ALBANY PARK — In their ongoing battle against litter, the members of Albany Park Neighbors have opted to take a carrot versus stick approach with area businesses.
Said carrot, the Block Star award, was developed by APN to reward shopkeepers and restaurateurs who are doing the little things well — maintaining a clean sidewalk, providing adequate trash receptacles, presenting an inviting face to the community and earning high marks for customer service.
"Litter begets litter, so the more we can do to encourage businesses to clean up and reduce waste, the less likely residents are to litter in front of their property," said Megan Backes, the APN member who heads up the Block Star program. "Even though this program targets businesses, it is a reminder to everyone of the importance of keeping Albany Park beautiful."
Backes recently handed out the March Block Star award — based on nominations submitted by residents — to Mir Naghavi, owner of Noon-O-Kabab, a Persian restaurant at 4661 N. Kedzie Ave.
"The neighbors who walk here, they love your food but they also love coming into a place that's warm, inviting and beautiful," Backes said to Naghavi as she presented him with the official Block Star certificate.
For Naghavi, who moved to the U.S. from Iran in 1978 and opened Noon-O-Kabab in 1997 with family members, the pride that he takes in caring for his property, which he leases, is a manifestation of both his philosophical approach to life and his cultural heritage.
The latter is easier to explain.
"I want to show off, I'm Persian," said Naghavi, 67. "I open a business not to make money but to show off. All the souls ... they want to show off. You are born to show off ... go out there, have fun, explore, express."
That instinct to "show off" ranges, for Naghavi, from riding a Harley-Davidson to decorating his restaurant with elegant Persian tiles, from taking dance lessons to spiffing up Noon-O-Kabab's facade.
"Everyone was telling me, 'It's not your building, why are you spending all this money?' It's my life, and my life has to be beautiful," said Naghavi, who lives in Lincolnwood.
A long-time student and teacher of self-cognition — "I studied the art of what is" — Naghavi also believes in the notion of constant self-improvement.
"Everything that happens in your life is to develop you. It doesn't matter if you are a dishwasher or Bill Gates. You are born to be developed," he said. "When you are making the kabab or hot dog, you have to know that it is not for someone else, it is a tool for you to be developed."
How that translates into a running a family business: "We don't promote shortcuts."
At times, that means Naghavi can be found in Noon-O-Kabab's kitchen until 2 a.m. chopping vegetables for a large catering order. Other times it means teaming up with neighboring business owners to clear the streets and sidewalks of the mounds of trash that surfaced following the recent snow melt.
"My god, all the cans," he said.
"That's why we have this Block Star program" — to promote businesses that "are doing an exemplary job of keeping places clean," said Backes.
As Noon-O-Kabab has become more established in Albany Park, Naghavi has attempted to encourage newer shopkeepers to follow his lead.
Many newcomers make the mistake of following practices common in their former countries, or in focusing their attention inward rather than outward, he said.
"They are lacking the culture of understanding that this is their community. I try with the new people that are coming in, 'How can we help you to help yourself?' Just because some hair salon put those lights up, you don't have to," he said. "You have to understand the community. I learn and I give back. I can be a good example in Albany Park."
Backing up words with actions, Naghavi recently purchased the long-vacant property adjacent to Noon-O-Kabab and is preparing to turn the blighted lot into the restaurant's new home. Having just re-signed the lease on his current base of operations, he plans to transform that space into a retail outlet for Persian rugs and "exclusive" Persian items.
"Next door is going to be so beautiful," he said.