This summer, Nedra Fears moved from Atlanta to Chicago’s South Side at a time when affluent blacks are more likely to do the opposite. Sixty-year-old Fears is living at her mom’s house in Chatham and looking for a home to buy in the historic black community, whose fortunes have declined in the past several decades.
The serene street lined with bungalows and tidy lawns where Fears grew up alludes to Chatham’s reputation since the 1950s as a bastion of black middle-class excellence. Black-owned mom-and-pop shops dominated nearby South Cottage Grove Avenue and West 79th Street. But economic decline set in about a decade after the area’s 1970s heyday, and today those business corridors are marred by empty storefronts and fading facades. These retail strips are critical to a revitalization effort Fears has returned to lead.
“We need to be the change we want to see, but how do you do that?” said Fears, executive director of the Greater Chatham Initiative, a collaboration between elected officials, the private sector, and community residents meant to reverse Chatham’s economic decline. “How do you self-invest and make that change happen, and how do you galvanize others to make that change?”
The Greater Chatham Initiative (GCI), when it rolls out this fall, will aim to revive the old heart of Chicago’s black middle class by focusing on wooing more businesses to Chatham and nearby communities, bolstering existing establishments and improving retail strips, Fears said. Part of the problem is excess retail capacity—vacancy rates commonly top out at twenty to thirty percent—and Fears said some of the buildings could become co-working spaces or be rezoned for apartments. A GCI collaboration with the Chatham Business Association, the office of 6th Ward Alderman Roderick Sawyer, and other community development groups will look to rebrand the 79th St. retail corridor from Cottage Grove to King Drive, Fears said.
But even now, before the revitalization effort kicks in, business still operate each day on Cottage Grove and 79th. Their experience shows there is opportunity in the neighborhood—despite years of neglect and stigma—as well as major hurdles that the community and Fears’s GCI programs must confront before bringing about a true renaissance.
On a sweltering summer afternoon in a South Side martial arts gym, a tween dutifully strikes a punching bag with his wooden staff. Watching from the sideline is Steven Kinison, a cheerful but stern personal trainer with a clean-shaven head and mustache who co-owns Combatzone, on 82nd and Cottage Grove.
The Edgewater resident admits the loitering and news of shootings on Cottage Grove gave him pause two years ago when he and his business partner opened the gym. But Kinison says he saw more businesses than he anticipated in the area, and that there was a lack of businesses like his focused on fitness. He knew he’d have an edge.
“I was kind of skeptical at first but now I can see it,” Kinison said, touting the gym’s 200 members as proof he made the right call. “I have faith that we will continue to grow.”
Businesses like Combatzone, local favorites like the famous Dat Donut, and community staples like the sixty-year-old, family-owned Tailorite Cleaners are all bright spots on Cottage Grove. On the 79th Street corridor, Captain’s Hard Time restaurant and Mather LifeWays café are other popular destinations. But this diverse variety of establishments is an outlier on the two retail strips.
Of the 208 licensed businesses between both the Cottage and 79th commercial stretches, six types of businesses account for more than half, according to a City Bureau analysis of city data. About one in five businesses either do or sell hair and haircare products, including barber shops and beauty supply stores. Nearly twenty stores are fashion apparel retailers, and fourteen are fast food joints. These three categories encompass the goods and services people tend to buy locally, rather than look outside the community for, according to Lauren Nolan, an economic development planner at the Voorhees Center for Neighborhood & Community Improvement.
Business owners said public safety is one of the biggest challenges to economic growth on the corridors, and that creating an environment where shoppers, including local professionals, feel comfortable walking the stretch would help their bottom lines. This summer, Kinison said he saw how a visible police presence discourages bad behavior on the street, even if that hasn’t been a panacea.
Some business owners, including Dat Donut co-owner Darryl Townson, said that addressing unemployment in the area could make a difference by deterring people from using crime to support themselves.
Fears said she wants to focus on reintegrating people whose criminal records make finding work tough. To that end, GCI is partnering with the Chicago Cook Workforce Partnership to open a new workforce center, at a location to be announced by the end of the year. CCWP will spearhead running and staffing the new center, which will have more than a dozen staff, a computer lab, classes in digital and financial literacy, and space for other organizations focused on workforce development; CEO Karin Norington-Reaves said her agency’s responsibility “is to make sure we have access to a wide array of services so we meet people exactly where they are.”
Earlier this year the Walmart Foundation gave CCWP, one of the biggest workforce agencies in the country, a $10.9 million grant to offer free education and employment services for retail workers looking to advance their careers within the industry in Chicago and ten other sites around the country. Norington-Reaves said that there are also plans for a satellite location in Chatham targeting locals with similar efforts.
Fears also said that she is working with Skills for Chicagoland’s Future to link more Chatham-area residents to corporate employers over the next two years. She is currently identifying “high-impact, high-growth business owners” in sectors like transportation, logistics and distribution, food processing and packaging, and fabricated metals, to connect them with partners NextStreet and Case “so they can take their firms to the next level, employ more residents, and create more wealth.”
Other business owners said that the city should spend money-improving infrastructure to make the area more attractive to potential businesses, something Mayor Rahm Emanuel named as a goal of a $4.7 million streetscape project underway from 77th to 83rd Streets on Cottage Grove.
Chatham does boast a Target, Nike Factory Store, Payless, Walgreens, and Garrett’s Popcorn that are clustered on the southern end of the Cottage Grove retail strip near 85th and 87th Streets. Businesses like McDonald’s and Family Dollar have footprints in the area. Yet the backbone of Chatham’s local economy is small business, and the neighborhood has a proud history of black-owned establishments. However, the latter sentiment conflicts with the current reality, where many shopkeepers are immigrants from countries like Jordan, Korea, and Pakistan.
Fears said she welcomes any business owner who invests in the community, provides quality services, and is a good steward of their space. She suggested that increasing black business ownership is one way to combat people’s discomfort.
“What we need to be able to do,” she said, “is make people believe that they can start their own businesses, and support them.”
Listen to City Bureau reporters Adeshina Emmanuel and Latricia Polk discuss the changes Chatham is going through on Vocalo’s Barbershop Show:
But black-owned businesses face serious challenges, not least among them the structural obstacles and racial discrimination that have made it difficult for black entrepreneurs acquire sufficient startup capital or credit to open, grow, and sustain businesses. Despite Chicago’s long history of institutional racism, which Fears acknowledged, she and the GCI report still lean toward more race-neutral explanations of Chatham’s woes. She points to deindustrialization, the difficulty posed by living far away from jobs, and how many Chatham residents didn’t update their skills and education to ride the wave into the “new economy.”
Diversifying the types of stores in the area remains a challenge. Businesses of similar type and quality tend to cluster, in what urban development researcher Molly Gallagher calls the “snowball effect” of retail. This makes it difficult to both quickly change the mix of small businesses or attract businesses to serve as catalysts for change, she said.
For that catalyst, Fears said “you typically need to have a big anchor institution, and that anchor institution drives that development, [or] you have someone with outside influence and capital who decides to put money in an area.”
At the neighborhood level, experts prescribe several solutions, including individuals banding together to establish business cooperatives to reap tax benefits, utilizing public funding opportunities, and cutting costs by pooling funds to cover overhead expenses like rent and product costs.
Some of these options already exist. The city’s microlending program helps business owners overcome capital hurdles; tax increment finance districts offer business improvement grants to help entrepreneurs renovate their spaces; and credit unions and community banks are key alternatives to big lenders, but not everybody has access to or education about these options.
In addition to her plans to bring in new businesses, Fears says the initiative will include training and connecting residents to jobs to boost their social mobility, thawing a frozen housing market, and rehabbing distressed apartment buildings. Details are still scarce for these initiatives, but business development can be a vehicle for driving broader improvements, she said.
Gallagher agrees, adding that changing the tone of an area has to be a holistic effort. The test will come when the plans begin rolling out this fall, when Chatham residents will hopefully begin to see the effects of the ambitious project.
Among other factors, Fears touts the mayor’s commitment as one reason why the GCI has the potential to succeed where other revitalization efforts have fallen short.
“We have accomplished great things with far fewer resources than we have now,” Fears said. “We can do this. And I think people need a vehicle in order to get it done. This is the vehicle. And I’m not doing it alone. This is a collective effort.”
This report was published in collaboration with City Bureau, a Chicago-based journalism lab.