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Changing Chatham: A look back at a neighborhood in transition

'There was certaquality life we had enjoyed all my life. And we shouldn't give thup.' ~ Carolyn Wortham her resolve

"There was a certain quality of life we had enjoyed all of my life. And we shouldn't give that up." ~ Carolyn Wortham on her resolve to live in the Chatham neighborhood

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This series

DAY 1: The Changing
Chatham – a look back
at 20 years of a
neighborhood in

DAY 2: A Class DIVIDE - Chatham isn’t the exclusive community with high property values and picky landlords that it used to be.

DAY 3: J The Next Generation Fights for the Future.

Part II: Neighborhood struggles with class divide
Part III: Next generation fights for the future
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Updated: September 30, 2011 12:24AM

There are things the good Lord and good black folks just wouldn’t allow in Chatham.

No barbecuing on the front lawn.

No hanging on corners.

No loud music.

No ball-playing after dark.

No penny-pitching on sidewalks or racket on the street at all hours of the night.

And definitely, definitely no trampling the grass.

The rules in Chatham were never painted on signs. Instead, they’ve long been etched in the hearts of homeowners who live in the neighborhood on the South Side of Chicago bounded roughly by the Dan Ryan Expressway to the west, Cottage Grove Avenue on the east, 87th Street on the south and 79th Street on the north.

But the way things have gotten, these days the rules might as well not even exist. Consider:

A Chicago cop, Officer Thomas Wortham IV, got shot to death last year right in front of his parents’ house in Chatham. The police say he was attacked by robbers who wanted his new motorcycle. Three months later and a few blocks away, just outside of Chatham, another Chicago cop, Officer Michael Bailey, was killed in front of his own home.

Security cameras now peer down on some Chatham streets just like they do in traditionally crime-ridden neighborhoods on the city’s South Side and West Side.

†Serious crime is down over the long-term in Chatham, as it is in most parts of Chicago. Still, the Chicago Police Department’s Beat No. 624, which includes a slice of Chatham, is now one of the highest-crime areas in the city. For the first three months of 2010, it was the worst. This year, over the same span, it was second-worst — by just four crimes.

The number of Chathamites living in poverty is up — from 14.8 percent in 1990 to 22 percent as of 2009, according to data from the U.S. Census Bureau.

Unemployment in Chatham is up, too — from under 13 percent to nearly 18 percent in that time, with more than half of all households now headed by single women. †Faced with these problems, people are leaving. From

1990 to 2009, Chatham lost 5,751 people — 15.6 percent of its population, census data show.

Chatham today is a much different community than it was in 1986. Back then, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a series of stories called “The Chatham Story” about the “upwardly mobile blacks” who had settled in the neighborhood, building a “community of excellence” in which people kept up their homes and had a “ruthless” passion for making sure their kids got a good education.

But even then, things were beginning to change. Chatham was in transition as many of its residents, people who’d lived there much or all of their lives, got old.

Now, a quarter-century later, I went in search of the new Chatham. I wanted to see just how much, and how, Chatham has changed.

What I found reflects the impact of the city’s public housing high-rises having been torn down and also the meltdown in the housing market. It’s not just the crime. Mixed in among the well-kept homes with their manicured lawns, there are untended yards and houses left empty as a result of the tattered economy. Chatham is no longer the haven for the black middle class that it was not so long ago.

But I also found that the spirit that gave birth to Chatham — a belief that black people can successfully raise their families and maintain their community — has been passed along to a new generation of educated, hard-working people.


Carolyn Wortham was raised in the 8400 block of King Drive in the house her father built. Twenty-six years ago, she and her husband, Thomas Wortham III, moved back to that same house to raise their own family. She was a teacher, and he a Chicago Police officer.

“When I moved back here, this was the type of area where people walked the neighborhood, and men would tip their hats to you and open doors for you,” Carolyn Wortham says. “I was able to show my children the neighborhood by walking around. One of my daughters’ very favorite spots was a cookie shop on 84th and Cottage Grove. It was the best-kept secret on the South Side.”

That cookie shop would be El Lars, where the proprietor, Ella B. Ward, has been for 25 years, still making by hand the pecan cookies that have made her famous on the South Side. “You don’t see a lot of people walking up and down the street,” says Ward. “Every once in a while.”

Wortham says she can’t put her finger on when things started to change. “A lot of people were saying it was because we have new neighbors,” Wortham says. ”But my feeling about that is you can get new neighbors. There was a certain quality of life we had enjoyed all of my life. And we shouldn’t give that up.”


At one time, black people had no choice but to live together. Jim Crow didn’t care if you were a doctor or lawyer, teacher or bus driver. If you were black, you could live only in certain parts of the city.

When restrictive deed covenants fell, black people who had the money to buy their own homes moved out of the deteriorating neighborhoods along State Street known as the Black Belt and headed south.

“The South Side kept all those middle-income blacks partly because they couldn’t move to many of the south suburbs,” says William A. Sampson, a DePaul University sociologist who’s spent most of his career studying the black middle class. “They were just not accepted.“

Growing up in public housing, I didn’t know anything about Chatham’s reputation. All I knew was this: Chatham was out south, and out south was where most of us wanted to be.

I went to Chatham for the first time in the late 1960s to visit a friend. I can still see the chain rope that guarded her sparkling, emerald lawn. I remember how she

shushed us when we stepped in to the hallway of her building.

For those of us who grew up in the chaos that was public housing, Chatham was the example of how we should want to live.

I can admit now that I used to consider the people who lived in Chatham

bourgeois blacks. Maybe it was my own insecurity about being poor. But I thought they thought they were better than us because they had money.

Ald. Roderick Sawyer (6th) laughs at hearing that.

“It wasn’t that everybody was well-to-do,” says. Sawyer. “That’s not the case. Never was the case. We always had people that were struggling who lived in Chatham. There is a certain air to Chatham. I am not going to lie and say there is not.”

But why wouldn’t Chathamites hold their heads just a little higher than the folks who lived in the ghetto? After all, Chatham was filled with people who’d overcome big obstacles and achieved success. When they left home, they didn’t have to worry about a neighbor who didn’t work a lick coming in and taking their stuff.


Former U.S. Sen. Roland Burris has always lived in Chatham. He bought a bungalow on South Eberhardt when he graduated from Howard Law School in 1963. Twenty years later, he bought a red-brick cottage that once belonged to Mahalia Jackson. Tourists still drive by the house at 84th and Indiana and snap pictures. Burris works hard to keep up his property.

““I pick up pieces of paper every day,” he says. “They are still throwing those hamburger bags out the window [of cars]. I go out and pick up beer bottles, beer cans, pop cans and McDonald’s bags.”

The Burrises are the family Chathamites talk about to make the point that Chatham still has influential residents, though Burris recalls, “When we came here, people were asking, ‘Who are those young whippersnappers in that house?’ ”

“The change that I see is that many of the residents are dying out,” says his wife, Berlean Burris. “They are going in to nursing homes, and that is causing the change. A young lady down the street, she is in her mom’s house. Another young lady moved into her mom’s house. So the younger people are taking over the property from their parents. But sometimes the children aren’t prepared to take over properties that require a lot of upkeep.”

The house next door is empty.

“The Grants were here before Mahalia was here,” Burris says. “Mr. Grant would tell you how, in 1958, they shot out Mahalia’s front window.”

The couple had three boys, Burris says, but the house ended up in the hands of an investor.

“It went down,” Burris says. “The investor came in and gutted it and remodeled it, and now it’s for sale. But of course, the neighborhood vandals are coming by, taking a little piece here and a little piece there.

“There’s not much left in it unless they go get the hot water heater and the furnace. We are the policemen that watch over it.”

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