Since his eight-year-old daughter turned him on to TikTok last year, it’s been a ride for Sherman “Dilla” Thomas, aka the Urban Historian. Not only has he been producing his signature, wildly popular videos about bites of Chicago history, he’s leading Chicago neighborhood tours, fielding media requests, and trying to open a museum, all while holding down his day job at ComEd and raising eight kids. We caught up with the Auburn Gresham native, who lives just three blocks from his childhood home, to get his take on what makes the neighborhood great. Catch up with him on Instagram, Twitter, and of course TikTok at @6figga_dilla.
I’ve been here my whole life. I grew up right on 81st and Throop St. I attended John W. Cook school, which is on Bishop, went to Calumet High School, which is on 81st and May, and then went away to college at Eastern Illinois University. When we came back, I bounced around a little bit, but when it was time to buy a house, I just really wanted to anchor where I grew up. Despite what the news says, Auburn Gresham is a really great place.
Growing up it was good and bad. In the late eighties and nineties we had a real bad gang problem. So, you needed to navigate that, you know, it was very serious—you had to be aware of what block you were on. But then also there was a lot of programs left, I guess, that hadn’t necessarily been cut yet. So I played Little League baseball. I was a junior lifeguard. I eventually became a Park District lifeguard. So all that was awesome. Cook School had this program called Principal’s Scholars, and I got to take high school classes in seventh and eighth grade. So that put me on the bus, and that was also awesome. It was like a great way to learn the city and learn different neighborhoods.
Today, I don’t think the kids play outside as much as we did. My teenage boys, I always make them take a younger sibling with them when they want to go to the store or something. Because my thirteen-year-old looks like he’s sixteen, you know? I don’t want him to be misidentified as somebody’s gang target. But we also are learning to engage people too. I mean, we go on really long walks around here. When we see people, we say “hi,” and I introduce myself, I introduce my kids, and like, half-heartedly jokingly look for the toughest-looking group to say like, ‘Hey there, these are my kids. They’re not involved in anything. So you see them, you know, don’t shoot, you know what I mean?’
[People are starting to know who I am], especially here in the neighborhood. That’s cool. But the other part about it is, I’m one of the few kids that, like, grew up and didn’t get a felony, and went away to school and all that. And so even the people who got caught up in some of the neighborhood trappings are happy to see me. Even before TikTok, I was kind of like this Auburn Gresham success story, right? The guy who, you know, you see the ComEd truck outside and say hey, that type of stuff.
What’s your favorite bit of neighborhood history?
Did you know the modern-day St. Patrick’s Day parade started in Auburn Gresham? Up until the 1950s, there was no every-year parade. Sometimes there will be a parade, sometimes not, but it wasn’t a unified parade until Captain Hennessey, who was a very proud Irishman out of the Auburn Gresham police district on 84th and Green, and St. Sabina church decided that they needed a yearly St Patrick’s Day parade. And so they started it on 79th and Ashland, and they marched down 79th Street. And when Richard J. Daley found out how famous and how popular it was, he came over here and he said, if I ever become mayor, I’m going to move the parade downtown. And you know, of course he did. But it started right here.
And the great Kirby Puckett, Hall of Fame baseball player, he played at Calumet High School. And Chaka Khan, when she turned the corner to start singing she transferred to Kenwood, but she was over here for a good chunk of time. And Marsha Warfield from Night Court, is an alumnus of Calumet And there’s a guy by the name of Hitmaka, he’s a real, a very popular rap-producer. Young Berg was his former name. He’s from over here.
How is the neighborhood changing?
Auburn Gresham is the fastest-growing residential area in the city and it has the second-largest home ownership rate on the South Side. I think like, Beverly, might be the one neighbrohood that’s ahead of us. We have an amazing stock of bungalows, that have been lovingly preserved, right? Like, the same houses on the North Side cost from half a million or $700,000. But you know, they’re kind of high now, but most of the time you get them right about $200,000, which is right in, like, a middle-class price range, you know, and then they can blow the top off, add that dormer and make them bigger houses. So, it’s so much flexibility that you can do with these bungalows.
And I think the people of Auburn Gresham, we’re starting to understand our worth in the city. You know, we are a very solid tax base. If you live here, you’re not too far from the expressway, so you can get to work. And the neighbors are starting to push back on crime … and what the Auburn Gresham block clubs are starting to do, is they’re not allowing vacant houses to be boarded up. And so instead of you boarding up the vacant houses, the block clubs are starting to say, Hey, we’re going to chip in, we’ll keep that grass cut, I’ll turn my garage camera toward their door. And that way it keeps the aesthetics of the neighborhood. And I’m a person that thinks aesthetics matter, right? Once you look good, you feel good. Our blocks look good, and they’re starting to feel clean.
What’s up with this museum?
I want to open a museum here in Auburn Gresham—I want to call it the GRACE Museum of South Side History, Grace being Gresham, Roseland, Auburn, Chatham, and Englewood. And the [Greater Auburn Gresham Community Development Corporation] has been very helpful in moving that needle. Right now, there’s an abandoned church that’s a hundred years old that will be perfect. I believe the City owns it, but they’re making sure that it doesn’t have any deeds or liens. And then, because we’re in the Invest/Southwest corridor, they’re really just waiting on me to get my not-for-profit off the ground so we can start that process.
Anything else to add?
Just that here in Auburn Gresham, there is crime. I won’t say there isn’t, but if you’re minding your business, you’re not staring at people like zoo animals, you’ll, you’ll have a good time. You know, Cafe 75 just opened, Afro Joe’s Coffee just opened. And there’s always amazing things to do at St. Sabina church. So, you know, this is a great place to visit and live, and I encourage people to come and explore. (As told to Martha Bayne)
Best Coffee Shop
Afro Joe’s Coffee
On South Halsted St., a specialty coffee shop is working to preserve the culture of the South Side and support the community that remains. Afro Joe’s Coffee & Tea is more than your average coffee shop. From locally sourced art lining the walls, to a family working together to sling flavorful drinks that are quickly savored by eager crowds, the space is also one of safety. It radiates Blackness from the outdoor patio to the order counter, and acts as a refreshing hub that offers refuge for professionals looking for a space to exist outside the media’s stigmatized lens, for poets looking for a stage to root their voice, for Black mothers and fathers looking for resources to fight the city’s skewed birth mortality rates.
“My grandmother used to give me coffee in the morning when I was a kid with a lot of cream,” said Kendall Griffin, who co-owns Afro Joe’s Coffee & Tea with his wife, Aisha Griffin. “From that point on I fell in love with coffee and as I got older I always found myself traveling to specialty coffee shops, initially in the city. I complained so much about there not being a coffee shop in my community that my wife finally said, ‘Why don’t you do something about it!’”
While the space is nothing short of instagrammable, and has a wealth of indoor and outdoor seating, it’s the coffee that steals the show. The Cold Foam Mocha is an incredibly smooth and frothy drink with sweet hints of decadent chocolate notes. Or, try the Milk & Honey Iced Latte—the perfect pick-me-up with tender bits of honey wrapped amid freshly brewed beans. Both drinks pair well with menu items such as a warm, flaky Apple Cobbler Afro Puff or the Bronzeville Breakfast Sandwich.
“Every item on our menu is inspired by a dish I’ve had on our travels around the world. And there are still so many things I haven’t perfected yet, watch out for our specials board,” said Aisha.
For those looking to extend their time at Afro Joe’s, support is as simple as making a purchase from the Black-owned business or attending an upcoming event. “Support is a verb, so anything anyone does helps and is appreciated. Even if our menu isn’t your thing you can check out our art shows and birthing events. Oftentimes, we have to leave our community for any type of entertainment so our events reduce the need to travel far and allow greater support of local talent. We really are trying to create a space where there is something for everyone and really be a community hub.” (NaBeela Washington)
Afro Joe’s Coffee and Tea, 8344 S. Halsted St. (773) 234-1308. Thu-Fri 7am-3pm, Sat 8am-3pm, Sun 9am-1pm. afrojoes.com
Oooh Wee It Is
I’ve always heard that the best things in life are worth waiting for. The first time I went to Ooh Wee It Is, I called to see if I could get a take out order. The kind lady on the other line informed me that they only do dine-in (no reservations), and added that the estimated wait time was two hours. Two. Hours. I thanked her and got off the phone, and decided within myself that I wasn’t going to be eating there that day.
But then I began looking through their menu. Soul food is my weakness, and with each tap and scroll I fell further and further in love with food I hadn’t even tasted yet. I called a friend so I wouldn’t wait in line alone, and we drove to Chatham.
The restaurant is tucked into an otherwise residential neighborhood. That stood out to me because I imagined patrons of the restaurant simply walking out of their houses and having access to this place. Why does that matter? Well, a lot of Black neighborhoods are riddled with closed businesses and fast food restaurants. I was warmed to know that this restaurant was here, and clearly thriving, walking distance from whoever lives in the area.
When I walked up, I saw a girl I’d gone to elementary school with waiting in line. We greeted each other with a hug. Her parents still live around the corner from mine in our old neighborhood. I asked whether the food was worth the wait, and she assured me it is, listing menu items she’d tried. She recommended the Obama drink, among other things.
After an hour and a half, I got a call saying our table was ready. We went inside, walked through a sanitizing mist, and a host led us to our table. The table was a long high-top, and one side had chairs while the other had swings. I sat on the swing (why not?). The restaurant was whimsical and fun. Everyone was talking and having a good time. There was a cereal bar that showcased shelves of options to choose from, life-sized superheroes, and large TV screens. Our server, Damon, approached us and offered us water. He was swift and welcoming. I ordered the lobster tail with macaroni and mashed potatoes, and my friend ordered chicken tips with yams and macaroni. While we waited, another couple sat at our table, too.
The food was amazing. The lobster tail I got was fried; I’d never had a fried lobster tail before. I didn’t even know that was a thing! The macaroni and cheese had crispy corners and rich insides, while the mashed potatoes were thick and textured just like I like them. Damon, our server, was so thoughtful, he made sure to check on us to ensure we were enjoying our meal. Even when we were ordering, he was patient as my friend changed his mind a few times.
My friend and I were eating and laughing, cracking jokes about things that were happening in our lives. I’m a clown when I laugh, and as I cackled I never felt out of place, I never felt as though I was disturbing anyone. Everyone in the restaurant was eating and laughing and having a good time as well. The atmosphere was truly amazing, and genuinely worth the wait. As I ate my food and enjoyed the conversation, I understood why folks wait that long to get a table. It’s an irreplaceable experience. (Chima Ikoro)
Ooh Wee It Is, 33 E. 83rd St. (773) 933-0363. Tue–Thu 11am–9pm; Fri–Sat 11am–10pm; Sun 11am–7pm; Closed Monday.
Best South Side Storyteller
Jacoby Cochran grew up variously in Gresham, Brainerd, “the border of like Chatham and Englewood,” Pill Hill, and Chicago Heights, and just recently moved from South Shore to Hyde Park. When someone asks where he’s from he often just says “South Side,” but he said, “I usually identify most with my late grandmother’s home in Gresham, right on 87th and Sangamon.”
A writer, teacher, performer, and storyteller, Cochran was born in 1991 and went to St. Ethelreda from kindergarten through eighth grade. “My Chicago was from Stony Island to Cicero; about 95th St. to 47th,” he said. “My entire life I grew up around Black folks.” His maternal grandparents both came to Chicago from Mississippi and Louisiana as part of the Great Migration and while he remembers their deep accents and love of food and the country, he remembers his childhood as “prototypical’—playing with kids on the block, roller skating (his mom was an ace skater), and going to block parties. “I don’t even think as a child, I really knew how significant that move was, for so many Black folks to own homes, you know, right off 87th Street.”
His great-grandmother on his mother’s father’s side was a brilliant storyteller. “She was constantly teaching us about the city and our history, would sit us down and teach us about key moments in the civil rights movement. I remember being a child and learning about the story of Emmett Till, and her teaching us about the Black Panthers and Fred Hampton.” But it wasn’t until he got to high school, a self-described “very talkative, very argumentative” kid who was constantly being told to shut up, that he learned to organize his own thoughts into compelling stories when a teacher got him involved with the speech team. He went on, at Bradley University, to win eleven National Forensics League speech and debate championships.
Getting involved with the storytelling scene back in Chicago helped pull him out of a post-grad-school slump. “I felt very pessimistic, very unenergized, and storytelling helped bring me out of that. It was an opportunity to explore what my relationship to the city was and what was it like to grow up here. It helped me process some traumatic moments throughout my life and coming up in the city. And through that, I just started to get re-engaged and re-energized.” He started teaching storytelling at Cook County Jail and Literacy Chicago, and credits volunteer work like that with getting him back in the flow that led him to start posting YouTube videos under the tagline “Southside Stories,” and that eventually led to his new-this-year gig as the host of the city-news podcast City Cast Chicago.
In this new role, he said, he’s seeking to always complicate the narrative about an already–complicated city. “I always want to be in conversation with the people who are doing the work on parts of the West Side, like Austin, Pilsen, Little Village, that I’ve only experienced tangentially as part of my life. Our first, like, 120 episodes, I can’t believe the amazing people I’ve gotten to sit down and talk with, organizations that are grinding every day for the city.”
Asked to tell a story about the old neighborhood, he reaches back to St. Ethelreda, about a time when he challenged a teacher he thought was being unduly harsh. Of course he wound up getting in trouble, was banned from the eighth grade trip and the honors luncheon, and told he had ruined his chances for a high school scholarship. His mom, he recalled, “was not a big fan of this scenario.” Fast forward to 2018, he’s invited back to the school for that year’s honors luncheon, and he tells the students this story—with the very same teacher in the room.
“It was just like a really cool 180 moment for me, because, you know, I didn’t understand as a kid, but I gave thanks to those teachers because that running narrative of my mom and my teachers wanting me to control my voice so that I can be safe, I’ve come to appreciate. It’s not because of respectability politics, it’s because they knew it just takes one bad conversation with the wrong person, for things to go wrong. And so, after all of that, to have been this kid who was constantly talking back maybe making more noise than necessary, to someone now who is in audio and telling stories for a living, and getting to talk to those students and simultaneously laugh at my teacher but also let the students know that like there, there is something you hear and it’s not about respectability, it’s more about caution, and that’s been an important lesson in my life.” (Martha Bayne)
More on Jacoby Cochran at jacobycochran.com
Best Community Development Do-Over
838 W. 79th St.
Changes are coming to Auburn Gresham—but not all residents are happy with how they are being implemented.
Chicago’s Invest South/West development initiative intends to transform commercial corridors in underserved neighborhoods by matching City-owned sites with developers.
In Auburn Gresham, the Department of Planning and Development (DPD) sought development proposals for 838 W. 79th St. While other neighborhoods’ Invest South/West sites garnered multiple submissions that the DPD selected from, Auburn Gresham’s site only solicited one, for a mixed-use building with ground-floor retail and affordable housing developed by Evergreen Real Estate and the Imagine Group (Evergreen Imagine JV).
After the City announced winning proposals for each neighborhood in March—including Evergreen’s, which won by default—neighbors and corridor stakeholders who saw new rental units as antithetical to their vision of Auburn Gresham spoke out against the mixed-use building in DPD-led meetings.
“If you track the meeting cadences over the last one-plus years, you’ll see that there’s been a lot more participation over the last three or four months,” said Carlos Nelson, the CEO of the Greater Auburn-Gresham Development Corporation (GAGDC).
Evergreen Imagine JV will break ground at an intersection that is already undergoing development. Across the street, the GAGDC’s Healthy Living Hub, which will include a pharmacy, bank, restaurant, and healthcare services, is currently under construction. In one DPD meeting, a resident worried about how new development would fundamentally alter 79th St., saying “You have to account for the increased traffic jams, you guys have added in all these bike lanes so where we had two lanes [for cars] we barely have one lane.”
At other DPD meetings, some neighbors asserted that new City-led development should serve existing residents, many of whom have fought to remain part of their neighborhood, before bringing transplants in. Others said that amenities like safe public spaces, streetscape beautification, and small business incubation were higher-priority community needs. While the developer argued that increasing the number of households would catalyze development such as grocery stores in the area, neighbors saw a corridor that needed more stability before adding more people.
Other residents felt as though they were only made aware of the project after it had already been decided. Cheryl Johnson, a neighborhood resident whose consulting firm manages Special Service Area #32 on 79th St., one of the City’s fifty-three zones in which property taxes fund local initiatives to attract businesses, called the City’s decision to approve affordable housing before finding out what the corridor was lacking “tunnel vision.”
Since neighbors first started speaking up, Evergreen has altered their initial proposal to lower housing density by splitting the development into two sites—a testament to the power of community engagement. (Jonathan Dale)