AVONDALE — A staple of the Polish business community is closing its doors for good after 37 years in operation due to rising rents.
European Fashion Wear, 3025 N. Milwaukee Ave., is in the process of closing, with a going-out-of-business sale underway.
The business is one of many Polish storefronts that called Avondale home, and European Fashion Wear survived nearly four decades of changing demographics and gentrification in the neighborhood. But after its building was sold and its rent significantly increased, European Fashion Wear owner Najeh Ajaj said it is impossible for him to stay open.
“Rent kills the business,” Ajaj said. “This building has already lost businesses that have been here for decades. When rent costs quadruple, what can we do?”
The building at 3015-25 North Milwaukee Ave., which houses European Fashion Wear, was sold in April for $1.95 million to a venture named Milwaukee Avondale LLC, Cook County property records show.
In the months since, tenants were told their rent would increase to $5,000 per month, an increase nearly four times the previous rent, Ajaj said. Unable to afford the hike, Ajaj decided to close his business.
Matthew Fritzshall, who is part of the group that bought the building, said that while market rate for Avondale real estate is roughly $20 per square foot, European Fashion Wear’s previous rent was roughly $4 per square foot. Fritzshall said the owner of European Fashion Wear was initially offered an increase to $12 per square foot, but the two entities could not come to an agreement.
“We have taxes to pay, high utility costs and operational costs, too,” Fritzshall said. “And at $4 a foot, you can’t sustain a piece of real estate like this.”
Ajaj is unsure exactly when European Fashion Wear will close as the business was initially given 30 days to move out but has since asked for an extension. The matter is now the subject of litigation, the owner said.
European Fashion Wear isn’t the only business impacted by the increase in rent. Local optical store Polo-Optyka, previously at 3021 N. Milwaukee Ave., had to shutter their business after nearly three decades due to the unexpected changes in rent prices, according to the former owner.
The humble clothing store served as a staple of the bustling strip of Milwaukee Avenue known as ‘Jackowo.”
Boxed in by Diversey Avenue on the south, Belmont Avenue on the north, the Kennedy Expressway on the east and the Union Pacific railroad tracks on the west, the area became a hub for arriving Polish immigrants in the latter decades of the 20th century. The name derives from the nearby Saint Hyacinth Basilica, whose Polish saint name is Jacka, and “owo” which translates to “village”.
For a period, the “Polish Village” served as a self-sustaining community — Polish-owned butchers, flower shops and clothing stores flourished along the Milwaukee corridor.
With considerable drops in the city’s Polish population since the 2000s, many Polish-owned businesses that were once reliant on a loyal customer base saw drops in revenue. The general move to online shopping in combination with the changing demographics dried up many of the Polish Village businesses in the decades since, DNAinfo wrote in 2016.
Despite the closure of Polo-Optyka and pending closure of European Fashion Wear, the owner of the building that housed those businesses said he is interested in renting to businesses catering to the area’s remaining Polish population.
“We just want to be good stewards to the neighborhood, provide good commercial space and we’re willing to invest in it,” Fritzshall said. “We would absolutely work with someone if it was something aligned with the past history of the neighborhood.”
There are other locally owned shops that keep the Polish business corridor alive.
Stasia Józwiak has owned and operated Szarotka Flowers at Milwaukee Avenue and Hamlin Avenue for 37 years. Although the neighborhood has changed in the decades since, Jozwiak still plans to continue her business for the foreseeable future.
According to her, the rent for her storefront has stabilized, unlike some of the other surrounding properties along Milwaukee.
Bruno’s Barber Shop, located at 3110 N. Milwaukee Ave., serves as one of the few remaining pillars of Jackowo’s heyday. Steve Ciesielski inherited the shop from his father, who purchased the property in 1969. For 54 years, Bruno’s has successfully serviced Avondale residents and even expanded to a second location in Niles.
Ciesielski, an Avondale native, currently manages the shop that has remained a stronghold within the variable community that surrounds it.
“Seeing the many changes the neighborhood has gone through, considering the movement of the loyal, predominantly-Polish customer base, we’re still holding our own,” said Ciesielski. “We’ve relied on locality with customers and, luckily, we’re picking up new business from nearby developments.”
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