Eyes on the streets: Chatham needs to get its neighborliness back

BY KAY SEVERINSEN

Even good neighborhoods can change with the times.

The middle-class, South Side neighborhood of Chatham has long been considered one of the safer family neighborhoods.  But more recently, residents have been challenged by an aging population and a generational divide, says Ald. Freddrenna Lyle, not to mention a tragic increase in crime in recent months that has received state-wide attention.

Though the increase in troubling episodes probably has many causes, says Lyle, one reason may be that the community’s fabric of strong neighbor connections has deteriorated in recent years.

When Lyle was growing up in Chatham, the neighborhood had a vital system of block clubs and all the children went to the same school.

Residents on blocks that shared an alley would work together to keep it clean and to take care of one another, she says, but over the years, the aging residents no longer had the ability to do some of the things they used to do. Previously if an elderly resident had trouble changing the battery in her smoke detector another neighbor would help, but when none of them can climb a ladder, those little favors dribble away. And many of the remaining elderly don’t want to ask for help.

“We have less workers and fewer young legs,” Lyle said. “Many are single women who have outlived their husbands, and don’t have the resiliency to head off some of these problems. When I became alderman we had the second largest population of seniors in the city.”

Almost all of her peers have moved to other neighborhoods or suburbs, she said, but those who have come back don’t seem to have time for neighborhood events.

“Their children have homework and dance lessons and karate lessons, and we haven’t been able to get that group to understand the value of CAPS (Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy),” she said.

“And we have trouble getting our young back because the seniors didn’t leave, and because of the schools. If you move back here, you might have to put your child in private school. You cannot have a vibrant community without the schools.”

She thinks that the proliferation of magnet schools has put neighborhoods like Chatham at a disadvantage. When she was growing up, all the children on the block went to the same school, but now they are dispersed among many schools. That means their parents don’t meet at school functions, nor do they identify with the neighborhood school.

“We have to become involved in the schools in our community,” she added. When she was growing up, she could walk to school, and so could everyone else. They all knew each other. “If you were somewhere else and were threatened, even the bad kids would protect you because you were from their school. Now we have children on one block who go to five different schools and they don’t even know each other. Schools are so important to the community because they instill a sense of community in those children. If you send your child to a school on the north side, then you don’t care about the neighborhood school. But you should.”

Still there are some things that can be done and are being done.

For one thing, neighbors in Chatham have planted flowers on the corners of King Drive between 87th and 92nd  every year, which shows everyone who passes by that neighbors care about their community. 

“We all say it takes a village to raise a child,” Lyle added. “There is some truth to that, but in urban America, the ‘village’ is the block. We stress that through block clubs. We have to get the blocks talking to each other, and connecting. If you have a house with children out of control, the other 39 houses on that block can adopt that family and mentor the children. One burglar told us he would not go where people were outside watering the grass.  And we have to become involved in the schools in our community.”

Two different areas of her ward are trying to start a neighborhood watch, and others are lobbying for increased security and programming at Cole Park, which was the site of two recent drive-by shootings and is across the street from where Wortham was killed.

“That’s a spark,” said Lyle, “to get people thinking about the question, ‘If this neighborhood is going to survive, what is it going to need?’”

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