Fires damage Greektown, Bronzeville
March 5, 2010

The February fire that destroyed Costa’s and three other businesses also caused severe damage to the Athens Grocery. Co-owners Bill and Jim Siannis are uncertain of its future. (Photo by Troy T Heinzeroth)

By Dan Kolen

Born in a small village in Greece, Bill Siannas came to the U.S. in the 1960s with the dream of becoming a successful businessperson. His dream came true 35 years ago when he and his younger brother, Jim, became the proud co-owners of Athens Grocery in Greektown, one of the few Greek grocery stores in the Midwest.

So when Siannas was driving in to work on Feb. 1 and heard a morning radio report that a fire the night before had ravaged his store, he was “devastated and heartbroken,” he said.

Besides the grocery, the fire ripped through Costa’s Greek Dining & Bar, Greektown Gift and Music Shop, and the Pan Hellenic Pastry Shop. Chicago Fire Department officials suspect a deep fryer in Costa’s caused the fire. Inspectors have not determined the extent of the blaze’s monetary damage, but Siannas knows his business will be out of commission for some time.

“We’ll try to get over it,” he said. “There was a lot of water damage. Everything was full of water, and half of the roof went down because they had to break in to see if there was any water.”

Although 170 firefighters worked for more than three hours with eight hoses and 35 fire trucks, the fire left all four businesses in ruins. “We wanted to get out of the business a different way,” Siannas said, indicating that he and his brother are nearing retirement and had been searching for new ownership. “We wanted to keep it Greek and sell it. If we go out now, there’s nothing we can do. We have no control.”

Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. of the 27th Ward indicated soon after the fire that his plan for the community includes keeping the businesses Greek and rebuilding everything with tax increment financing money.

So far, the only activity inside the four businesses’ walls has been looting. “Earlier this week, someone got caught trying to steal beer,” Siannis said. “They had ten cases in the car before the cops stopped them. The previous week, “some one broke in and stole liquor and cigarettes,” he added.

The Siannases had moved the grocery store in 1979 from its former location in “Old Greektown” at 811 W. Jackson St. to its current location in “New Greektown” at 324 S. Halsted St. At that time, New Greektown was a run-down neighborhood that saw frequent thieving and other criminal activity. Over the years, the neighborhood experienced a major transformation.

“We cleaned it up, cleaned up the streets, fixed the buildings up,” Siannas said. “It’s safe now.”

Despite the fire, he feels his experience of coming to America and owning his business for more than three decades is a success story. “I had what every man dreams to have in his life,” Siannas said. “I feel I did succeed. We had a business, two kids… I am very happy” with life, he said.

Bronzeville fire damages businesses

Six miles from Greektown and three days earlier, Bronzeville suffered a devastating fire as well.

On Jan. 28, a blaze in the 4600 block of south King Drive kept more than 100 firefighters at work for eight hours in the cold night. No lives were lost in either the Bronzeville or Greektown fire.

The damage in Bronzeville knocked out five establishments: the Blu 47 restaurant, Steelelife Gallery, Spoken Word Café, the Consulate of Jamaica, and Uncle Joe’s Jerk Chicken’s newest location, which was under construction. “The fire is a huge loss and major inconvenience to Bronzeville residents and visitors,” said Bronzeville Area Residents’ and Commerce Council president Mel Monroe. “The businesses that were affected were truly emerging. Several businesses will reopen sometime this year.”

Monroe indicated Blu 47 will reopen first, sometime this summer. It was one of the area’s few upscale restaurants and had become a community gathering place for professionals.

Alderman Pat Dowell of the 3rd Ward expressed concern for those affected, even coming to the scene of the fire while it was in progress. Like Burnett, she said TIF funds will help. She also expressed hope for the future and the businesses involved, saying, “I don’t think this is an ‘oh, ain’t it awful’ story. I think we have to keep a positive focus and say we need to rebuild. The Bronzeville community is a resilient community. We will emerge from this.”

At a recent meeting, Dowell brought the affected business owners together and told them how they can use City services, State financial services, and other resources to help them get back on their feet.

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