A strong history of prestigious African American-owned businesses established a solid base for a prosperous and successful Chicago neighborhood that is still present in Chatham and spills over into beautiful residential blocks and a viable commercial and dining district. Single-family homes dominate the neighborhood with a handful of multi-unit buildings here and there. But, for the most part Chatham residents live in classic bungalows and frame houses with small green yards and shaded front sidewalks. Along the main thoroughfares dozens of restaurants, takeout places, and neighborhood bars line the street, welcoming familiar faces to enjoy a meal and relax after a long day. Scattered among the eateries are a good selection of clothing stores and unique boutiques, with a Target on hand for the best in one-stop shopping.
It’s hard to fathom that the area of Chatham was once a place so swampy that it was referred to as 'Mud Lake,' but such was the case. The land was mostly used for hunting and some farming was done to the west, but all in all, Chatham’s beginnings were rather boggy and uninviting to residents for many years.
Things started to take a turn for the better in the 1860s and ‘70s when railroad tracks were laid nearby. Industrial plants and factories that manufactured tacks, barbed-wire, scales, watches, and furniture began popping up alongside the new train route. Employment opportunities were plenty. As innovative drainage programs made the marshy territory more livable, Italian stonemasons began to build houses in the neighborhood in the 1880s. In addition to immigrants from Italy, the newly established Chatham community saw an influx of Hungarians and Irish, who came to the area mainly to work on nearby railroad construction sites. By the year 1889, Chatham was welcomed into Chicago’s ever-expanding city limits.
In the 1920s, the population of Chatham began to rise. Property value also increased due to strict codes and standards set by the community that required homeowners to care for their individual lots and maintain their houses. More and more European immigrants and Chicagoans from other vicinities moved into the area, tripling the number of inhabitants by the time the 1930s rolled around. A decade later, another population spurt hit the neighborhood, this time provoking commercial development, and bunches of shops opened up along Cottage Grove Avenue.
In the 1950s, African American families began to take up residence in Chatham, the start of a transition that would quickly make African Americans the majority. While other south side Chicago neighborhoods struggled with this shift in demographic makeup, Chatham did not. Existing churches opened their doors to the new neighbors and the Chatham-Avalon Park Community Council was formed to help promote bonding among residents. Since then, African Americans have come to comprise 99 percent of the population in Chatham neighborhood.
African American residents were drawn to Chatham due to its middle-class nature, stability, and property standards. Throughout the years, and to this day, neighborhood locals have successfully maintained these traditions, continuing to prosper as internationally recognized companies flock to the area to set up shop. Hugely successful businesses were opened in the area, like Johnson Products, Seaway National Bank, and the Independence Bank of Chicago. These have been a few of the most prestigious African American owned companies in the country, all concentrated in the small confines of Chatham. Most recently, commercial property development has expanded, benefiting this south side community by bringing well-known retail to the area and popular restaurants that frequently draw folks from all over Chicago.
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