Chatham Residents Fight to Protect Legacy | WBEZ
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Eight Forty-Eight

Chatham Residents Fight to Protect Legacy

Violent crime is up in the Chatham neighborhood on Chicago's South Side. That's got residents there anxious, and not just because they feel unsafe. Chatham is a haven for some of the city's black middle class, a place that has long prided itself on civility and upward mobility. It's very image is at stake. Chatham residents are rolling up their sleeves to fight crime and preserve the community's idyllic legacy.

I'm on 85th and Indiana, in the heart of Chatham. The neighborhood stretches from 87th to 75th and from State Street to Cottage Grove. On this block, like many others the lawns are pristinely manicured, the homes an attractive mix of Cape Cods, Georgians and Bungalows.

Retired judges, teachers, business leaders and union workers live here alongside young professionals starting their families. Chatham boasts a black identity that residents here are keen on.

ambi: meeting

That's why 20 residents are here tonight at Whitney Young Library on King Drive for this police district beat meeting. Chatham's Beat 624 includes tavern-heavy 75th street, one of the main commercial thoroughfares in Chatham.

ambi: I had to back up down the street. Other people were doing all kind of illegal maneuvers trying to get away from these young guys shooting in the middle of the street between Langley and Evans. Insane. It doesn't make any sense.

Beneath the frustration is Chathamites wanting to uphold the character and charm of the neighborhood. White flight didn't decimate Chatham. From 1950 to 1960 it went from a white middle-class community to African-American middle class. Successful black businesses have thrived in Chatham.

Sixth District Police Commander Eddie Johnson who's here to lead the beat meeting knows this history and he's sensitive to the angst that residents feel.

JOHNSON: I was a patrolman here in the late '80s, early '90s. We had our crime issues but not to the extent of the public violence we have now.

Johnson is listening, taking notes, directing his staff and responding to residents.

ambi: If you have a crowd of people standing out there all night eventually something is going to break bad. And I go to my roll calls and I preach to my officers: we can work a little bit harder on the front end but that'll save us a lot of work on the backend. And doing that is a challenge because I just can't send them out there Gestapo-type.

Robbery and aggravated battery have seen an uptick in the last five years. The perception and reality of crime is something residents and police agree on. It's drugs, fragmenting gangs, stores illegally selling loose cigarettes, muggings outside of bars. There's also the nature of bus stops in Chatham being a transit hub on major streets, creating a lot of traffic. The poor economy doesn't help either.

These are the kinds of issues that diners at Army and Lou's are mulling over these days. The famous soul food restaurant is a social hub for Chatham residents.

ambi: excuse me, can we get some hot sauce here... 

Keith Tate is president of the Chatham Avalon Park Community Council. Tate blames a lot of the crime problems on societal issues that seep into Chatham. Despite the bastion of middle-classdom that exists here, the neighborhood is not an isolated island from urban ills.

TATE: We're going to fight to maintain that legacy. As one or two people latch on, and say, 'Yeah we can do this. We can help sweep our blocks, clean up our alleys.'

Tate also has a theory about why Chatham is slightly in peril – the population shift from Chicago Housing Authority residents.

TATE: Clearly when you take down the public housing that we had – and clearly it's not all public housing people – but if you have a number of public housing people that have a different value system, different things occur.

Tate says he is not happy about illegal barbequing on the sidewalks and people hanging out on corners by problem buildings.

Only a small percentage of former public housing residents moved to Chatham, according to records from the housing authority.

Yet Commander Johnson says these few may be having a disproportionate impact.

JOHNSON: When you have family members such as mothers, grandmothers, sisters, girlfriends that were the lessee for CHA residents. When public housing was torn down, those folks had to move somewhere. And I think a lot of them chose to move over here in these areas. Their boyfriends, brothers, sons have followed them. When we make arrests now, we routinely run the arrest history of people that we lock up. And we have found quite a few of them historically had been locked up around public housing developments. And now they're being locked up in these areas.

At the beat meeting, Commander Johnson tells residents some new initiatives are underway to deal with troublemakers.

JOHNSON: More aggressive street stops. Stopping these folks with temporary plates that aren't legitimate. The sound amplification where they're blasting music out of their vehicles. The more we engage people driving back and forth, the more we'll be able to get the guns off the street – because we know that they're toting these guns back and forth somehow. And that vehicle is usually the way they're doing it.

But it's going to be tough for the community to police its way out of this situation, according to Alderman Freddrena Lyle.

LYLE: We could have a police officer on every corner and you'd never have a community that was crime free.

Lyle says what may help keep Chatham's reputation intact is for the community's privileged to reach out to the less fortunate edging into the community.

LYLE: We ask the younger men to get involved mentoring and get into the schools and talk to these young boys.

Lyle's constituents chafe when outsiders assume an urban black community must be poor and crime ridden. Chatham, they say, is proof that isn't so. The goal for many here, is to make sure it stays that way.

INDEX CRIME INCIDENTS-Violent Index
BEATS 0623, 0624, 0631, 0632, 0633; 2005 - 2008

(Source: CLEARDW and Detective Division Homicide Database query on 29 Apr 2009.)  

2004       2005       2006       2007       2008
1,226      1,211      1,226      1,306      1,403

Music Button: Benny Golson, "Airegin", from the CD New Time New 'Tet, (Concord records) 

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