Friday, November 23, 2012

Experiencing Chatham: Neighborhood Tour Program

For the first time, a guest post by Jill Farley, Manager of Digitial Iniatives at the Chicago Architecture Foundation
On Friday November 2, I had the privilege of exploring the Chatham neighborhood through the eyes and voices of some of its most passionate advocates. A new tour has been developed as part of a program entitled Neighborhood Voices and is a collaboration between the Chicago Architecture Foundation and the residents, leaders and community members of Chatham. One of these two-hour bus tours kicked off on Friday morning at Mather’s More Than A Cafe, as thirty-five tour-takers from all over the city settled onto a comfortable coach bus ready to experience the architecture and history of the area.

The microphone was passed between four docents for different segments of the tour. These docents—women who are residents of Chatham or have close ties to the community—spent 15 weeks developing the tour and training with the Chicago Architecture Foundation to bring the tour program to life in Chatham.

From the first minute, I could tell the next two hours would be rich with history, personal stories, architecture and humor. Docent Jan Mason kicked off her narrative by telling us that the neighborhood was originally known as “Mud Lake” and “Hog Swamp” by the area’s original farming residents. Before long, she was deep into the story of how Chatham evolved into the “heart of middle-class African Americans” in Chicago. Overall, the tour had four themes woven throughout: Housing, Politics, Culture, Business. 

The story of the bungalow dominated much of the early part of the tour, and served as the foundation for discussion on the history of the neighborhood and its residents. Homes of well-known African American residents such as Roland Burris (former home of Mahalia Jackson), Dempsey Travis, Thomas Dorsey and Cheryl Burton were spotlighted.

As we cruised along the area’s main commercial corridors, the docents introduced us to many of Chatham’s first and most successful African American owned businesses such as Johnson Products, Independence Bank (now Urban Partnership Bank) and Seaway National Bank. When we passed the corner of 79th and Lawrence, tour-takers craned to see one of these icons—the “spaceship-looking” Pride Cleaners built in 1959 with its hyperbolic roof, glass walls and unforgettable 60’s style sign. The tour also showcased some interesting contrasts, notably the stunning terra cotta buildings in Chatham’s landmarked commercial district juxtaposed with the area’s newest commercial area of Chatham Village Square.

My favorite part of the tour was when the bus took a left turn off of 87th and rolled into the sub-division of Marynook, pocketed in the Avalon Park neighborhood. For five minutes as we wound around the curved suburban-style streets, discussed the 1950’s homes and marveled at the well-manicured lawns, the city couldn’t feel further away.

The tour brought it home with a journey along Michigan Avenue north of 87th street to explore one of the community’s first successful large subsidized housing areas. The homes defy common perception of subsidized housing with their cottage-style charm and impeccable upkeep. The final stop on the tour was the famed 7900-square-foot “Blue Mansion”, modeled after the White House.

This is only a snippet of the stories and sites revealed on the tour.  It’s impossible to convey the true pride the docents and partners feel for the Chatham community, and the tour is a great outlet for better understanding the area, its history, its assets and its residents—past and present. For more information on this tour and the Neighborhood Voices program, go to 

If you are interested in the tour, contact Krisann Rehbein at the Chicago Architecture Foundation: krehbein @
Dixon School
Primary partner is the Chatham Business Association with additional cooperation from Mather’s and the Chatham Avalon park Community Council.


  1. Sounds like a great tour. And I LOVE the photos!

  2. Nice. Jill's narrative made me feel like I was on the tour!

  3. Sounds like a great program and a beautiful tour!


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