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6 People We Met In Chatham Tell Us How The Historic Neighborhood Is Changing

6 People We Met In Chatham Tell Us How The Historic Neighborhood Is Changing


Neat lawns and tidy bungalows line quiet residential streets in Chatham, a South Side neighborhood that, in some areas, still looks the part of a black middle class utopia.

Chatham represents the old bastion of black economic mobility in Chicago, where working class folk, political movers and shakers, business people and other professionals have formed the foundation of the tight-knit community since the 1950s. Yet the signs of decline are impossible to ignore, especially on once-thriving business corridors like Cottage Grove and 79th Street that are rife with empty storefronts and the types of businesses you’d expect to see in troubled urban communities: liquor stores, dollar stores, fast food joints, hair salons and payday lenders.

But if Chatham is anything, it is resilient. Despite its ailing local economy and high crime rate, despite the scores of residents and businesses that fled the neighborhood in recent years, the community still has a way of keeping people there—even luring new residents and entrepreneurs who see opportunity where others only see neglect. Though Chatham experiences more crime than some Chicago neighborhoods, it is not one of the city's most-violent communities. Between July 19 and Aug. 18, Chatham saw reports of at least 61 violent crimes, including 2 homicides, and just over 220 property and quality-of-life crimes such as thefts and property damages, according to a Tribune analysis of the city's data portal, making Chatham the 13th-most violent community in Chicago, tied with Chicago Lawn, in the past month.

City Bureau visited Chatham this month to talk to area business owners about the challenges and triumphs of doing business in Chatham, the forces driving change in the community, what Chatham needs to thrive and more. The first part of City Bureau’s Chatham series can be found at Chicago Magazine.

Darryl Townson, illustration by Daniel Rowell/Chicagoist

Darryl Townson, illustration by Daniel Rowell/Chicagoist

Darryl Townson
Co-owner of Dat Donut and Uncle John’s Barbecue // 63 years old

On a blistering Thursday afternoon early in July, a slow but steady trickle of customers flock to Dat Donut, 8251 N. Cottage Grove, eyeing the glazed confections behind the counter— including the famous “Dat,” a frosted behemoth bigger than a baby’s head. It’s a diverse slice of the South Side: regal middle-aged women in business suits and heels, testy young parents pushing strollers and marshaling children along, unhurried elders sporting fanny packs and visors, dreadlocked young men whose pants hang just below the butt, burly bus drivers making a pit stop before continuing their route.

Co-owner Darryl Townson has spent most of the day sequestered in his office, cutting checks for his employees at the famous doughnut shop, which he owns with his wife Andrea, along with a rib joint in the same building.

Dat Donut opened about 22 years ago in the building that once housed the popular Leon’s Barbecue. Townson started working for Leon’s founder, Leon Finney Sr., when he was in high school. In 1994 Townson opened Dat Donut in the same space. Finney died in 2008, and Leon’s shuttered two years after that. But in 2010 Townson bought the building and later opened his own rib joint to compliment the doughnut shop.

“Chatham is what I know,” says Townson, who’s worked in Chatham since he was 15. “Chatham is one of your middle-class neighborhoods within the city of Chicago on the South Side that [had] people [with] very close-knit families, people took care of their homes, people tried to stay stable in business based on the economy that was here.”

But Townson says he noticed a change in the area during the 1990s as newcomers moved in after public housing projects like the Robert Taylor Homes were demolished and many of their residents dispersed around the city. The shift brought “a little bit of everything,” he notes, but some of it was bad, namely gang affiliations and crime.

“We do have an influx of young people that don’t seem to be going to school, don’t seem like they are looking for employment,” Townson says. “You do have the seniors that have stayed, but everybody now is getting… pretty scared to go out and do anything in the daytime because of what's going on in the streets.”

But that doesn’t mean Townson wants to take his business elsewhere.

“I have no reason to look anyplace else,” Townson said. “We definitely have the support of the community business-wise, and we don’t just serve the Chatham area, people come from all over for Dat Donut...I’m not looking to leave.”

Michael Muhammad, illustration by Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Michael Muhammad, illustration by Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

 Michael Muhammad
Co-owner of the Uniform Store // 39 years old

Michael Muhammad is one of four owners of the Uniform store, a small store at the corner of 79th street and Eberhart Avenue. He says he has witnessed scores of Chatham small businesses fail in the past five years.

“It is a revolving door for a lot of businesses, because small business owners start off with a lot of hope," he says, but don't succeed due to a lack of support. “Many young women have been opening up boutiques. But once their boutique opens, they do not have a lot of people walking into their stores.”

In comparison, he says, “When Family Dollar opened, they had a lot of people standing outside waiting on them to open, and the same thing with Food-4-Less and many other commercial businesses. But for us small black businesses or independent businesses, we have to work for our customers.”

Muhammad wants black people to come together and pool resources to take advantage of business opportunities in the area, something he says “our Mexican, Vietnamese, and our Arab brothers and sisters” do when they start businesses.

“They leave their communities and come to a place that they know the fabric of the economic cloth is dead, they know we are not producing the way we should,” Muhammad says. “They’re unified and they benefit from our disunity. They come to our neighborhoods and take advantage of a business opportunity. We have to unify, that’s the only way.”

Artemus Gaye, illustration by Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Artemus Gaye, illustration by Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Artemus Gaye
President and founder of The Prince Ibrahima and Isabella Freedom Foundation // 40 years old

About five years ago, Liberian native Artemus Gaye moved from an apartment in Rogers Park on the Far North Side to Chatham.

“I came here on the South Side mainly because of space,” says Gaye, who runs a shipping business out of his home. “I thought, ‘Educated black folks, why should they go to the suburbs?’ ... Could I find an area within the South Side that I can be comfortable and build as a community?”

Gaye lives in a five-room bungalow with his parents and daughter just west of Cottage Grove, on a quiet block where signs at each corner command passersby to keep their voices down. For security he keeps a pair of pit bulls in his backyard, which also houses a chicken coop that provides his family with a daily serving of fresh eggs.

Gaye, a scholar who holds a Ph.D. in Christian ethics from Loyola University Chicago, is a descendant of a West African prince named Abdul Rahman Ibrahima who endured 40 years of slavery in the U.S. before he was freed. Gaye’s home-based shipping business, named after the prince and his wife Isabella, caters to West Africans in Chicago who want to send things—“food, medicine, clothes, cars, anything”—back home.

Gaye has seen Chatham residents forced to leave their childhood homes when they can’t afford to maintain the houses their parents bought. Gaye, on the other hand, says he wants to hang around to make the community a better place. He’s looking to work on neighborhood projects with community groups and churches. Among those ideas: transforming a vacant lot on King Drive given to him by the city into a multi-purpose space for indoor soccer, dance classes and gardening.

“Until there's ownership from the grassroots, we won't have a better sense of security,” Gaye says. “The security here is not just about policing, but about the economic and the social; it's for our cultural and spiritual benefit.”

Gaye says he has tried to encourage fellow Africans living on the North Side to see Chatham as an opportunity to establish an African immigrant community by buying property, homes and businesses in the area. He’s encountered resistance.

“Africans for the most part have this fear of the city—of the South Side,” Gaye says. “I'm trying to break that, that's why I'm encouraging them! We're all concentrated in the Rogers Park area, for the most part, and Uptown. So you have a large Nigerian population, Ghanaian population, there. And then we have most people who tend to get very successful move to the suburbs.”

Gaye is resolute that Africans should be congregating in Chicago’s black middle-class neighborhoods.

“This is historic, to be in this kind of area,” Gaye says. “To be educated and invest time in our community—we can do that.”

Ebony Mosley, illustration by Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Ebony Mosley, illustration by Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Ebony Mosley
Owner of The World Is Your's Childcare & Learning Center // 38 years old

The facade of Ebony Mosley’s daycare is a flash of color, a broad yellow awning with a red picket fence and several cheery painted cartoon animals. Mosley has operated the center at 8026 S. Cottage Grove Ave. for the last decade, teaching and tending kids ages two to twelve from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m.

Mosley attends the nearby New Life Covenant Church on 78th Street, but lives in the suburbs and has no plans to move to Chatham. She notes families moving into the neighborhood and quickly deciding to leave, and hopes to see new programs to counteract a dearth of job opportunities for Chatham’s teenagers.

“We need activities,” she says. “There's too much hanging out on 79th, that's why there's always something happening. They need more youth programs or youth centers, somewhere that these children can go to keep them from being outside getting hurt.”

She adds, “If more businesses were opening, there'd be better opportunities for them to find employment and help them stay off the streets.”

Mosley has an intimate window into others’ family lives, a responsibility she takes seriously. Because life can be rough for kids at home, she says, “I make sure they feel like they have somewhere to go or some kind of safe environment that they can come to.”

“There's a lot that I've seen in the last ten years that I've been here,” Mosley says. “Different things with children and their families, parents, mothers, boyfriends, husbands. Domestic violence, all sorts of different things. I'm always here to listen to them, be an ear, comb some of the kids' hair, I cut the boys' [hair], I buy them coats and clothes and hats and gloves, scarves, shoes—whatever I can do to help them, I just do it.

Stephen Kinison, illustration via Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Stephen Kinison, illustration via Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Stephen Kinison
Co-owner of CombatZone Fitness // 40 years old

Stephen Kinison is a personal trainer who lives in Edgewater and owns a martial arts studio in Chatham, right across the street from Dat Donut. He says the studio at has 200 members from 5-year-olds to people in their early 70s.

“We have an actual interaction and a relationship, and get a chance to see the children and the adults develop long term,” Kinison says, describing his relationship with the Chatham community. “You know, building a family and not just a consumer...I feel like I’m interacting and not just selling something; I’m giving something back.

He says he was aware of stigma the area faces, but given that there are businesses on Cottage Grove, he figured somebody was making money and maybe he could, too.

“I was kind of skeptical at first but now I can see it,” Kinison says. “It’s good people here and they love to see this [business]...You don’t have to go outside your community to find what you’re looking for. I have faith that we will continue to grow, and that’s pretty good for an area like this.

In an area rife with liquor stores, unhealthy food and crime, Kinison says a business like his is much-needed in Chatham.

“I feel like to be successful in martial art you have to have that balanced [way] of thinking right, eating right,” Kinison says.

Kinison says struggling property values and concerns over crime have convinced many homeowners that they should cash out “while they can and...move somewhere they feel is on the uprise.”

“I think this area is right on the fence,” Kinison says. “With a little bit more of community support it can be that middle-class area.”

Kinison emphasized that the fact that he's a black business owner matters to people in the area.

"I think it does, I think the neighborhood appreciated [that,]” Kinison says. “I got a lot of positive support from parents, children, and other business owners. I feel like they are surprised to see it.”

Anthony Hamdan, illustration by Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Anthony Hamdan, illustration by Dan Rowell/Chicagoist

Anthony Hamdan
Co-owner of ABC Cellular // 46 years old

Anthony Hamdan commutes from suburban Burbank to manage one of his brother Omar’s three stores, a dollar store and two cell phone stores in Chatham. He’s been working in neighborhood for 16 years. Hamdan manages ABC Cellular, at 804 E. 79th St., and he says Chatham is a good community that lacks safety.

“We hear it from customers: they stole my phone, and they stuck me up with a gun,” Hamdan says. “A lot of them come in because they got their phones stolen and you hear that almost every day.”

He remembers a time when there used to be more police in the area, but says their presence has decreased. “They used to walk [around] a lot and come in here, but lately they cut them down,” says Hamdan.

Hamdan’s store has not experienced any crime in Chatham, but he says that a few years ago his brother Omar’s dollar store’s air conditioner compressor was stolen and the same happened to the restaurant next door. “They took the whole compressor,” he says.

Hamdan says he’s not involved in local politics in Chatham, but two weeks ago his brother went to the community police meeting. As for his personal safety, he says he feels safe walking around in the community because he has been working in Chatham since 2000: “I’ve been here for a long time. I know everybody, almost.”

This piece was produced in collaboration with Chicagoist
About the illustrator: Daniel Rowell is a writer and illustrator based in Chicago. You can follow him @danieljrowell.

At Church on the 9, A Spotlight on Black Joy

At Church on the 9, A Spotlight on Black Joy


As the sun sets on August 8, a crowd begins to gather outside on a corner in Chatham.

At first, it’s five people. Then some come in groups off the No. 79 bus; others wander up alone to ask what’s happening. Soon, there are 40 people standing in a circle, watching one man in the middle.

Charles Preston, 26, is a slender black man in a white button-up shirt and brightly patterned pants with a camera around his neck. He’s reading a poem about the exploitation of black suffering as a spectacle for mass consumption. 

It is traumatic
that our deaths become viral
we need black power
or in madness we spiral
but black joy
I’mma speak into existence
I’mma give it back to my niggas, I’ll replenish
Fuck all these people using our plight as a gimmick
that goes for rappers, movie stars, and politicians
I believe removing glass ceilings can be healing
I believe that showing love makes a huge difference
I believe nothing comes before black women
and I believe we gonna only make it if we’re willing

The crowd snaps and claps their appreciation, and Preston motions for the next artist to step up. As he rejoins the circle, he catches the eye of a few newcomers and points to a crate of fruit on the ground—a humble welcome to #ChurchOnThe9.

The biweekly outdoor open mic is named for its location on the southwest corner of 79th and Cottage Grove. People have rapped, danced, read poetry, and led teach-ins on this corner every other Monday since June 13. Preston, the founder and organizer, says he chose the location to bring attention to the lack of resources for South Side artists, who have few public assembly spots and meager access to economic opportunity.

“I’m frustrated with the segregation of resources in Chicago,” says Preston, who is active in the Save CSU campaign and a former communications chair for activist group BYP100. “It’s no secret that in American history, black deaths are public spectacles… But what’s not a spectacle is our joy. That’s why I love to amplify resistance.”

For Preston, “church” is as much a concept as a physical place. In the days of slavery, he says, slaves would convene in secret against their masters’ wishes. “They would ditch their plantations and go into a log cabin or a section in the woods, and they all would stand together and sing songs, talk, and read the Bible,” he says. “They were communing.”

But beyond performances, a big part of the open mic is reclaiming the corner.

“I wanted it to be outside, because there’s this narrative that people can’t go outside because of the violence,” Preston says. “There’s also this stigma against black people being on the corner.”

The need for such a space in Chatham, once a symbol of black middle-class prosperity and economic mobility, shows just how much the neighborhood has changed since its heyday in the ’50s and ’60s. Nowadays, the South Side neighborhood is getting more and more name recognition from its native son, Chance the Rapper, who raps about sunny memories of his childhood there as well as the violence that has crept onto its streets. (In “Summer Friends,” a track on his latest mixtape, he sings, “79, 79, 79 hey,” referencing the street that’s become synonymous with the neighborhood—that riff is sampled in Church on the 9 videos.) Much of the crime clusters around 79th Street and Cottage Grove, the two main aisles of commerce.

There have been six gatherings for Church on the 9 at that intersection this summer, and while the number of performers and audience members has been growing, it hasn’t been free of tense moments.

This month, Preston posted a video on Twitter with the caption: “What happens when you host a community open mic at one of the most policed intersections in Chicago.”

The video starts by focusing on a man, who calls himself Brother First, talking about “the sick” people he sees on the street, and how the audience has a “prescription” to help them.

An ambulance in the background sounds its horn—a blip, which Brother First ignores for a moment. Then another, and a voice on a bullhorn saying, “cut the black-on-black fight, now.”

Brother First and Preston exchange a wry glance. “Which is why I’m glad you’re bringing this out here, bro,” Brother First says.

Apparently, two men on the street had begun fighting.

“I guess black lives don’t matter, huh,” shouts someone on a bullhorn. The camera jumps off Brother First and onto the fight, and in a split second, police officers are pulling the men apart and forcing one to the ground.

“One woman was hollering out from across the street at the cops, ‘Don’t kill him!’” Preston recalls. The officers eventually let the men go without charges, and the open mic crowd reassembled, shaken by how quickly the situation had escalated. “Some people looked kind of flustered, because of witnessing the police do what they did,” Preston says later. “But I think it showed people why we need to be there. That’s what the corner sees, you know.”

What the corner sees is often the topic of performances at Church on the 9. On August 8, artists tackle prison abolition, police brutality, the water in Flint, gang violence, homophobia, racism, and depression. The words are heavy and the descriptions grim, but the dark mood is broken by frequent bursts of lightness.

Charles Preston (right) speaks to a group at Church on the 9 (Photo by Christopher ThoughtPoet Brown) 

Charles Preston (right) speaks to a group at Church on the 9 (Photo by Christopher ThoughtPoet Brown) 

The group sings “Happy Birthday” to a woman in a tiara who ends up rapping. Tweak the RBG—radical black girl—gets the crowd clapping for a chant: “One day / we will / be free.”

Also known as Jasamine Harris, the 22-year-old Tweak has been at Church on the 9 since the beginning. She grew up down the street and started rapping at six. “I used to be on 79th literally every day all day, rapping to the guys on the block,” she says. “Growing up, my platform was the block. There wasn’t resources in the hood where I was at—nothing to record music, write music, nothing of that nature. So all I had was beats and writing, and rapping for the people on the block. Rapping they ears off.”

Just as another performer, Benjamin Hart, begins a story about watching a Marlon Riggs film and learning to vogue (“Essex Hemphill was reading a poem. I did not know I had stopped myself from moving this way"), dancing as he speaks, a white-haired woman in a red blazer and pearls runs up to the group—afraid, frantic.

“Excuse me, excuse me,” she cries. “A man is following me and I’m scared of him.”

Once she has the circle’s attention she takes a moment to gather herself. She explains that a man wearing a red shirt had tried to push her against a wall, and that he’s attacked her before.

The crowd pauses for a beat, unsure of what to do. Some look at Preston, waiting for an indication of how to respond. Some step forward to try to see the attacker. Those closest to the woman move toward her, protectively enclosing her in the circle.

Then Brother First whispers with Preston for a moment and puts his hand on the woman’s shoulder. He assures her that he’ll talk to the man and make sure she’s safe. He walks her home as Church on the 9 reassembles itself.

“That’s real. Some of our elders can’t even walk home,” says Preston. Then, to Hart: “But you go ahead now, brother.”

Later, he reflects, “It’s crazy to me how that’s the reality black women live through, walking our blocks. But I do feel good that she called on us to come and stop it. It shows you the type of community we’re trying to build—that she felt enough confidence to come to us to do something.”

This report was published in collaboration with Chicago magazine.