After befriending the son of then-Mayor Richard M. Daley nearly two decades ago, Symon Garber built the city’s largest fleet of taxis.
No one answers the phone at the offices near McCormick Place, where his fleet of maroon-colored cars sits idle inside a fenced property he recently sold to a developer who plans to build an arena across the street for esports competitions.
A judge has ordered Garber to pay $47.6 million to settle one of many lawsuits his lenders have filed to collect the millions in loans they gave him based on the soaring prices of his taxi medallions — the embossed pieces of metal issued by the city of Chicago that confer the right to operate a cab and which are bought and sold for whatever price the market might bear.
Garber’s rise and fall was part of a takeover of the taxi industry in Chicago by out-of-town investors who caused the price of medallions to soar, then used them as collateral to get millions in loans that financed their high-flying lifestyles. All of that collapsed with the advent of ride-sharing and later the coronavirus pandemic. For most Chicagoans, the only sign of any of this was seeing fewer cabs on the streets.
Garber is among a group of immigrants from the former Soviet Union who operated taxis in New York City, then ended up dominating the market in Chicago, where they helped drive up the price of a cab medallion to $375,000 in 2012. That’s the year City Hall began allowing ride-sharing companies like Uber and Lyft, which face fewer regulations than cabs, to operate in Chicago.
Garber and other taxicab moguls saw medallion prices plummet, and they stopped repaying their loans, just as many homeowners did during the national housing crisis when they found their homes were worth less than the mortgages they had on them.
These days, a Chicago taxi medallion can be had for $25,000, a fraction of its peak cost, according to a recent sale, just a week before Christmas.