A “Lil Positivity”: Chicago’s Chatham Community Holds On To Their Neighborhood Amid Violence And Financial Strains

Chicago Shootings Along 79th

It’s been a violent year in Chicago, but long-time residents of Chatham are still fighting to keep their neighborhood safe after the death of one of their own rocked the community.

And with the recession affecting small businesses, a once vibrant, middle-class neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side seems to be hanging on by a thread.

Via The New York Times:

The neighborhood’s best-known restaurants were failing, its crime rate was on the rise, and for the first time that anyone could remember there were foreclosures, with once tidy bungalows sitting empty and dark.

For all that, the social scientists studying Chicago neighborhoods in 2010 were betting that the middle-class enclave of Chatham, on the city’s South Side, would remain stable through the recession. It had done so for decades, while surrounded by impoverished areas. It had somehow absorbed a wave of newcomers from recently demolished housing projects. And the researchers’ data suggested that its strong identity and scores of active block groups had helped protect residents from larger economic threats and offered clues about how to preserve threatened urban communities all over the country.

Chatham should hold, barring some unforeseen cataclysm.

The cataclysm hit on May 19 of that year. That night, a group of assailants jumped Thomas Wortham IV, an off-duty police officer and Iraq war veteran, as he was leaving his parents’ house. He resisted and was shot, bleeding to death on the street where he grew up.

The entire city seemed to stop for breath, holding a memorial attended by hundreds of fellow police officers and citizens, Mayor Richard M. Daley and Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois.

“We were blindsided by this; blindsided by what happened to Tommy,” said his mother, Carolyn Wortham. “And yes, you begin to question everything.”

In Chatham, it seemed, all bets were off. Many residents began to think the unthinkable, that maybe it was time to escape the place they had done so much to build.

The community’s response to the crisis would test a theory emerging from an ambitious, nearly decade-long study of all of Chicago’s neighborhoods — that a neighborhood’s character shapes its economic future at least as much as more obvious factors like income levels and foreclosure rates.

“If Chatham could maintain its relative stability despite such great challenges,” said William Julius Wilson, a professor of sociology and social policy at Harvard and the author of the 1987 classic, “The Truly Disadvantaged,” “then I think this concept of a neighborhood effect will be a landmark contribution, helping us understand how to prevent the out-migration of citizens and strengthen neighborhoods” at risk of falling into poverty.

…Older residents, perpetually anxious that the younger generation is losing their values of tidiness and mutual respect, now had visible evidence of social erosion. They saw it in the habits of their new neighbors, many of them moving from the Robert Taylor Homes, which were torn down in the mid-2000s.

“The big change going on is that the grandparents are moving out, and some of the younger kids coming in here are picking up behaviors that you would never have seen in Chatham before,” said Worlee Glover, a salesman who runs a blog called Concerned Citizens of Chatham. “Loitering out on 79th. Walking up and down the street, eating out of a bag. Eating out on the porch. Those kinds of things.”

“Chatham and neighboring Avalon Park are both working class communities, not core ghetto areas, and both were hit hard by recession, particularly Chatham, which got hit economically and with incidents of violence.Twice in previous weeks, young men from outside the area had fired shots into the scrum around the basketball courts at Cole Park, just across the street from the Worthams’ house.

Cole Park, all picnics and playgrounds when Thomas IV was growing up, now resembled a street party on most evenings, with teenagers coming just to hang out, Mrs. Wortham said. Seniors and parents of young children stayed away.

“People came from all over the South Side to play at Cole Park for the very reason that it was a safe park,” said Thomas Wortham III, his father. “But it got to where no one was controlling it.”

Chatham has more than a hundred block groups, citizen volunteers who monitor the tidiness of neighborhood lawns, garbage, and noise, as well as organize events, Mr. Tate said.

The neighborhood has something else that many nearby areas do not: uniformly small buildings. Neat rows of one-story brick bungalows and ranch houses stand shoulder to shoulder, at attention, astride modest commercial strips, with few buildings more than three stories tall.

…The ultimate verdict, for Chatham and for the neighborhood effect, may lie in what the Worthams and people like them do in historically cohesive urban communities threatened by creeping poverty and violence. “I sure did consider leaving when Tommy was killed,” Mrs. Wortham said.

She took a deep breath. “But you know, whenever something like this happens, there’s plenty of blame to go around. People want to blame the city, the community organizations, the churches, all that. But nothing changes unless people look after their children, and the neighbors do, too. If people aren’t behaving, you say something. When I went to school, if I did something wrong, by the time I got home my mother knew about it.”

Community involvement is key in any area.

Do you think Chicago’s lack of racial integration on social, economic, and educational scales is a factor in part of the problem?

Images via AP

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