Young Mr. Obama: Chicago and the Making of a Black President , is available Amazon. Young Mr. Obama includes reporting on President Obama's earliest days in the Windy City, covering how a presumptuous young man transformed himself into presidential material. Buy it now!

Related Topics Rahm Emanuel, Chicago
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