- • Best So-Guilty-It’s-Shameless Pleasure
- • Best Open Mic
- • Best Chat & Trim
- • Best Diner Offering the Opposite of its Name
- • Best Doppelgänger
If you ask Chatham resident Jahmal Cole, “Chatham is a state of mind!”
“That state of mind is black entrepreneurship, block club associations, neighborhoods groups, and things like that,” said Cole, a thirty-two-year-old nonprofit founder, activist, and author. “If you want to organize, what better place to learn than in Chatham? It’s been a place where black middle-class people lived, home ownership, manicured lawns, great bungalows—you come through here and you’re like, ‘Wow, this is a beautiful place, and I want to be a part of that.’ That’s why I moved here, because I wanted to be an activist and be a part of a social group.”
Chatham has a lot more to offer than the mostly crime-centric news headlines that pop up when you google the neighborhood: this is the old but still-beating heart of Chicago’s black middle class. Despite declines in Chatham’s population and economic fortune, it still attracts people like Cole, whose nonprofit, My Block, My Hood, My City, exposes teens to parts of the city they’ve never seen before. Yet Chatham is a community on the fence, which was the impetus for U.S. Congressman Bobby Rush’s launch of the Greater Chatham Initiative this summer. The initiative was an economic development effort led by Nedra Fears that has been a couple years in the making, following the tragic shooting death of teacher and real estate agent Bettie Howard on 79th Street in 2014.
“Kudos to the founding person who got that together,” Cole said about the initiative. “But I think that we cannot wait for city or state government to rekindle that spirit of what Chatham was. Chatham is in each of us, and it’s a state of mind…That’s our culture. That’s the collective manifestation of experiences in Chatham. That has nothing to do with politics; it has everything to do with you viewing democracy on a block level, like, ‘What am I going to do on my block to make things better?’ ” (Adeshina Emmanuel and Bea Malsky)
Best So-Guilty-It’s-Shameless Pleasure
Old-school independent doughnut shops are an endangered species in Chicago (thanks, Dunkin Donuts—and we’re not letting those artisanal, altogether new school shops off the hook either). This is why it bears repeating that crowd-pleaser and Best of the South Side 2013 alum Dat Donut has been serving its fried, hand-cut confections in Chatham since 1994. If you ask co-owner Darryl Townson, that’s not going to change anytime soon. “Chatham is what I know,” says Townson, who runs the shop with his wife Andrea. Dat Donut has the traditional assortment of glazed and jelly-filled donuts, long johns, cake donuts, and apple fritters. Nothing too overdone—exactly what hits the spot for the late night/early morning crowd (which, yes, you should count yourself a member of at least once). But here’s where things get freaky: the “Big Dat,” a sweet behemoth that is the equivalent of at least five regular-sized doughnuts. If that’s not a guilty pleasure, I don’t know what is. (Adeshina Emmanuel)
Dat Donut, 8251 S. Cottage Grove Ave. Monday–Saturday, 24/7; Sunday, 12am–5pm. (773) 723-1002. datdonut.com
Best Open Mic
The 79th Street corridor in Chatham gets a bad rap, despite shout-outs from rappers like Jay Z, Kanye West, and most frequently, of course, Chatham’s own Chance the Rapper. News reports paint a picture of gang violence and mayhem, and many longtime residents say they skirt the street, especially the heavily policed intersection of 79th and Cottage Grove. But that hasn’t stopped #ChurchOnthe9, a biweekly open mic held on that corner, which features rapping, poetry, dancing, and teach-ins. Performers have addressed topics like police brutality, gang violence, racism, homophobia, and depression, but #ChurchOnThe9 doesn’t neglect to celebrate black joy, from stories of learning how to vogue to happy songs of liberation-yet-to-come. Charles Preston, the event’s twenty-six-year-old founder, told Chicago magazine that for him church is a concept, not just a physical place. Church is where you make it, basically. He harked back to the days of slavery in explaining his inspiration. “[Slaves] 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 told Chicago magazine. “They were communing.” (Adeshina Emmanuel)
Best Chat & Trim
TNT Barber Shop
Every neighborhood needs a barbershop that’s more than just a place to get a fly cut—somewhere people can talk politics, sports, local gossip, changes in the community…you know, life. In Chatham, TNT fits the bill. It has the essential family vibe, with fathers ushering reluctant sons into barber chairs, their aversion to haircuts disappearing as soon as barbers hand them a mirror and they catch a glimpse of their new ‘do. But the folks behind the clippers also do a great job with grown men and women. They do haircuts, trims, linings, eyebrows, shampoo, and more—and get rave reviews, including from this reporter, who left the shop with one of the most crisp tapers he can remember anybody blessing his head with and a wealth of knowledge about the Chatham community from a chatty old timer. Not every neighborhood barbershop, though, is lucky enough to get a nod of recognition from out-of-towners: in April, Common and Ice Cube visited the shop to promote the latest installment of the “Barbershop” film series, Barbershop: The Next Cut. Since then, a picture of the stars with TNT barbers has been pinned to the wall, and workers still talk about the moment with pride. They also say business, which wasn’t exactly slow before, has been booming ever since. (Adeshina Emmanuel)
TNT Barber Shop, 8623 S. Cottage Grove Ave. Tuesday–Saturday, 9am–7pm. (773) 651-4500.
Best Diner Offering the Opposite of its Name
Captain’s Hard Time Dining & Josephine’s Cooking
Captain’s Hard Time Dining—also known as Captain Hard Times’s Dining—also known as Josephine’s Cooking—is an unpretentious but classy haunt that any local will proudly tell you is a neighborhood institution. Photos of famous and powerful local politicians and figures in the black community like former Mayor Harold Washington adorn the walls; the waitstaff is warm and kind (though far from blazingly fast). The food is simple and home-style with soul offerings like gravy-smothered chicken, creole-influenced dishes like shrimp creole oysters, and American fare like steak and eggs. Captain’s serves up breakfast, lunch, and dinner as well as cocktails, but people seem to come to Captain’s as much for the conversation and community as they do for the food. On our visit, we ran into various old timers and longtime locals locked in friendly debates about the changes in the neighborhood and what Chatham needs to thrive—a reassuring sight, after the reports last winter that bad business might force the restaurant to close. We also had a simple but delicious serving of pork chops, eggs, and biscuits that hit the spot—and then some. (Adeshina Emmanuel)
Captain’s Hard Time Dining & Josephine’s Cooking, 436 E. 79th St. Tuesday–Wednesday, 8am–7pm; Thursday–Saturday, 8am–10pm. (773) 487-2900.
The Blue White House
At Michigan Avenue and 84th Street, among rows of modest redbrick homes, sits a 7,900-square-foot house with sky-blue bricks imported from Italy and ivory pillars. The house bears a close resemblance to a certain former South Sider’s current abode on Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. We’re talking about Chatham’s “blue White House,” of course. It’s clearly not as massive or, well, as white as the real thing, but since the home was built in 1966 it has been a local landmark that’s impossible to miss, and impossible to resist comparing. Uninhabited for years, the house sold for $400,000 in January after its previous owner launched a $400,000 gut rehab and tried unsuccessfully to resell the house for $1 million, Chicago magazine reported. The new owners reportedly considered repainting it, but instead opted to preserve the original spirit of the house, which many a Chatham resident has said was their dream home growing up. (Adeshina Emmanuel)
The “Blue White House,” 8401 S. Michigan Ave. Exterior open to observers and daydreamers, 24/7.