In December of 2019, sisters Whitney and Diamond Cumbo opened PRIMA Lash & Beauty Bar, in south Bridgeport. At the time, they believed they were joining a vibrant community that would welcome them with open arms. But after years of targeted vandalism with no response from the police or local officials, the duo plan to join other Black business owners in the area and shutter their doors.
For Whitney Cumbo, the journey to Bridgeport started back in 2015 when she was a full-time student at Northern Illinois University. “I started in college just doing lashes. It was supposed to be a side hobby,” said Cumbo. But through word of mouth, her “side hobby” grew into something she couldn’t ignore—a real business. Deciding that a traditional 9 to 5 career wasn’t for her, Cumbo took a chance and used her rent money to become a certified lash technician. Certification in hand, she started her first business, Lash Me Whit. Back then she had to split her week in half—four days at NIU, three days at home, growing a clientele in both locations.
After graduation, she partnered with her sister to open her first brick-and-mortar store at 754 W. 35th Street. PRIMA Lash & Beauty Bar was a full-service salon, an open space for other Black beauty entrepreneurs—from lash and nail techs to hair stylists to makeup artists—who couldn’t yet afford or didn’t want their own standalone shops.
Though clients poured in from all over the city, Whitney and the other technicians working out of the Beauty Bar faced one early complication: Bridgeport wasn’t set up to support Black businesses like theirs. “[Technicians] kept on running, like, miles away to go to the beauty supply because it wasn’t no beauty supplies in Bridgeport,” said Whitney. “So that is what prompted me to open my second location.”
Two years after the Beauty Bar opened, the Cumbo sisters opened a beauty supply directly across the street from the Beauty Bar. Though it shares its sister location’s sleek, high-end aesthetic, with a flower wall almost certainly installed for photo ops, PRIMA Lash & Beauty Supply is smaller. It’s a single room with a few tables and shelves displaying various Black-owned beauty products.
Unlike the Beauty Bar, the Beauty Supply faced some early resistance. In the middle of the night in March of 2021, before renovations on the Beauty Supply were finished, a passing white man threw a large stone into the window. The cameras at the Beauty Bar across the street caught the entire incident. Shortly after the Beauty Supply’s windows were broken, Whitney showed the video to her landlord. “He said that he recognized the guy off the video,” she said. “He actually knew [him] but the police still never did anything about it.” Whitney’s landlord told the police that he knew the man but nothing came of it. He ended up fixing Whitney’s window, but, to date, neither she nor the landlord have ever been formally interviewed about the incident by the police or asked to provide the video.
The Chicago Police Department (CPD) was contacted for comment but did not provide one.
“I moved to Bridgeport because I thought it was safe, it was upscale. [But] I just feel like they’re trying to run us out,” Whitney said. Disturbed but not deterred, Whitney and Diamond opened a third location on the same block. Whitney describes that one as an upgrade on the initial location. “The first location was just like an open space beauty salon. The third location is ‘Beauty Suites,’ a more private setting for entrepreneurs and independent contractors.”
To date, all three PRIMA locations have either been vandalized or attacked. In July of 2022, someone threw a brick at the Beauty Bar’s window. Then in June of this year, one of Whitney’s stylists was entering Beauty Suites when a group of white youths began firing at her with what turned out to be BB guns. “I always contact the police when it happens but I never really get any follow-up,” said Whitney.
The Cumbo sisters aren’t the only Black business owners who’ve been targeted in Bridgeport. Cumbo said two of her close friends also opened businesses in Bridgeport, and that both of them have been vandalized as well. One of them, FAME, a Black-owned clothing boutique on Halsted, was forced to close. “He completely left Bridgeport just because of the vandalism,” Whitney said, of the owner. Neither business owner could be reached for comment.
In February of 2022, a man in a ski mask threw a sledgehammer into the window of Haus of Melanin, another Black-owned hair salon on Morgan Street. In August of that year, someone broke into the shop and stole a number of items, including backpacks and supplies gathered for a back-to-school supply drive. At the time, the owner, Brittany Matthews, noted that various backpacks were taken but the one depicting African Marvel superhero Black Panther was left behind. Both Block Club Chicago and NBC Chicago reported on those attacks.
Between January 2019 and November 2023, Bridgeport saw an average of about a dozen police reports of vandalism to small businesses each year, according to data on the Chicago Data Portal. Citywide, there were about 2,000 reports each year during that same period.
“I just think the problems need to be handled and they have not,” Whitney said. “Seem like nobody really cares, they’re kinda sweeping it under the rug.” For her, it’s a question of what value the authorities and officials in Bridgeport place on Black business owners. The police are quick to contact her, she said, when they think the cameras on her property might aid them in other investigations, like when someone was breaking into cars on the block.
“My camera caught the entire incident, and the police were in my face getting my camera footage,” she said. “So I just think, for them to think I can be an asset when things like that happen . . . they’re quick to show up. But when I voice my opinion as a young, Black female and entrepreneur, it feels like it’s not heard and it’s not fair.”
Alderperson Nicole Lee’s office was contacted for comment, but despite an initial promise to follow up, no one from the Alderperson’s office has provided a comment.
Just across Halsted from PRIMA Lash & Beauty Bar stands Sage and Shea, an African apparel and goods store owned by Dominic Moab. The store is essentially a long hallway whose very walls seem swaddled in colorful fabrics. The smell of incense hangs heavy in the air over proud Black mannequins, handmade jewelry hanging from hooks on the walls, shelves of scented body butter, and rack after rack of intricately patterned clothes.
Like the Cumbo sisters, Moab’s initial positive reception in Bridgeport quickly soured. “When I moved in, the first week, I got a lot of people from the neighborhood who came to support me,” he said. “But a few weeks later, I started seeing eggs and paint on the windows.” Initially, Moab dismissed the vandalism as a simple prank, assuming the culprits would eventually grow bored and move on. But they didn’t. “Like every other week, I would see paint or eggs.”
Moab’s store was hit multiple times a month from February 2021 until December 2022, when he was finally able to install cameras by the front door. He never caught the culprits on tape and assumes that the visible cameras scared them off. He considers himself lucky that no one broke his windows, unlike other shop owners he heard stories about, including Whitney.
It has been nearly a year since the last act of vandalism at Sage & Shea, but the scars remain. Moab’s customers can still see the blue paint staining the wall just to the right of the doorframe on their way in. For now, Moab plans to stay in Bridgeport, content that, for his shop at least, the problem seems to have ended.
Whitney Cumbo is of a different mind. “[It’s] definitely made me feel that, when I’m ready to expand, I don’t want to expand in Bridgeport anymore.” Though she believes that Bridgeport doesn’t have a lot of crime, she feels what crime there is seems targeted at Black residents and business owners. “I just don’t really want to be targeted like that. I would rather go somewhere that appreciates me, my business.”
Once the terms of the leases of her existing three properties expire, she plans to relocate them. As of yet, she hasn’t settled on a neighborhood. But she’s hopeful that, wherever she lands, she’ll be valued as an asset to the community, not an intruder.
“Just because I’m young and Black don’t mean I’m not worthy, don’t mean I don’t belong here,” she said, “I just want to be treated with respect because that’s the only thing I’ve ever shown Bridgeport.”
Miles Parker is a Black writer and filmmaker based out of Hyde Park.