By Grant Pick

It looks like a new Walgreens is coming to the northeast corner of Madison and Western. City officials and many area residents are pleased that a 15,000-square-foot pharmacy will soon occupy what’s now an empty lot covered with birch bark.

But Helen Randolph, a local pharmacist, is far from delighted. “We all have to start somewhere,” she says. “I have expertise. I run two drugstores. Walgreens was once in my position, and now they’re a giant company. The message being sent here is that there isn’t room in this city for a small minority business to grow.”

“Helen likes to portray herself as a poor black woman getting trounced in this deal,” retorts Earnest Gates, the trucking-company boss who’s behind a lot of recent near-west-side redevelopment. “But the long and short of it is that she’s trying to capitalize on the situation out here in order to make money.”

Randolph took her first pharmacy job as a teenager growing up in the Robert Taylor Homes in a household consisting of her mother, a maid, and five siblings. In 1990, after pharmacy school, she went to work for William Hilliard, who since 1963 had operated a small, prescriptions-only pharmacy wedged into a medical clinic at 46 N. Paulina. Randolph had been there about a month when Hilliard offered to sell her the operation. “I didn’t have enough money going in,” Randolph says, “but Mr. Hilliard and I worked out a financial arrangement, and my mom was willing to contribute her life savings to get me going.” The pharmacy, with its base of medicaid patients from the Henry Horner Homes, did well enough that Randolph was able to purchase a full-service drugstore in Beverly in 1995.

Randolph’s campaign to operate a drugstore at Madison and Western started a year later, when she was invited to a meeting that included Gates and Howard Pizer, executive vice president of the United Center. According to Randolph, the conversation turned to the need for a grocery and a drugstore in the neighborhood. “They asked me if I’d like to spearhead the drugstore, and I said yes,” says Randolph. Pizer says Randolph discussed putting a 2,000-square-foot drugstore on the Madison-Western site, an establishment the others considered too small either to attract financing or to satisfy the neighborhood.

Randolph contacted developer Elzie Higginbottom, who was intrigued with her idea of a big drugstore at Madison and Western. “She was already providing pharmaceutical services to people out on the near west side, while other drugstores like Walgreens had left the neighborhood,” says Higginbottom, “It’s always good to promote local businesses.”

Earnest Gates depicts Randolph as a late entry in the drugstore derby. Walgreens closed a store at Oakley and Madison after the riots that followed Martin Luther King’s death in 1968, but since 1990 Gates and the nonprofit Near West Side Community Develop-ment Corporation, whose board he chairs, had been trying to romance the chain back. “Walgreens was reluctant because of Henry Horner and Rockwell Gardens [another neighborhood housing project],” says Gates. But Walgreens was gingerly reentering the west side, opening new stores in Lawndale and Austin in recent years, and as Henry Horner buildings fell and middle-class houses rose, the chain’s attention was piqued.

Last July the city’s Department of Planning invited investment groups to submit proposals for the Madison-Western corner. The lot once contained offices, a funeral home, and a bank building (which had served as Black Panthers headquarters), but the buildings had been razed and the city now owns the land. On the other corners of the intersection are a pawnshop, a liquor store, and a shuttered office building.

Randolph, Higginbottom, codeveloper Ben Oluwole, and the Interfaith Organizing Project, a group of area churches, came up with a plan calling for a large pharmacy and a hardware store on the northeast corner, with a Church’s chicken outlet, an auto parts store, and a grocery on the other side of Madison Street. At nearby Oakley and Madison there’d be a job-training center and a day-care center Higginbottom planned to open with Catholic Charities, along with a separate building containing 40 to 50 family apartments, plus offices. The $23 million in financing would come in part from $10 million in short-term loans from the city, with another $4 million awarded through the city’s Strategic Neighborhood Action Program (SNAP), which combines the efforts of various city departments to spark redevelopment.

Gates’s more modest idea included a Walgreens and some retail stores on the Madison-Western corner and a senior citizens building to the east. The Walgreens and the stores, to be built by Gates’s development corporation and by private developers Allison Davis and Sy Taxman, would require no city money and would cost $2.7 million to build. There would be a gain of 30 permanent jobs, 70 fewer than Randolph’s plan promised.

Randolph felt bolstered by a community meeting last October at which both camps made presentations. The audience seemed to favor hers. (“She brought in people who don’t live in the area,” says Gates today. “It was all staged.”)

Higginbottom asserted that if the city hesitated to subsidize their plan, he and Randolph could easily proceed without a subsidy.

In March the Planning Department announced it preferred the Gates group’s plan (without the senior housing). The department says it came down in Gates’s favor in part because Randolph’s group offered too ungrounded a vision. “Theirs was a very broad-ranging proposal, and with the exception of the Church’s it was all speculative,” says Brenda McKenzie, a deputy planning commissioner responsible for the Madison-Western corner. The subsidy also proved a detriment. “Giving $14 million for a spec development is something we try to avoid,” says McKenzie, adding that there were no more SNAP dollars to give out anyway. In addition, the Gates alliance offered what McKenzie describes as “well-baked” backing, while Randoph’s private financing looked shaky.

And then there was Randolph herself. “For her to go from her small pharmacy to a full-service one seemed a bit of a stretch,” McKenzie says. “Capacity is something you have to consider when you’re evaluating a proposal, especially when you’re trying to jump-start commercial development. With a Walgreens on that corner, other retailers might be convinced to come in. It’s a steamroller effect.”

Randolph views the city’s decision as a slap in the face. “I have been operating a pharmacy in the area for eight years,” she says, “and if you throw in what Mr. Hilliard did before me, you’re talking 35 years of service. Look, Walgreens got out after the riots. I should have had the right of first refusal on the site.” Randolph calls Gates a sellout, a figure trafficking in “self-greed.”

“My track record speaks for itself,” responds Gates, dismissing Randolph as too small a fish for this ocean. “We’ve already seen an example of what she can offer the community. You look at the joint she runs now. Why, it’s a junk heap. You don’t take your prize corner and turn it over to a mom-and-pop operation. Nobody’s going to get off the bus for that. A good drugstore is important for people on welfare and fixed income, and she also couldn’t compete with Walgreens price-wise. You’d have to be a knucklehead not to see that.”

“Who’s he to tell me what I’m capable of?” sniffs Randolph, who argues that her Beverly drugstore has prospered despite Walgreens’s competition–and in an upscale neighborhood, where customers are more mobile and cost conscious than they are on the near west side.

Higginbottom, one of the city’s most successful black developers, is confounded by Gates’s attitude. “You could say that any business is too small to take on a bigger assignment. But should I not construct a bigger building just because I’ve never done one before? That’s illogical. This is the kind of thinking that’s kept minorities out of the system. If this were so, the black community should just fold up its tent and go home.”

Lately, Randolph and the Interfaith Organizing Project have been trying to drum up last-ditch support by circulating petitions and staging demonstrations. As marchers carried placards around the Madison-Western lot on June 25, some onlookers voiced their enthusiasm for Randolph. “I grew up around here,” said Barbara Reed as she waited for the bus. “What do we need another Walgreens for? We need more black-owned businesses in the black community.”

Randolph’s prospects are fading. Gates’s Walgreens project, OK’d by Chicago’s Community Development Commission, was to have been introduced in the City Council this week. It has the endorsement of Second Ward alderman Madeline Haithcock, and it could win final approval by the end of July.

The arrival of a Walgreens will devastate Randolph’s prescription pharmacy–or so she thinks. “I can’t compete with my little place,” she says. “I’ll be totally dead.” Gates, of course, sees it differently: “A Walgreens won’t put Helen out of business. If she’s in trouble, she’s in trouble. Anyway, Walgreens will mean our neighborhood is not only on its way back but that it’s arrived.” o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Helen Randolph photo by Bruce Powell.