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Changing Chatham: Neighborhood struggles with class divide

Delores Bell Chatham CoLaundry 724 E. 83rd Street Friday April 22 2011. | John H. White~Sun-Times

Delores Bell at Chatham Coin Laundry, 724 E. 83rd Street, Friday, April 22, 2011. | John H. White~Sun-Times

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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: The next generation fights for the future.

Part I: A look back at a neighborhood in transition
Part III: Next generation fights for the future
Article Extras
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Updated: August 3, 2011 3:55PM

It used to be that, to live in Chatham, you practically had to know someone. As a mother with no husband — despite having a 9-to-5 — my chances of finding a landlord who’d rent me an apartment in one of Chatham’s immaculate three-flats were slim.

The landlords there could afford to be picky. Few of them would rent to you just because you told them you were a mom desperate to move to a neighborhood where you didn’t have to worry about gangs and guns.

That’s another thing that’s different about Chatham these days.

Looking for the new Chatham, I stopped in at the Chatham Coin Laundry on 83rd near Cottage Grove. There were plenty of single, working-class women there who live in the neighborhood.

Delores Bell was one of them. She works for United Airlines, in ground services, and moved to Chatham about two years ago, from Logan Square. For her, it was just another place to live. Bell says she didn’t know much at all about Chatham at the time. She still doesn’t.

“I don’t mingle with the neighbors,” she says. “I keep everything to myself, and I go to work.”

Louzatie Adedehin moved to a small apartment building in Chatham after getting divorced.

“It seemed to be a very nice neighborhood, and the block I moved on, it was nice and quiet,” Adedehin says. “But at night, we hear a whole lot of other things going on. People are doing things that they shouldn’t when they think nobody can see what is going on.”

Back in the day, the higher rents and home prices pretty much kept the riff-raff out. But home values in Chatham have plummeted. In 1990, the median value of a home in Chatham was $99,794. During the housing boom — from 2000 to 2009 — that rose to $182,727. By this year, though, it had sunk to just $69,750, according to the Chicago Association of Realtors.

When that happens, “The land becomes affordable by a group of folks who couldn’t have afforded it 10 or 15 years earlier,” says William A. Sampson, a sociologist at DePaul University who’s an expert on the black middle class.

Thumbing through all the news stories about shootings, stabbings, babies getting killed and other crimes, I’m shocked that so many of the perpetrators, as well as the victims, have addresses in Chatham.

This is exactly what a previous generation feared.

Twenty-five years ago, the Chicago Sun-Times ran a series called “The Chatham Story.” In one of those stories, a retired factory worker talked about the future he saw then for Chatham.

“They are coming from the ghetto,” he said. “From down in the slums. And they are not the type of people I like to live with. They don’t care about the neighborhood.”

Today, longtime Chathamites seem more convinced than ever, from what I kept hearing, that poor people moving in from somewhere else are the ones causing most of the problems. Sampson understands that fear.

“Middle-income black folks don’t want poor black people living around them,” he says. “They say, ‘Look, I’ve worked my tail off for all these years to get away from that. Now, you are going to put them down the street.’ ”

According to a recent study by the Chicago Housing Authority, as of 2010, 117 families with housing vouchers had been relocated to Chatham after being displaced by the tearing down of the city’s public housing high-rises. That number represents less than 1 percent of the available housing in Chatham. But as anyone who has ever lived next door to a house where there was gang or drug activity going on knows, it only takes one bad house to ruin a block.


Maryellen Drake’s parents moved to Chatham in 1957. She was born and raised there. For 20 years, she’s served as vice president of the Chatham Avalon Park Community Council, which has been tackling important community issues for 50 years.

Today, Drake looks around, and what she sees disgusts her.

“This is a class issue,” she says of Chatham’s troubles. “It’s not just about income. It’s about the standards that you are accustomed to . . . Barbecue grills on the front lawn. Ten and 12 people piled up on the front porch. Opening fire hydrants instead of going in the backyard and getting in the pool or under a hose.

“I can’t say they are Section 8. Can’t say they are from the projects. But I know that — by the way they behave — although they look like me, we are very different.”

Some longtime residents figure it’s up to them to teach the new arrivals the rules.

Chatham resident Berlean Burris, the wife of former U.S. Sen. Roland Burris, says she reached out to a family who, with the help of Section 8 housing aid, moved in to the house next door while the owner, an investor, tries to find a buyer for the place.

“When she first moved in, I went over there and talked to her and brought her a basket of things,” she says. “Another neighbor told me she did the same thing. She says a Section 8 resident was barbecuing in the front yard, and she went over there and said: ‘You know we don’t barbecue in the front lawn. You do it in the back.’ And they started barbecuing in the back.”


I pulled in front of a brick bungalow at the corner of 78th and Eberhart, on the same block where the Burrises once lived. I tried, though it was hard, to imagine what it must have looked like 25 years ago. Now, I saw a Jim Beam liquor bottle someone had tossed on the curb. And there were fast-food containers and other trash. It was the kind of mess I’m used to seeing in poorer neighborhoods. On the corner, there’s also a “hot-spot” police camera.

But the entryway of the home had marble flooring and a built-in wooden bench over which hung an ornate mirror. It’s a grand home. But it’s stuck in what’s now a bad location.

The 7800 block of South Eberhart that Roland and Berlean Burris moved away from 40 years ago is just a stroll away from 79th and Cottage Grove, where gang shootings are becoming common.

Given the violence, it’s little wonder that vacancies are popping up on this block and elsewhere in Chatham. Between 2000 and 2009, the percentage of vacant homes nearly doubled in Chatham. And the percentage of owner-occupied housing dropped by 5 percent.

In 1990, 10 percent of the 17,234 housing units in the neighborhood were vacant, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. In 2009, the number had grown to 13.5 perent of what were, by then, 18,017 housing units.

That’s a lot of vacancies, especially when you consider that most born-and-bred Chatham residents had never seen a boarded-up house on their block till not that long ago.


Block club president Eric Andrews sees the police camera that went up in 2009 at 78th and Eberhart as a symbol.

“I was devastated when they put up that camera,” he says. “It let me know how bad things had gotten.”

Andrews was born in the big, brick bungalow at 78th and Eberhart, across from St. Dorothy’s Catholic Church. His father died when Andrews was just a year old. Andrews’ mother, Petra Andrews, worked for the federal government for 41 years and managed to send all of her six children to private school and to college. In 2008, two weeks after she retired, her car got hit by a car driven by a drunken driver, according to the police. Petra Andrews died three months later from her injuries. The family is still waiting for the case to go to trial in Indiana.

“She had made all of us promise that we would keep this house because she said my dad and her worked extremely hard to get this property,” Eric Andrews says.

But keeping that promise has been a struggle.

Andrews, 40, who graduated from Morris Brown College, a historically black college in Atlanta, is the divorced father of two girls. Like a lot of Americans, he’s looking for full-time work. For now, he’s working at Flowers First on 75th Street.

There are three empty houses in a row on Andrews’ block. On another block nearby, where a former classmate lives, Andrews says there are about nine or 10 vacant homes. Things like that have made the area less safe, according to Andrews.

“I can recall the time my brothers would be at a party somewhere across King Drive, and they would get into mischief, and someone would call my mother to let her know what was going on,” he says. “Everyone knew everyone.”

These days, it’s harder for someone to tell who belongs on the block and who doesn’t, says Andrews, who talks about how there have been shootings on the street right outside his door.

“We were out in the yard barbecuing,” he says “At about 12 [midnight], everyone had come in the house. I had gotten out the shower and heard about five or six gunshots. I looked out the back window to see three bodies lying in the street.

“I had grown up with these guys. Two of them stayed on the next block. Their parents still stay there.”

That was 2006 — the summer Andrews was elected block club president.

“I had to make a conscious effort to know my neighbors,” he says.

Now, when strangers take up posts on the porches of vacant homes like they live there, Andrews notices.

“I come out and ask: ‘Why are you sitting at this house?’ ”

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