Chatham's ties that bind
Through block clubs and civic organizations, South Side neighborhood fosters pride
Chatham's trademark bungalows, Georgians and sturdy ranches line South Calumet Avenue. Block clubs help residents band together and maintain property standards. (Tom Van Dyke/Tribune)
Chatham: the lowdown
Since the 1950s, Chatham has been attracting middle-class families looking for attractive homes, parks and convenient retail in a close-knit community that values civic participation. Home prices offer enough of a range that starter families and established professionals can find what they're looking for.
Upside: This South Side community has an eclectic housing mix, from older bungalows, Tudors, Georgians, Victorians and ranches, to newer town homes and custom-built houses. There are also some apartment buildings. Several parks offer outdoor recreation and South Central Community Services supplies some indoor activities. Mather's--More than a Café provides seniors with computer access and exercise programs and serves breakfast and lunch. The community's Whitney Young Library will likely be rebuilt and expanded in the next few years. The Loop is a convenient drive from Chatham via the Dan Ryan Expressway or by several CTA buses or the Red Line train, which has a stop on 87th Street.
Downside: For decades this was a safe neighborhood, though with recent turnovers in population crime has increased. Indoor recreation and entertainment are scarce, though the Chatham Avalon Park Community Council hopes to fund a community center in the future. Parking is a challenge in the commercial areas, especially along 79th Street. Parts of the retail districts have a gritty, urban feel.
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But what has kept long-time residents like Wortham in this well-established neighborhood is the close-knit atmosphere of hard-working professionals and retirees who say they care deeply about maintaining a high quality of life.
To these residents, strong block clubs, community organizations and churches are as important as their beautiful homes, the abundance of retail and eateries, parks and good schools.
That cohesiveness is helping them weather a difficult economy and spike in crime that have challenged many urban areas.
"On my block, people watch out for one another, care about each other. We basically have a really strong sense of community," said Wortham, explaining that a monthly block club helps residents band together and maintain property standards.
Wortham, a retired Chicago Public Schools teacher, and her husband, Tom, a retired Chicago police officer, are typical of homeowners in this predominantly black community 10 miles south of the Loop. Their daughter and son are residents as well.
Many of the homes in this community date back to the early- or mid-1900s, though some newer, larger ones can be found. The area between 79th and 81st Streets from King Drive to Cottage Grove is where a good deal of Chatham's apartment buildings are located.
Home prices range from about $250,000 to $1 million, according to Dempsey Travis, a long-time resident and owner of Travis Realty in Chatham. Travis developed a handful of custom homes along 81st and 82nd Streets between Indiana and Prairie Avenues about 15 years ago. He is also a prolific writer of 37 books, some on black Chicagoans and jazz musicians.
"I think the thing that has held the prices up is the quality of the people here," said Travis, referring to the many professionals who live in the neighborhood.
Chatham has a large senior population that moved to the area in the 1950s, when the community began shifting from a mainly white population to primarily black.
Ald. Freddrenna Lyle, whose 6th ward includes Chatham, said the community's many lifelong residents is one of its endearing qualities. Lyle's mother still lives in Chatham, right around the corner from her aldermanic office.
"With so many seniors having aged in place, a lot of my constituents will walk up to me and say, 'you were in school with my son or knew my daughter.' The people know each other because so many of the people who moved here in the 50s are still here," said Lyle.
To help regenerate the community, Lyle, who lives in nearby Park Manor, was a strong supporter of the Historic Chicago Bungalow Initiative, which in 2000 began offering grants to homeowners to rehabilitate their homes. The grants fund roof repairs, insulation, electrical work, water heaters and furnaces. "We had to work hard to get young people to look at housing," said Lyle.
The community has several good elementary schools, according to Lyle, such as James Mcdade Classical School, Arthur Dixon Elementary School and Jane A. Neil Elementary School. Other elementary schools are struggling and under new leadership, Lyle said.
Several beautiful parks can be found in Chatham, including Nat King Cole Park, which offers youth programs and basketball.
Commuting downtown from this community is easy on the Dan Ryan Expressway, by CTA bus or the Red Line train
Nearby West Chatham, which is west of the Dan Ryan, is generally considered a separate neighborhood.
Though Chatham was considered safe for decades, crime—mainly robberies and thefts—have increased in recent years. Community leaders attribute the increase to a turnover in population age, income and homes, as well as the downturn in the economy.
In response, additional police officers have been assigned to the area, with a robbery and bicycle team traversing the neighborhood and foot patrol officers watching the retail districts. Commander Eddie Johnson, who oversees the 6th district, said strong communication with residents and public officials is helping monitor crime.