Lanisha Byron steps out of Target and into the early evening on 86th Street and South Cottage Grove Avenue, laden with bags of back-to-school supplies and worry etched into her face. “All I’m saying is that if he doesn’t do his homework on time this year, there’s gonna be consequences,” she laughs. Cottage Grove is busy at this time of day—with places like the strip mall here, Walgreens down the road, and a multitude of local businesses, it’s been one of Chatham’s commercial lifelines since the early 1940s. Even along relatively quiet stretches, Byron passes by people who greet her cheerfully on the sidewalk—the smiling men outside the neighborhood mosque, mechanics taking a break outside the auto shop, and Houston Myers, her neighbor and a resident of Chatham for three years.
The neighborhood is home to many members of the middle class. Still, property values are low, and over the past decade Chatham has consistently placed around tenth in the city’s violent crime rankings, according to the Tribune’s latest crime statistics. In just the thirty days between August and September 19, twenty-nine robberies and fifteen charges of battery were reported to the police from the Chatham area. Conversation today in Cottage Grove establishments like King’s Café revolves around the president’s address regarding the violence in Ferguson. People milling around TVs talk about how those kids are like brothers and sisters, that they know too many Chatham teens whose lives have been put in danger in the same way.
But these statistics and worries aren’t what you see in the relaxed poses of the young men and women outside taverns on Cottage Grove, or from the bickering residents in front of businesses. Folks seem to exude a sense of camaraderie and neighborliness, even though Byron points out that we’re walking across gang lines as we head south. Byron works as a nursing assistant during the day and goes to computer science classes in the evening. She is one of many single mothers in a neighborhood that has over twice the number of single-mother households than the city average. But Houston Myers and other neighbors of hers help to ensure that Lanisha Byron’s son is always being taken care of. “They make me feel like family. I feel safe knowing that my neighbors will always look out for me and my son,” she says. “It’s one of the things that keeps me going.”
You see the same pattern in other businesses on Cottage Grove—Ralph Driver, owner of King’s Café on 81st Street, employs former felons and addicts in his kitchen. “People always deserve a second chance, and this country doesn’t give it to them,” he says. “So it’s gotta be my responsibility.” You see the same sentiment at the Kaaba Masjid and Moorish Temple down the road, with brothers speaking proudly of how they’ve kept peace and allowed refuge along the block. Mike (who asked that his last name not be published), the owner of the Family Food Mart on the corner, always makes sure to give out food and transit money whenever he can to those who walk into his shop and ask. Houston Myers isn’t surprised by any of this at all. “Chatham’s the jewel of the South Side,” he says. “Nothing will change that, because we love each other in this neighborhood like nobody else does. We keep each other up.”
BEST SECRET ACCESS TO FUNK AND BLUES
FireSound Records is the only establishment in what seems like an otherwise empty building on 90th Street. Though it’s boarded up, a sign proclaims that it’s open from noon to six. A quick call to the number on the sign, however, reveals a very different story. FireSound owner Gregory Pitts is definitely in business for patrons who want to buy and sell records from the extensive collection still housed in the closed store, and still serves loyal customers from the days when his store was at the famed Maxwell Street Market. He bought the building on 90th in 2011 with a desire to fulfill a dream of his: to open up a funk and blues museum catering to collectors and amateur DJs keeping the genre alive in Chicago. Unfortunately, the building itself came with multiple building code violations for which Pitts has been tirelessly going to court in recent years, living in the same building and subsisting off a salary from another job. But FireSound’s hiatus is soon to end, with Pitts predicting a successful opening of both store and museum to the public by early next year. Until then, interested buyers and sellers can call him directly and set up a time to gain access to his hidden-for-now treasures. FireSound Records, 9017 S. Cottage Grove Ave. Appointments upon request between 1pm and 3pm. (773)340-7037 (Himabindu Poroori)
BEST KEEPERS OF PAVEMENT PEACE
Masjid Kaaba and The Moorish Science Temple of America
On most weekday evenings, you can find a small group of men seated on the pavement outside the side-by-side mosque and temple on 81st, warmly greeting each person who passes them by. You can hear them planning and offering to help organize each other’s services, and trading stories that go way back into a shared history. According to Uriel, who currently holds the position of Amir at the masjid, many of the brothers in the mosque were once part of a well-known street organization. Today, they preach peace and protect the block through their position at its center. “It’s quieter at night since we came here a few years ago,” says Uriel, who calls out greetings and asks after each person who passes him by on the sidewalk. The masjid itself is associated with Imam Jamil Al Amin, a famous former Black Panther who, among other accomplishments, helped form the Midwest Coalition for Peace and spread Islam as an alternative lifestyle in Chicagoland. The mosque and Moorish temple often collaborate on fundraisers and life skill classes for members of the community, and serve as refuge to the community’s young men, who know that they can greet Uriel and other members of both organizations from across the street, and maybe even cross the street to find out more. “That’s my joy,” beams Uriel, nodding at a shy young man who just walked up to ask for a Koran, “to sit here and just see who comes by.” Masjid Kaaba and The Moorish Science Temple of America, 8008-10 S. Cottage Grove Ave. Open daily for prayer times (Himabindu Poroori)
BEST PLACE TO GET THE CRAZIEST CAKES
A Piece of Cake Bakery
This tiny joint has a vast selection of sugary goods that belies its size and has won it many fans throughout the neighborhood. Established in 1981 by sisters Gail Parker and Annette Ricks, A Piece of Cake Bakery offers everything from traditional cookies to sweet potato pies to daintily decorated cake pops and chocolate-covered strawberries. They offer seven different varieties of cake by the slice, slathered with buttercream frosting that melts in your mouth. But this bakery’s true talent lies in the extravagant decorations they have been known to do for their made-to-order cakes. Whether you need a handbag, a princess, or even a sketch or painting that you want made into reality as dessert, they will deliver. Feeling left out, but don’t want a whole cake? You can also get it by the slice—on Tuesdays, slices are only $1.50, almost half-price. A Piece of Cake Bakery, 412 E. 87th St. Tuesday-Friday, 10am-6pm; Saturday, 10am-5pm. (773)224-7200. apieceofcakeinchicago.com (Himabindu Poroori)
BEST MEAL FOR STOMACH AND SOUL
King’s Soul Food Café
I’m not a churchgoing woman, but if the Lord can serve up a lunch like King Soul Food Café does, then I am down with the Lord. The café, set back from the curb on the corner of 81st and Cottage Grove, is easy to miss, but miss it you must not. From the moment you enter, its gregarious owner, Ralph Driver, invites you into the King Café family. Ralph Jr. works in the kitchen, and a younger son, a high school senior, plans to study accounting in college, “to help with the business.” I believe too—though it has not been confirmed—that the restaurant runs on the energy produced by Driver’s innumerable grandkids, assembled and antsy in their Sunday best.
On Sunday mornings, Driver preaches formally. The space transforms, with chairs rearranged to face a high folding table that serves as a podium for a Sunday morning sermon. Driver calls it the Transforming Minds Ministry.
On every other day breakfast is served all day starting at 8am, but when hopeful customers walk in hours before Sunday’s noon opening, Driver’s son-in-law greets them with an invitation. “We’re closed, but you can get some spiritual food.” Some stick around, some pre-order lunch.
After a brief reading from the Bible, Driver—who has been preaching for about a year—delivers a rollercoaster of a sermon, his voice rising and falling and filling the sparse restaurant. He uses the names and stories of the assembled congregation (composed mostly of Driver’s extensive family, former and current employees, and customers) for emphasis, keeping the service as personal as it is the on the six other days of the week.
And though I was enthralled by the sermon that Driver delivered that morning, as the smells from the kitchen wafted in, my mind did begin to wander, to debate, to panic: What should I order?
When I asked Driver’s children and grandchildren, at least ten of whom were present for Sunday morning prayer, for the best thing on the menu, every item on the menu was recited eagerly back at me. Though these reviewers are perhaps a little biased, their reviews ring true.
King Café offers a variety of meal combos, ranging from $9.99 to $13.99, as well as breakfast. To sweeten the deal, an employee told me, you can try everything before you order it. For $10.99 lucky customers can get one entrée, corn bread, and three classic sides. Pineapple chunks give the sweet potatoes a special sweetness, the macaroni and cheese is rich enough to require sharing (though you won’t want to), and the short ribs fall off the bone, melting in your mouth like the visible and copious amounts of butter in the silky mashed potatoes. Driver’s personal recommendation is his pancakes, made perfectly fluffy thanks to a secret ingredient that he only revealed to another Weekly writer under a strict oath of secrecy.
The storefront is also home to Bess Cakes and Cookies, so called (according to an employee) because of the name’s similarity to the word “best.” It’s an appropriate name. The lemon pound cake is perfectly dense, filled with the requisite butter, and yet serves as a light finale to a morning that has fed both body and soul. Can I get an Amen? King’s Soul Food Café, 8103 S. Cottage Grove Ave. Monday-Saturday, 8am-10pm; Sunday, 12pm-9pm. (773)994-9909. Transforming Minds Ministry, Sunday, 9:30am (Bess Cohen)