Chatham residents stand up for community in wake of violence
Like many Chatham resident, Jahmal Cole (center), shown at Nat King Cole Park, hopes to see the community area rebound. (Lenny Gilmore / RedEye / June 5, 2014)
The Coles chose Chatham, and in 2010, they had a daughter, Khammur. In just a few short years, his family changed—and so did the view of his neighborhood.
Cole said he had heard "very little" about violence in Chatham when he moved to 81st Street and Wabash Avenue in 2008. Since then, his house has been burglarized (the flatscreen TV was ripped off the wall), and just a few weeks ago, he was in bed with his wife when he heard gunfire and a man yelling for help.
When Cole tells people he lives in Chatham, "They say, 'You're crazy, Jahmal.' I get that all the time. ... Every day I wake up thinking this is a beautiful day. Then I read something [in the news about Chatham]."
Deadly shootings have been in the headlines recently for Chatham, which saw one homicide per month on average in 2013 and 2012.
In May, the community area—which has loose borders of 79th to 95th streets north to south and the Metra Electric Line to Wallace Street east to west—logged six homicides, the most killings of any community area that month.
Chatham residents and business owners told RedEye that the community, a longtime enclave for middle- and upper-class African-Americans, is down on its luck, suffering from a high unemployment rate and a sense of hopelessness that begets violence. But Chatham can be fixed, Cole and others say, it just needs new ideas to stop its downward trend.
"Chatham isn't a lost cause, by far," said Zuli Turner, who owns two businesses on 79th Street. "There is a lot of stuff going on in Chatham. These things—it's scary. It's the minority, but sometimes the aftershock of the violence, it can really just permeate down to the bone."
For nine years, Turner has been running the Young Achievers Academy, a day care center at 520 E. 79th St., which is on the border Chatham shares with Greater Grand Crossing. Last year, she opened Flecks Coffee, a cafe at 343 E. 79th St.
Turner said the coffee shop was born out of her love for the "vibe" and "fabulous energy" of Chatham, where she enjoyed to work and visit but which didn't offer basic amenities. She said she couldn't find a place to get a soup or salad or healthy snack in the community, so in April 2013, she and her mom set up the cafe.
"We said we wanted to do it in Chatham because it was lacking. Chatham residents deserve it," said Turner, who lives outside Chatham.
Turner, who is in her 30s, said she has a loyal customer base that hails from Chatham and other parts of the city. It's not hard convincing Chicagoans to travel to 79th Street, she said, despite the street's reputation for gang conflict.
But that is the image that some Chatham residents are trying to clean up. At a May 28 meeting of the 624 beat, which covers part of Chatham, Greater Grand Crossing and Avalon Park, about a dozen residents talked about how to tackle a problem they say leads to more problems: loitering.
The residents complained that loitering may be tied to drug deals or could cause arguments that lead to violence. Officer Rich Wooten told the audience there's been issues with illegal guns and conflicts.
"There's been a lot of retaliation going on in that area," Wooten said.
One day after the meeting, and just a few blocks away, a 58-year-old schoolteacher was killed in the 7900 block of South Evans Avenue in Chatham because of a possible dispute between two factions of the Gangster Disciples, the Tribune reported.
Brian Sleet, chief of staff for Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th), whose ward includes Chatham, said crime is confined to a few blocks. "The majority of Chatham is still a very safe, very positive area," he said.
Challenges for Chatham include lack of food options and transit-oriented development. The neighborhood needs a facelift because it looks the way it did in the 1950s, but the vibrant storefronts are now gone, Sleet said.
"The community is not under siege. It's really a great location. While there are some actual challenges, the majority of Chatham has a lot of good things going on and is moving in the right direction," Sleet said.
There is still work to be done. One of the roots of the violence, residents say, is a lack of jobs. Chatham's unemployment rate in 2010 was 19 percent, compared with Chicago's 11.1 percent rate, according to Census numbers.
About 25 percent of Chatham households were below the poverty level at that time, versus the city's 18.7 percent.
"It's like a loss of hope. People don't believe things can change," Cole said. "We've gotten used to the sound of helicopters flying over us at night."
Cole, who wrote a book about Chatham called "The Torch of Decency, Rekindling the Spirit of Civic Organizations," said his neighborhood suffers from a lack of positive role models. Children look up to gang members, he said.
He is trying to implement positive loitering—to stand in troubled hot spots and promote messages of peace. Residents must continue to fight for their neighborhood, with new ideas and renewed spirit, if it is going to survive, Cole said.
"Chatham is not a specific locality. It's a state of mind," Cole said. "We're not going to let nobody else dictate who we are as people."