In the wake of a string of armed robberies in Northeast Oak Park recently, area residents voiced their complaints about conditions that they believe foster crime. One major concern was the shoddy condition of commerce along North Avenue, and in particular the presence of four pawn shops within a two block area.
A look into the issue of pawn shops found little popular support for them, but also suggested that such businesses may, in fact, not be the primary problem.
All three of Oak Park's three remaining pawn shops are on the eastern end of North Avenue, including A-1 Jewelry and Pawn, 6151 W. North Ave., Hollywood Pawn Shop, 6147 W. North Ave., and Cash America, 6303 W. North Ave. Another pawn shop, Crown Royal Jewelry & Loan, sits at 6210 W. North Ave., Chicago directly across the street from Hollywood and A-1. (The fifth pawn shop is R & J Jewelers and Pawners, across town at 7031 W. Roosevelt Rd. in Berwyn.)
Chief of Police Rick Tanksley serves as the pawn broker license administrator for the village, investigating all applications, renewals and complaints. Under conditions of a $1,000 per year annual license, Oak Park police may enter an Oak Park pawn shop "at any time" to inspect the businesses records to determine compliance with local ordinance.
There's certainly no privacy when pawning an item. Since 1998, all transactions are required by village ordinance to be video taped. Pawn shop owners are also required to keep typed or neatly written records of each loan and the specific goods or valuables pawned, along with the time and date, and name of the person pawning the article. Such items as rings and other jewelry must be photographed with color film.
In addition, the law requires a complete description of each person pawning items, including name, residence, address, birth date, social security number, weight, height and gender. Two forms of identification are also required, one of which must bear a photograph of the person. If not, the pawnbroker is required to photograph the person.
"We require daily records of transactions," said Tanksley. "Failure to provide them could result in citations."
While Tanksley said it's unlikely that criminals committing robberies and burglaries in Oak Park would utilize a pawn shop in the village, businesses across the street in Chicago and Berwyn are not under close regulation by the village. Oak Park police may request, but not require, access to records in those pawn shops.
"Thieves commit thefts in one jurisdiction and go to another," he said. "We occasionally retrieve items stolen here in other jurisdictions." Tanksley recalled one burglary in the 700 block of Euclid last year where an enterprising detective drove over to a nearby pawn shop and waited in the squad car.
"Sure enough, the offender showed up and entered the business," he said.
Though Tanksley said that he'd like to see pawn shop operators be a bit more proactive and call police when suspicious individuals pawn items at their businesses, he's reasonably satisfied, saying, "By and large, they are complying with the village code."
One other compelling reason for pawn shop owners to adhere strictly to the letter of the law is that if an item they loans cash for is proven to have been obtained in a crime, the pawn shop must turn over that item to its rightful owner, without any remuneration.
"Whatever they laid out is gone," said Tanksley.
Some neighbors are unswayed.
"Get rid of those things," said area resident Judith Alexander. Alexander suggested that the village consider a program modeled after its Housing Assurance program, in which landlords are protected from economic risk it they opt to not renew the lease of businesses (of the three Oak Park pawn shops, one lease is up this year, another in 2008, and the third in 2010.)
Alexander is no more fond of the numerous pay day loans operations on both sides of North Avenue.
"We think they're inviting crime," she said. "They're kind of like a billboard."
"The topic is not for discussion with me," said another area resident, Judith Hawkins, who said she refused to profit from someone else's misfortune. "I just won't do it."
Pawn shops, said Hawkins, are just one more visible aspect of a down scale retail environment she's come to avoid.
Daryl Babuk, who sits on the board of the North Avenue Business Association, sympathizes with those views, but politely disagrees.
"I'm not a great fan of pawn shops," he said. "But as much as I dislike them, I don't see them as an avenue to fence stolen merchandise."
Babuk said that forcing pawn shops from the village won't eliminate them as a problem.
"Let's say you get rid of (the Oak Park pawn shops)," he said. "Look across the street (in Chicago). There are two vacant store fronts, and I guarantee you the rent's cheaper."
Richard Blaurock, a veteran Oak Park developer who owns two strip malls on North Avenue at Ridgeland, and has been landlord to two pawn shops, said he's never had any problems with them.
"They've been clean as a whistle," he said. Told of other's concern regarding pawn shops, Blaurock said bluntly, "I don't find that true at all. North Ridgeland Avenue hasn't been negatively affected at all." Pointing to the largely African American communities of Austin and Galewood that form Oak Park's northeastern and southern borders, communities that he said are "underserved," Blaurock insisted "We're not going to change the market. We're only going to serve the market."
A genuine problem as regards crime, Babuk insisted, is second hand stores.
"They're basically unregulated," he said.
Oak Park Detective Mary Byrne, who spends her time investigating burglaries, supports that view. What she terms " buy/sell shops," which simply purchase items from individuals and sell them for a profit, are in fact not regulated. There is no waiting period before the business can resell the item, no identification required of the seller, no records open to routine police inspection.
"It's a huge loop hole," said Byrne, who recalled a buy/sell store operating in Austin's "Island" neighborhood on Roosevelt Road three years ago.
"I thought everything that was being stolen out of Oak Park was being (re-) sold there," she said. That shop was shut down.
Tanksley puts the number of second hand sale shops in and around Oak Park "in the dozens."
"And that's being conservative," he said. While hesitant to cast aspersions on what he said are often legitimate businesses, he added that he'd welcome a discussion on establishing some sort of regulation on those businesses.
As for pawn shops, there will be no new ones opening for business in Oak Park, as the village will no longer issue new business licenses for them.
"We'll never have another one," said Tanksley. "They'll never be replaced."