A Chicago business owner was told that his nickname – “Mike” – was “too ghetto” to be in the name of his own store.
Mike Sharma was told by the University Village Association, or UVA, that his store’s intended name, “Mike’s Wine and Spirits,” wasn’t classy enough for the Little Italy neighborhood. As part of the agreement that allowed him to open, he had to rename his store “Michael’s Wine and Spirits.” Never mind that his first name isn’t even Michael – it’s Mukesh.
Sharma wanted to start what he describes as “a craft beer and upscale wine shop” on Taylor Street in the Little Italy/University Village neighborhood. But he faced opposition from members of the UVA who demanded changes as a condition of opening, including the demand for a less “ghetto” name.
The UVA also pushed for price controls on the store’s products – no cigarettes can be sold in the store for less than $10, no serving of beer less than 24 ounces that costs less than $4.75 and no wine for less than $7.75. Sharma also has to keep particular hours – he can’t open his store before 12 p.m. on any day of the week and must close by 11 p.m. on weekends.
Why would a neighborhood group push for these rules? It just so happens that Taylor Street has another upscale spirits establishment called “Gentile’s Wine Shop” whose owner, coincidentally, happens to sit on the board of the UVA. In fact, a July 10 letter from the UVA demanded that Michael’s opening hours restrictions match up exactly with the hours Gentile’s keeps.
The UVA has publicly denied that their board member influenced this decision, but the regulations speak for themselves.
The city zoning board approved the store in November, only after 28th Ward Alderman Jason C. Ervin acquiesced to the UVA and gave his recommendation to the city zoning board with these restrictions as a requirement. Last year, the neighborhood held a series of hearings on the prospective wine shop, moderated by Ervin. The storefront had been sitting empty for over a year according to the owners of the building, who were eager to find a business to replace the last one.
The debate over the store also raised concerns about racial and class bias, given the demand for a “classy” instead of a “ghetto” store name and the discussion about the kind of products the business would sell so as to attract the “right” kind of customers. One community member who opposed the project in October claimed that she feared another place to buy alcohol would “just … bring in the kind of people I don’t want to see in this neighborhood.”
Connecting4Communities, another University Village/Tri-Taylor community group, criticized the UVA’s lobbying as “[playing] upon the worst stereotypes of Asian-Indian business owners and fears based upon much different stores that sold cheap alcohol on Taylor Street many years ago,” and said the UVA has “imposed costly delays” on Sharma’s business opening.
This is the state of Chicago politics. When a single alderman doing the bidding of private interests can dictate to business owners what they can sell and for what prices, there’s no doubt that cronyism is rampant in Chicago. With people and businesses already leaving Illinois in droves, this isn’t how the city should be welcoming entrepreneurs such as Sharma to our communities.