North Avenue through Oak Park is rather a mess. It is long, too wide, fronts on three separate towns, is something just shy of a highway, and it sports a dysfunctional array of obsolete medical office buildings from the 1950s, immediately obsolete strip malls from the 1980s and ’90s, with a few decent drive-thrus and a couple of aging anchors such as Sears, tentatively holding down a corner or two.
Into this uninspiring mix, the past few years have seen the arrival of a torrent of pawn shops. Pawn shops are retail death. Quality retail wants no part of adjacency to a pawn shop. And the arrival of a pawn shop, let alone the landing of five such businesses in a small stretch of the street, sends a disheartening signal to the neighboring community that its future is bleak.
A decade ago, Oak Park came to its regulatory senses and capped the growth of pawn shops in the village and effectively said its target was to gradually eliminate them fully from the village.
Weak political leadership and desperate landlords on the Chicago side of the street showed no such common sense and have let pawn shops proliferate. Now comes word that EZ Pawn will close its North Avenue store in October and we could not be happier.
Credit the rising alliance of Oak Park and Galewood/Austin residents for organizing themselves to reclaim their collective neighborhoods, forcing actual political change with a turnover of aldermen in the 29th Ward, and demanding that Oak Park leaders and this newspaper pay closer attention to the street.
With the near simultaneous news that the rumored Mariano’s grocery at North and Harlem had gone poof, that Ald. Chris Taliaferro is bringing more heat on misbehaving alcohol-serving establishments on the street, this makes it a good time to refocus shared energies on Oak Park’s north border.
Yes, working on both Roosevelt Road and North Avenue brings distinct challenges. But it can be done and efforts must be made by village hall and the Oak Park Economic Development Corporation to work with active neighbors, the business association and Chicago and Elmwood Park officials to improve this street.