Looting, pandemic a 'gut punch' for famed Chicago district
CHICAGO - Neil Mehra’s cigar shop just off Chicago’s Michigan Avenue wouldn’t normally share much in common with big brand-name stores such as Tiffany’s and Saks Fifth Avenue, whose boutiques sit on the choicest spots on the city’s most iconic street.
But this week they share foreboding over whether the economics and reputation of one of America’s most prestigious shopping districts can rebound from damage done by hours of looting Monday in and around the mile-long strip known as the Magnificent Mile.
Mehra’s Hubbard & State Cigar Shop was hit by similar smash-and-grab attacks in late May, when some took advantage of protests over the death of George Floyd in police custody in Minneapolis to break into stores. Monday’s looting came as businesses had begun reopening amid pandemic-related disruptions.
By the time Mehra rushed to his store Monday, nearly everything of value was gone, with rows of shelves stripped clean of high-end cigars worth up to $800 a box. Stepping through the rubble, he realized the thieves even made off with his safe and the $5,000 in it. He estimated his losses this time at more than $75,000.
“I almost cried,” said Mehra, sitting in a chair at his store under a framed photo of Chicago Bulls great Michael Jordan, a cigar aficionado. “This is my life. I really don’t know if we’re going to survive this.”
The overall damage to the district this week is likely to run into the millions of dollars.
Michael Edwards, president of one the city’s largest business associations, the Chicago Loop Alliance, said the latest looting struck at the already tenuous morale of businesses on the Mag Mile and all across downtown.
“It’s been a psychological gut punch,” he said.
Smaller shops like Mehra’s one-employee tobacco shop that he started 19 years ago don’t have the access to capital of bigger businesses. But the double whammy of looting and the pandemic have hurt them, too.
Investors who were contemplating injecting money into commercial projects downtown are already pausing in the wake of the most recent looting, Edwards said.
The district transformed in the 1920s from a grimy industrial quarter into a shopping haven for the rich that came to symbolize the dynamism and, for some, the excesses of capitalism. The Magnificent Mile became a must-see for tourists.
There was only a trickle of foot traffic on Michigan Avenue Wednesday during the sunny afternoon. Previously at this time of year, wealthy shoppers and tourists — many of whom came more to gawk than to buy — walked shoulder to shoulder on crowded sidewalks.
Pedestrian traffic on nearby State Street, where Edwards’ association does regular counts, was down 80 percent earlier this summer. However, it had improved as of last week and was only down 67 percent compared to the year before.
“Our fear is that those anemic but positive trends will stall” with the looting this week, Edwards said.
Many stores on Michigan Avenue were still boarded up.
Some, like the tony Cartier jewelry boutique, remained open, although plywood painted black covered every store window and the door. A staffer peeking through a peep hole cut through the wood only allowed in shoppers who called ahead.
Elsewhere, the post-looting clean-up wasn’t done. Cleaning crews worked inside the Pandora jewelry store, demolished displays and shards of glass strewn around them.
Businesses wholly dependent on tourists are struggling, too.
A large Chicago River tourist ship about to depart from under a Michigan Avenue bridge had just six passengers on deck. It would usually carry a hundred or more.
Mehra sounds more dejected than angry even as he accuses the city of concentrating police officers around the glitzier stores on Michigan Avenue during the looting.
“The city doesn’t seem to care about small businesses,” he said.
In May, attackers threw a flower pot through Mehra’s $10,000-front window, hauling over $30,000 in merchandise through the hole. Looters Monday burst through the door, leaving the window intact.
The comparative absence of people downtown during the pandemic has been part of the overall security problem, Edwards said.
“It is empty at night, with not enough people with eyes on the street,” he said. “People up to no good feel they have free rein.”
What’s needed, he said, is a coalition of city, police and businesses, as well as activist groups to fashion a specific plan to address both downtown security and racial disparities highlighted by protests nationwide.
“Chicago is great at reinventing itself,” he said. “This is a great opportunity to do that again.” He strikes an optimistic note, adding that “once we all process this, we will continue to grow.”
Mehra, 60, doesn’t share that optimism. Even if he recoups most of his losses through insurance coverage for the thefts, he doubts he can survive the combined economic blow delivered by the looting and pandemic.
Several nearby bars and restaurants have already closed for good due to pandemic-related losses. Late-night revelers had been among Mehra’s biggest cigar buyers.
His goal is to make it through the next year or two.
“Then I’m going to leave Chicago. The violence, the taxes … it’s too much,” he said. “My plan? To move to Arizona.”