By Kristen Hodge
Customer appreciation wall at Wesley Shoes in Hyde Park. (Photo/Kristen Hodges)
Hyde Park is a melting pot of many cultures and local businesses. The neighborhood has come a long way in architecture, diversity, and entrepreneurship since being founded in 1853 by Paul Cornell.
But the South Side community’s small and local business owners face many challenges from trying to gain more traction, to keeping businesses running during times of uncertainty and preventing the business from closing.
Dan Thomas, who has managed Hyde Park’s Toys et Cetera for five years, is among many who have made contributions to the local business in Hyde Park. He said he has seen an influx of businesses booming and closing doors in the neighborhood in recent years. Some businesses were positively impacted by the toll of the COVID-19 pandemic, while others lost customers and demand for products and services.
“The pandemic was insane. We had to actively shut the store down for a little while, but adapted by doing local deliveries for free,” he said. “Advertising is flooding right now. It can be tough to get your small business name out there. We tried running Facebook for a while, but we haven’t gotten much traction on social media.”
Thomas said he has seen many businesses that were once a part of the Hyde Park community struggle and close doors.
“There have been a bunch of businesses that have closed down,” he said. “We lost the French bakery across the way, the French restaurant next door, another restaurant that closed on 53rd Street. There’s a lot of restaurants coming in, but there are a lot going out.”
According to the Chicago Tribune, 361 businesses closed in Chicago between March 2020 and March 2021. Twelve of these businesses were located in Hyde Park.
Some businesses have sought financial assistance to stay afloat. The Small Business Improvement Fund provides grants to small businesses. Since 2013, the Small Business Improvement Fund has provided the businesses in Hyde Park with some relief, according to the Chicago City Data Portal. The most recent small business in Hyde Park to receive funds from the SBIF is Hyde Park Building & Material Supplies, Inc. They received $100,000 to complete its project in 2014.
StoryMap: Tour Hyde Park small businesses
New businesses have replaced the old, while some in the district faced closures and relocations, both temporary and permanent, brought about by high operating expenses, owner retirements, and modifications to operator/property owner agreements.
According to the City of Chicago Data Portal, there are 424 reported businesses with active business licenses in Hyde Park. The neighborhood has had an influx of small businesses enter and exit the market over the years.
The Hyde Park community was one of the hardest hit during the pandemic. Wallace Goode, president of the Hyde Park Chain of Commerce voiced concern about the businesses staying afloat amidst the impact of the pandemic.
“It’s really hard to say who will survive this, and who will be victims,” Goode said. “Hyde Park is an incredibly successful, resilient community. I’m not worried about Hyde Park surviving. I do think we’ll lose smaller businesses, but the vast majority will realize there are strategies for rebooting Hyde Park.”
Smaller and local businesses have been the most impacted throughout COVID-19, but have also faced challenges outside of the impact of the pandemic. Small businesses in Hyde Park have a difficult time maintaining a high demand in comparison to larger businesses.
There are a variety of reasons why small business owners struggle in comparison to larger businesses. Small businesses in Hyde Park and small business owners as a whole face challenges when being in highly populated areas where several other businesses are also trying to stay afloat.
Chicago native Rod Shrader, an entrepreneurship professor at the University of Illinois at Chicago, helps his students start businesses both small and large. He’s familiar with the Hyde Park situation and the challenges small businesses face.
“Hyde Park is a fairly wealthy neighborhood,” he said. “You don’t have to go very far to find there is a lot of poverty in that area.
“This presents some challenges for small businesses. Things that are neighborhood-oriented tend to be less successful. I think the pandemic probably has an impact on all of the businesses in Hyde Park because it had an impact on all businesses. There are a lot of restaurants that I like that I used to go to that no longer exist.”
Small businesses often have to compete with larger businesses in the market. Small businesses that build a niche to reach a specific market can gain support from locals and long-term customers but may not achieve the same reach and wider demographics as larger businesses in the community.
“There are a lot of challenges that small business owners face,” he said. “If you are new, then you have to become known. Large businesses already have a reputation. The risks are a little bit harder for small businesses in regards to becoming known and knowing where they fit into the community. You have to be a jack or jill of all trades to be able to do the accounting, marketing, and everything related to the business and it all falls on you. Cash flow is a huge problem for small businesses so they run out of money.”
Bruce Wesley owns Wesley’s Shoes in the heart of Hyde Park. He has been invested in his store for over 50 years. Wesley’s passion for running his business is evident through the investment of his time and pride he has put into this business to watch it flourish over the years. Wesley has decades worth of background knowledge on the neighborhood and has witnessed both large and smaller businesses entering and leaving the market.
Zach Kim and Karen Carmona contributed to this report.