CHICAGO – The neighborhood's best-known restaurants were failing, its crime rate was on the rise, and for the first time that anyone could remember there were foreclosures, with once tidy bungalows sitting empty and dark.
For all that, the social scientists studying Chicago neighborhoods in 2010 were betting that the middle-class enclave of Chatham, on the city's South Side, would remain stable through the recession. It had done so for decades, while surrounded by impoverished areas. It had somehow absorbed a wave of newcomers from recently demolished housing projects. And the researchers' data suggested that its strong identity and scores of active block groups had helped protect residents from larger economic threats and offered clues about how to preserve threatened urban communities all over the country.
Chatham should hold, barring some unforeseen cataclysm.
The cataclysm hit on May 19 of that year. That night, a group of assailants jumped Thomas Wortham IV, an off-duty police officer and Iraq war veteran, as he was leaving his parents' house. He resisted and was shot, bleeding to death on the street where he grew up.
The entire city seemed to stop for breath, holding a memorial attended by hundreds of fellow police officers and citizens, Mayor Richard M. Daley and Gov. Pat Quinn of Illinois.
“We were blindsided by this; blindsided by what happened to Tommy,” said his mother, Carolyn Wortham. “And yes, you begin to question everything.”
In Chatham, it seemed, all bets were off. Many residents began to think the unthinkable, that maybe it was time to escape the place they had done so much to build.
The community's response to the crisis would test a theory emerging from an ambitious, nearly decade-long study of all of Chicago's neighborhoods – that a neighborhood's character shapes its economic future at least as much as more obvious factors like income levels and foreclosure rates.
“If Chatham could maintain its relative stability despite such great challenges,” said William Julius Wilson, a professor of sociology and social policy at Harvard and the author of the 1987 classic, “The Truly Disadvantaged,” “then I think this concept of a neighborhood effect will be a landmark contribution, helping us understand how to prevent the out-migration of citizens and strengthen neighborhoods” at risk of falling into poverty.
In the days before he died, Wortham was on an East Coast swing, attending a police memorial service in Washington, and later participating in a fundraising race in New York. On May 19, he was just back and eager to see his parents, to catch up and show off some photographs from the trip.
FRAYING AT THE EDGES
Chatham looked the same as ever, but residents were nervous. The recession seemed to be deepening that spring, and local businesses were hanging on for life. Ken Blow, who runs Bull's Eye Barber Shop on East 79th, said that his revenues were down almost 40 percent in the first years of the downturn. He rented out his office to a tattoo artist to help pay expenses. “For a while there, we would keep the lights off until our first customer walked in, to save money,” Blow said.
Captain's Hard Times Dining, across the street from the barbershop, also saw business dwindle. The owner, known as Mother Wade, said she has had to branch out and do catering to stay open. “Some of what's going on here is that people are not supporting their own, not sitting down to a meal like we used to do,” Wade said. “They'd rather go eat fast food.”
Older residents, perpetually anxious that the younger generation is losing their values of tidiness and mutual respect, now had visible evidence of social erosion. They saw it in the habits of their new neighbors, many of them moving from the Robert Taylor Homes, which were torn down in the mid-2000s.
“The big change going on is that the grandparents are moving out, and some of the younger kids coming in here are picking up behaviors that you would never have seen in Chatham before,” said Worlee Glover, a salesman who runs a blog called Concerned Citizens of Chatham. “Loitering out on 79th. Walking up and down the street, eating out of a bag. Eating out on the porch. Those kinds of things.”
The numbers tell part of the story. Chatham historically had a waiting list of would-be buyers, but during the recession its foreclosure rate was 14th highest among some 80 Chicago neighborhoods, according to data gathered from all of the city's neighborhoods to determine which local factors shape behavior.
“Chatham and neighboring Avalon Park are both working-class communities, not core ghetto areas, and both were hit hard by recession, particularly Chatham, which got hit economically and with incidents of violence,” said Robert J. Sampson, a sociologist at Harvard who led the Chicago study and wrote a recently released book based on it, “Great American City: Chicago and the Enduring Neighborhood Effect” (University of Chicago, 2012).
Twice in previous weeks, young men from outside the area had fired shots into the scrum around the basketball courts at Cole Park, just across the street from the Worthams' house. Cole Park, all picnics and playgrounds when Thomas IV was growing up, now resembled a street party on most evenings, with teenagers coming just to hang out, Carolyn Wortham said. Seniors and parents of young children stayed away.
“People came from all over the South Side to play at Cole Park for the very reason that it was a safe park,” said Thomas Wortham III, his father. “But it got to where no one was controlling it.”
After a short visit with his parents, the younger Thomas Wortham said goodbye around 11 o'clock. As he walked along South King Drive to his motorcycle, he had company: someone approaching fast – no, two men – and a car trolling, close by.
The next few moments are snapshots in time. A confrontation over the motorcycle. The elder Thomas Wortham yelling from his porch. Gunshots. The father ducking into the house and back out, now with his own gun. More shots. The screeching of tires as two of the assailants fled.
When it was over, three men were down and bleeding on the 8400 block of King Drive, near the playground, here in the Mayberry of the South Side. One assailant was wounded, another dead. Wortham was beyond help.
“We were up all night,” Carolyn Wortham said. “I don't even remember what we did. You just can't believe any of it is happening.”
The police arrived in minutes, and the news spread just as fast. “When I heard, it hurt me so badly I could barely talk,” said Keith O. Tate, president of the Chatham Avalon Park Community Council. “I had no voice. A lot of us who'd been working to preserve the neighborhood thought, 'What are we doing all this for? What on earth are we doing here? Are we done here?”'
They weren't, and what unfolded in the weeks after Wortham's death was partly foreshadowed in the research done by Sampson and the Chicago neighborhood research team.
In their surveys, asking residents how highly their neighbors valued and enforced respectful behavior from children, the researchers found that Chatham ranked No. 1, above all other similar neighborhoods. On social cohesion, a measure of how regularly people work together to achieve common goals – organizing street fairs to raise money for a senior home, for example – it ranked second among black communities on the South Side, behind Avalon Park, just to the east.
ARRAY OF ADVANTAGES
Chatham has more than a hundred block groups, citizen volunteers who monitor the tidiness of neighborhood lawns, garbage, and noise, as well as organize events, Tate said.
The neighborhood has something else that many nearby areas do not: uniformly small buildings. Neat rows of one-story brick bungalows and ranch houses stand shoulder to shoulder, at attention, astride modest commercial strips, with few buildings more than three stories tall.
“This is what I call ecological advantage,” said criminologist Peter St. Jean, the author of “Pockets of Crime,” an analysis of the physical spaces criminals occupy. “In a community with small buildings – single family houses, like here, for instance – it is relatively easy for the old lady next door to walk over and tell you there's trash on your lawn, or to turn down the music. It is much more intimidating to approach troublemakers in a larger apartment building; you don't even know where in the building they live.”
Smaller structures provide another advantage in a recession, St. Jean said: If a building is vacated and boarded up, it's a small blemish on the face of the community, not a large one. “You do not see any large empty lots or abandoned buildings in this neighborhood,” he said.
In the wake of Wortham's death, residents of Chatham didn't wait long to act.
“My own father wanted to go to the park by where Tommy Wortham was killed, just to be there,” said Tate, the community council president. “And I told him no, I didn't want to worry about him falling. He said, 'Look, I'm going, with or without you.”'
Others felt just as strongly, and soon there was a neighborhood gathering to “take back the park,” Carolyn Wortham said. Not long after, about 20 police officers, many former colleagues of the Worthams, father and son, showed up at Cole Park and spent the day, in support. “It was a hot day, and all I can remember is running back and forth from the house to get water for everyone,” Carolyn Wortham said. “These were officers from all over the city, not just from here. They organized it themselves.”
It's far too early to say that Chatham has rebounded, but there are encouraging signs. The Bull's Eye barbershop is busy again. The neighborhood successfully lobbied a billboard company to remove a gaudy sign advertising cigarettes, Glover said. Several new businesses are now thriving, including Garrett Popcorn, a boutique popcorn shop that on most days has lines out the door.
Tate has started an investment pool with other residents who have the means, to buy up foreclosed houses and sell them to “people who will make good neighbors.”
And according to an analysis by Sampson, crime around Cole Park almost stopped in the months after Wortham was killed. Crime crept back up in 2012, especially near the neighborhood's borders, but it has been a violent year in Chicago, with homicides up 16 percent over 2011. The crime rate in Chatham remains well below that of nearby areas.
For the social scientists, these findings apply far beyond Chatham, and beyond Chicago. Other South Side neighborhoods, with similar poverty rates, scored significantly lower on these measures of social cohesion and “efficacy.” And these neighborhoods – West Pullman, to the south, for instance, and Greater Grand Crossing to the north, which has newer developments and more young professionals – have been slower to rebound from the recession, and crime rates remain elevated. The study seems to have zeroed in on the mostly invisible factors that immunize, or at least help protect, a neighborhood from internal wounds, as well as trauma from global economic convulsions.
“The specific neighborhood has a personality that affects virtually all aspects of social life, the choices we make about where to live, about how much disorder we'll tolerate, about how we raise our kids,” Sampson said. “Large-scale forces like the recession of course matter, but they are moderated by local neighborhood factors, whether you're in Chicago or Stockholm” or other cities.
The ultimate verdict, for Chatham and for the neighborhood effect, may lie in what the Worthams and people like them do in historically cohesive urban communities threatened by creeping poverty and violence. “I sure did consider leaving when Tommy was killed,” Carolyn Wortham said.
She took a deep breath. “But you know, whenever something like this happens, there's plenty of blame to go around. People want to blame the city, the community organizations, the churches, all that. But nothing changes unless people look after their children, and the neighbors do, too. If people aren't behaving, you say something. When I went to school, if I did something wrong, by the time I got home my mother knew about it.”
So did friends' mothers, Thomas Wortham added. Then he gave her a look: it was time for dinner, and to head for home.
More than two years after their son was killed, the Worthams still live across from the park. For now, like many of their longtime neighbors and friends, they're staying put.