As businesses close, a neighborhood comes together
“Every McDonald’s [I know of] is like this on the South Side,” Effie tells me. “It’s a meet and greet. Sometimes we go to Burger King, but…well, I don’t know why we prefer it here.” She turns to her two companions; they shrug.
The four of us—Effie, Crystal, Andrea, and I—are sitting at a table in the McDonald’s at 79th and King Drive, in Chatham. The music is quiet R&B, and unlike most McDonald’s the colors and lighting are muted. Usually the bright red seats seem lit by high-wattage, bare fluorescent bulbs.
Effie’s wearing dark sunglasses, the rectangular kind that form a little protective box around the eyes.
When I ask her for her last name, she raises her eyebrows. “Does it matter?”
“I guess not,” I say, and I ask her if she likes living in Chatham.
“I don’t like anything,” she says. “I don’t like anything or anybody.” She pauses, deadpan, then laughs.
Effie regularly attends meetings of a local community organization, the Greater Chatham Alliance (GCA). If there are extra informational pamphlets at the end of the meetings, she’ll often take them and put them on her neighbors’ doorsteps to raise awareness for the organization.
She and Crystal, two longtime Chatham residents, meet with their friend Andrea at the 79th Street McDonald’s every Sunday. When I ask how long they’ve had this tradition, it turns out that they settled on McDonald’s only after moving their weekly meeting several times in recent months. Some of their usual places have closed; others have had to cut back their hours and are no longer open on Sundays. At one local restaurant, Effie says, the food suddenly got so bad they couldn’t keep going there. She attributes that change to poor economic conditions.
“There used to be [a lot of places to meet for a meal],” Effie tells me, “but they’ve closed down so many places. [And now] some places are only open three days a week, business has gotten so bad…We don’t really have any restaurants where you can sit down and have a leisurely meal, any upscale restaurants—it’s all fast food around here.”
The neighborhood’s lack of dining options is just a symptom of what Effie and others identify as more problematic changes in Chatham. The increase in crime in recent years, for example, has left residents feeling less secure. “It used to be I could walk around at nine, ten o’clock and nobody would bother me,” Effie says. Now, she says her realtor has had to start putting bars on the lower windows of the buildings he owns.
“This neighborhood has changed drastically [in the last few years],” she tells me, “and I am not happy about it.” Many other residents, she says, feel the same way. “They’re really pissed off about what’s going on here. We are not happy.”
This sentiment—the frustration, the nostalgia for decades past—emerged in nearly all of the Chatham residents I talked to. While their feelings were mostly similar to those of Effie and Crystal, the exact nature of the change that’s caused this anger is much more difficult to pin down.
Chatham and neighboring Avalon Park have long been relatively safe, middle-class African-American communities. Both neighborhoods underwent dramatic demographic changes during the “white flight” phenomenon of the mid-twentieth century: in 1950, Chatham was less than one percent African American, but by 1960 that number had surged to nearly sixty-four percent. The 1990 census reported that ninety-nine percent of Chatham’s residents were African American, and that number has barely changed in the past twenty years.
In many other Chicago neighborhoods the flight of wealthy or middle-class white residents was accompanied by falling property values and homeownership rates, as well as a decline in average educational attainment. Chatham, however, remained a stable middle-class community throughout the dramatic demographic shifts of the fifties and sixties and the subsequent economic and social upheavals of the seventies and eighties.
Roosevelt Vonil, president of the GCA, has lived in Chatham since 1995 but says he’s been in and out of the community since 1962. “Chatham,” he assures me, “is a state of mind.” This state of mind consists in a commitment to good schools, safe streets—the “big” issues. But there’s also an emphasis on things like neat yards, well-kept houses, clean parks, and community engagement. In a recent study conducted by Harvard sociologist Robert J. Sampson, Chatham ranked second among similar neighborhoods in social cohesion, a measure of how effectively residents work together on community issues.
But the bite taken out of small businesses by the recession seems to have taken a toll on this sense of unity. “There was a time when you knew all the local business owners because they lived in the community,” Vonil tells me. “[And] when you knew Mr. Robinson because he owned the local grocery store, but he also lived right down the street from you, it was a different kind of community.” One of the symptoms of this change, Vonil thinks, has been a lack of involvement. “One of the highest voter turnouts in this city comes out of this ward,” he says, banging his fist on the table. “And so we really oughta be doing more, and we just can’t figure out why we’re not really doing more, and I think one of the reasons is people don’t really get involved.”
Many of the other residents I spoke with shared Vonil’s concerns about a recent dissolution of community bonds. In some sense, the cause of this change is mysterious: there’s been no substantial change in the availability of public space in Chatham, and the neighborhood’s two community organizations—the GCA and the Chatham Avalon Park Community Council (CAPCC)—are more active than ever. Any dearth of truly public places—libraries, parks, community centers—has in the past been mitigated by beloved neighborhood establishments that acted as de facto community centers. With the economic downturn and a recent rise in crime, however, many of these businesses have closed. In the last few years, Chatham has lost, among others, Izola’s—a fifty-year-old establishment whose owner, Izola White, was an esteemed community figure—and Army & Lou’s, a famous soul food restaurant that had been around since 1945.
According to Concerned Citizens of Chatham, a blog run by local businessman and longtime Chatham resident Worlee Glover, White held several fundraisers in 2011, but ultimately decided not to reopen the restaurant. In the case of Army & Lou’s, co-owner Goldie McDuffie told the Chicago Tribune in 2011 that “we have people no longer going out to eat as much and business has declined, and because of that we have to say farewell.”
Other places, like Mather’s More Than a Café—a coffee shop that doubles as a community center for seniors, complete with an exercise room and line dancing classes—have come in to fill the void. But Mather’s is, of course, primarily for older residents, a group that is traditionally a community’s most involved and connected demographic. In the absence of community hubs like Izola’s and Army & Lou’s, locally-owned businesses whose owners reflected and endorsed the values that make up the “Chatham state of mind,” residents seem to be feeling the neighborhood’s lack of public, non-commercial spaces for the first time.
The day I meet with Roosevelt Vonil, at a criminal record expungement seminar at Ruggles Elementary School that a few GCA members helped organize, he’s dressed casually in jeans and a T-shirt. He’s well spoken and direct, with the low, quick, gravelly voice of a radio sports announcer. Banging his fist on the table for emphasis is a habit of his.
“Traditionally,” he tells me, “this community didn’t have to worry about [things like foreclosure, crime, and struggling businesses] because it was probably the most stable, black middle-class community in the entire country.” But now, “it’s like all of a sudden we’re under attack and we haven’t quite figured out all the reasons yet.”
Some of the change, he thinks, has to do with the absorption of people from the Robert Taylor Homes, the last high-rise of which was demolished in 2007. Chatham also has a very old population—Maryellen Drake, the executive vice president of the CAPCC, told me that seniors comprise sixty percent of the Chatham community. And according to the US Census Bureau, the median age in Chatham is 38.3, far higher than the 31.7 city average.
“So what’s happening now,” Vonil says, “is that you’ve got people whose values are not necessarily the same as the values of the people who traditionally lived in the community, and it’s conflicting. A lady called me the other day and she was upset because somebody was washing their car out front, which is sort of socially unacceptable here. You go up and down Cottage Grove and you see businesses hanging manikins outside with leotard shorts on and stuff like that. That kind of stuff was not tolerated before.”
Sedrick Prude is a small business owner who grew up in Chatham but recently moved out to a house in the southern suburbs. He still has a lot of family in the area, though, and is part of a local, informal chess club of guys from Chatham and surrounding neighborhoods. The group meets and plays chess at a Burger King on 79th Street. When I meet him, there at least three or four different games going on at nearby tables, with several spectators at each one. I asked how often they meet, and he tells me, chuckling, “Every day. Chess at Burger King seven days a week.”
Prude says that he would love to have an official place for the club to meet. “We just don’t have any facilities that would allow us to play chess like Burger King does. But Burger King is actually a restaurant, so, you know, we don’t want to overstay our welcome.” He turns to his eight-year-old son, whom he’s teaching how to play chess, and taps the top of a bishop with his forefinger. “Who’s guarding me? Which piece is guarding me?”
The club has had various homes, including another Burger King on 95th Street, where they were eventually asked to leave. Prude told me he couldn’t think of any public space in Chatham that they could use. The park district charges rental fees that he felt many of the guys he plays with would be unwilling to pay. Gesturing across the street at the library, the only other significant indoor public space in Chatham, Prude says, “They wouldn’t allow us in there to play. Chess isn’t a quiet game.” He jerks his head toward a group of noisy guys at the next table—“It just gets louder and louder”—and his son makes a move. “Why go that way? Why? Why not go the other way?”
Besides frustration with not being able to find a place to host his chess club, Sedrick feels like the community isn’t as tight-knit as it used to be. Recently, he says, there’s been a rise of a “me for me and I do for myself” mentality. In the middle of a sentence, he reaches quickly across the table and pushes back a pawn his son has just moved. “Keep your pawns together. Don’t leave any isolated pawns.”
In addition to changes in the community’s mentality, the Chatham establishments that functioned as conduits of public space are beginning to disappear. Josephine Wade, or Mother Wade as she prefers to be called, is the former owner and current co-owner, with her son, of Captain’s Hard Times Diner. Her restaurant, a comfortable old-school diner that has been in its current location on 79th since 1990, is empty on a Thursday afternoon. Mother Wade is far from optimistic about the state of her business.
“Business is terrible,” she tells me. “Every year it gets worse.” Over the years, she feels, the cohesiveness of the community has loosened. “We just don’t eat our cultural dining [anymore],” she said. “And I think that we don’t know our neighbors like we used to, because we used to have a bond, and we were committed to what our surroundings were.”
Mother Wade mentors youth in the Chatham community by helping them find summer employment and encouraging them to stay in school, and she says she wishes there were more public spaces for counseling and mentorship, or just for youth to pursue positive activities. The library is overcrowded, and there isn’t a single community center in Chatham; the closest community space is the South Central Community Center, in Avalon Park on 83rd and Ellis. “It’s an overwhelmed situation,” Wade says, her voice strained. “I have a lot of pain over what’s going on in our community.”
To combat this, the CAPCC has been trying to get the funding to build a community center on some vacant lots they own at 82nd and King. The organization has been working on this project for almost twenty years.
“The community stepped forward and helped us pay for [the lots], so we own them,” explains CAPCC President Keith Tate. “And at the time we thought we would get the community to help us pay for building the community center, and when we found out it would cost five million dollars to ten million dollars, they looked and were like, ‘We don’t have that.’ ” Tate says they are currently pursuing private grants, as well as TIF funding, but haven’t gotten any definite commitments yet.
The situation is similar to Chatham’s other plan for a new community space—the proposed expansion of the Whitney M. Young, Jr. Library at 79th and King. For at least a decade, a plan has been in the works to demolish the current library (built in 1973) and build a new, expanded facility.
The lot where the new library is to be built, however, was formerly a laundromat, and enough of the cleaning chemicals had leaked out into the soil that the EPA mandated a cleanup of the site before construction could begin. 6th Ward Alderman Roderick Sawyer, who represents Chatham, told me that they now have the money for the cleanup, and that it will be done by the end of the year. He also said, however, that no money has been allocated for building the new library. Mitchell Smith, the manager of the Whitney Young branch, was not able to comment.
In separate interviews, both Roosevelt Vonil and Keith Tate referenced the closing of Martin Niemöller’s famous political poem “First They Came..” The poem ends with the line, “And there was no one left to speak for me.” Both men, and many of the other Chatham residents I spoke with, seemed to feel as though they—and the “Chatham state of mind,” to some extent—were under siege, that the people and the institutions that built the neighborhood they grew up in were being forced out by insidious urban forces well known by now: violence, foreclosure, theft, unemployment, struggling schools.
“This place,” Sedrick Prude told me flatly, at the table in Burger King, “it steady changes.” He turned back to his son. “You’ve got the advantage,” he said. “Now make a trade, those are the rules. Find a way to make a trade.”
As Tate admits, “We have lost some of our businesses—like Izola’s, which was a well-known, fifty-year-old restaurant. We lost Army & Lou’s, another well-known [restaurant], and they’ve gotta be replaced. But we also now have Brown Sugar Bakery, on 75th Street, and we have Five Loaves on 75th Street. So as businesses go, we gotta be able to put new businesses in their spots.”
There is no doubt that Chatham is changing, and that it will continue to change. Certainly the neighborhood’s traditional values and institutions have taken a beating as a result; even the most solid of structures come to show the stress of time, begin to crumble and sag at the edges. As Keith Tate says, however, “Anything can be renovated, if you’re willing to spend the money, the time, the energy to renovate it. And I think that’s all we’re asking.”