William Benford at Track's End. Photo Credit: AV Benford
William Benford at Track's End. Photo Credit: AV Benford

The bones of the dream of Black economic sovereignty still mark the corridors of Chatham. Lining 87th, 79th, and 75th Streets going from east to west, and State Street, King Drive, and Cottage Grove Ave heading from north to south, are buildings whose whitewashed terra cotta majesty and sheer size indicate that once they served the higher capitalistic purposes of industry or banking. Chatham was once the center of major Black-owned commercial industry in Chicago, housing the headquarters of Johnson Products Company (Ultra Sheen Hair Products)—but just as if not more importantly, Chatham was a cornerstone of Black banking in the United States. Seaway National Bank of Chicago, Independence Bank of Chicago, and a branch of the Illinois Service Federal Savings and Loan Association all once called the area home. Independence Bank of Chicago, which was founded in Chatham, in part by Johnson, was one of the nation’s largest Black-owned banks until 1995 when another corporation acquired it. Revitalization of the commercial districts along 75th and 79th Streets have brought new lifeblood and energy into the area in recent years, but 87th street—whose banks built modern Black Chicago—remains stuck in a dimly lit late nineties bubble of crumbling parking lots, reckless speeding, fried food, and trash. When George Floyd was killed earlier this summer the outpouring of pent-up rage brought the heaviest rioting the area had ever seen. Cracks in the social contract became violent fractures and after the looting and the burning, I questioned whether the area would ever be commercially viable again. But there are bright spots in the midst of it all. This is a salute to the light. (AV Benford)   

Neighborhood Captain AV Benford is a staff writer for the Weekly. @avbenford

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Best Re-Education

Red Pepper Lounge

Red Pepper Lounge. Photo Credit: AV Benford
Red Pepper Lounge. Photo Credit: AV Benford

My mother bought our townhouse on Calumet in 1986. We had been living in a condo in Hyde Park, but with a growing daughter, my mother wanted more space. The Chatham of her youth in the sixties had been idyllic, the model of Black middle-class homeownership. So when it came time for her to purchase, Chatham was a natural choice; having grown up in the adjacent area of Greater Grand Crossing and integrating Chicago Vocational High School in the sixties, she was extremely familiar with the area.     

I first came to know Red Pepper’s Masquerade Lounge because of my love for BBQ. In the eighties and nineties, Red Pepper shared a parking lot with a truck stop-turned-restaurant called The Rib Joint. They had a rib tip lunch special that if I saved up or begged I could afford to get maybe once a week. At the time, Red Pepper had a huge yellow mural painted on their sidewall that, with a sax man painted in silhouette, advertised “Live Jazz.” The place held a certain majesty. Any time of day I passed the place, folks seemed to be in good spirits. I had one of my first legal drinks at Red Pepper.

When I returned to Chicago in 2018 after living in New York for over a decade, Red Pepper became my sounding board. The same locals who were drinking at this favorite community bar when I left for good in 2006 were still watching the game and debating politics when I returned. I am the only person in my house who religiously watches football and so when I want company in bemoaning the Bears, there is always a lively, welcoming, shit-talking crowd of service and city workers here for me to commune with. 

I have never been served by a man at this bar, or a woman under thirty-five, which gives the place the hard-nosed feminine comfort of a southern speakeasy at times where everyone is Auntie or Cousin. This is not a young person’s bar, but a bar for younger folks to learn what bars are for. If I want to drag my alderman out loud for the amount of drag racing and trash littering the 87th Street commercial district, one of his friends and supporters is likely to be there for a hearty exchange. If I am looking for advice on taxes or home repair, one of the barflies can either provide the information or direct me to someone who can. And when I am looking to learn about how the area once was, when the streets were lined with the best of shops, and when this very bar wouldn’t seat Black folks, one of the old heads day drinking a two-dollar Coors can remind me of how, before the Dan Ryan came, the area was the Black Gold Coast. 

Red Pepper has a party room, a traditional bar that stocks fruity varieties of brown liquor like Peach Crown Royal, and a bar menu that seriously rivals downtown watering holes. I recommend the Grilled Shrimp—ten for sixteen dollars. (AV Benford)

Red Pepper Lounge, 428 E. 87th St. (773) 873-5700

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Best Fish (Not Fried)

Fisherman’s Island

Fisherman's Island. Photo Credit: AV Benford
Fisherman’s Island. Photo Credit: AV Benford

Hungry in Chatham and you don’t want your food fried? Your options are limited. Subways are plentiful in the neighborhood and now offer a great chopped salad option if you don’t want a sub. You could try a steamed “veggie delight” from one of the Chinese food joints. The Wrap Bar, named Best New Wraps in 2018 BoSS, also has plenty of options. But if you want seafood in one of the homes of fried fish, you have to search a bit.

Fisherman’s Island. Photo Credit: AV Benford

Fisherman’s Island is a small chain of seafood markets on the Far South Side. There you can order your platter of fresh fish and have it cooked for you on the spot for an additional one dollar fee. The crab legs here are the cheapest competently prepared crab legs that I have found in the city. They slather your seafood in your choice of seasoning like cajun or jerk and drench it in a butter-like substance called Whirl. Your meal comes in a metal catering pan that demands a newspaper spread and the cracking of shells with bare hands. Platters come with sides of red potatoes, broccoli, and corn in true crab boil style. And, get this, they take EBT (but not for phone orders, and the dollar prep fee has to be paid in cash). The line here gets longer the later in the day you go and can wrap around the building. But order, then grab a drink across the parking lot at Red Pepper. Call ahead—you might still end up in line, but it will save you some time. (AV Benford)

Fish Counter At Fisherman's Island. Photo Credit: AV Benford
Fish Counter at Fisherman’s Island. Photo Credit: AV Benford

Fisherman’s Island, 432 E. 87th St. Sunday–Thursday, 10am–9pm; Friday–Saturday, 10am–10:30pm. (773) 873-7777

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Best Hungry Man Breakfast

Track’s End

AV Benford at Track's End. Photo Credit: K.R. Simpson
AV Benford at Track’s End. Photo Credit: K.R. Simpson

Located on South Holland Road—one of those side streets that seem to pop out of nowhere, run for a few blocks, and terminate in a daydream—Track’s End is one of Chatham’s three remaining options for a proper sitdown breakfast. The kind where I can yell at WGN playing on the TV, with the paper spread in front of me, holding a cup of coffee, and debating my wife or my uncle. The restaurant, nestled between a Walmart loading dock and an Aldi, shares a building with Motel Sleepers Inc., an inn that while open to the public, mainly provides lodging options for the freight railroad workers and support staff of the Union Pacific, CRX, and Santa Fe railroads. These railroad tracks frame the neighborhood and the whistle of their trains are a distinctive feature of the audio landscape of the area. They also give this dinner its name: Track’s End. One of a few restaurants with the name scattered across the country, Track’s End and its hungry man offerings are railroad-themed. Platters have names like the Steam Engine (two eggs any style with biscuits and sausage gravy) and the Railroader (a massive four-egg omelet prepared with hashbrowns, onions, green peppers, ham, bacon, mushrooms, and your choice of two cheeses.) 

Because of COVID-19, the restaurant is carry-out only these days, but on warmer days there’s a bench out front you can sit on while you ponder life and grab a bite. (AV Benford) 

Track’s End, 8544 S. Holland Rd. Open daily, 6am–10pm. (773) 729-3300

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Read an In Memoriam for Chatham’s Mather’s—More Than a Café here

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