Alderman Sawyer seeks carrot to revamp Chatham’s business strips and housing stock


By Chinta Strausberg


Newly elected Ald. Roderick Sawyer is seeking to restore a sense of community in Chatham and other areas in his ward and promises to fill every vacant house while re-planning business strips to be more economically compatible and diverse in its service.

“The collection of neighborhoods was always considered Chatham,” said Sawyer referring to the same expectation of maintenance of properties, the same level of occupancy where there were no occupancies on a block other than death. “That spirit extended from Chatham to Park Manor. “We have that concept of a very tight-knit community. Most of my friends lived in Chatham.

“That sense of community is what set Chatham apart from other communities,” he said. ”Even if you didn’t live directly in Chatham…we all had that same sense of community price, the maintenance, the expectations of keeping your property up, strong block club associations. These are the things that made Chatman great. It made people want to live and stay there,” said Sawyer.

Park Manor boundaries run from Marquette to 79th Street, State Street to Cottage Grove and butting that would be Chatham, which runs from 79th Street South to 87th Street.

Saying Chatham is still a stable community, Sawyer said, “we’re experiencing some bumps a portion of which was attributed to some people attempting to make fast money during the real estate boom and then subsequent bust.”

During the 1990’s, Sawyer explained as opposed to homeowners keeping their homes in Chatham, they began to refinance or sell them to interests that “blew up…overly inflated the prices. So instead of having the children staying in the house with either no mortgage or very little mortgage, they were maximizing out on the mortgages because so much money was available. It was easy money and they took that money to buy cars.

“Some people did the right thing by reinvesting in the house but some took that money and ran and when that market crashed, it left us with an inventory of housing stock that Chatham was not used to. We never had this type of housing abundance in the Chatham area like we do now,” said Sawyer.  Explaining, Sawyer said when he was growing up, every house was occupied. “You knew who was in every house. You had strong block clubs, but now you have vacancies.”

In taking an inventory of his ward, Sawyer said he’s learned that more block clubs have disbanded. “They are not there now because the rocks of the block have passed on, moved on, retired….

“What’s being left is an abundance of houses and now we have investors coming in looking at their bottom line and are renting rather than buying houses. A lot of people are renting houses right now because the income is there particularly from Section 8 and that is what I don’t like what is going on in Chatham.”

Sawyer said speculators and investors are buying houses and are renovating them; however, if they cannot sell them, they rent them out. “The best rent is subsidized rent because that check comes at the first of the month and it’s higher than market rate rent in most cases,” he said.

But with Section 8 applicants, Sawyer said there are some problems due to lack of screening and the lack of oversight for those renting those houses. “It does become a little dicey,” said Sawyer.

“For the most part, Chatham is still a thriving community” and Sawyer is doing all he can to reinvigorate “that spirit of community pride and get these block clubs that have been dormant reactivated and get people excited about being in Chatham once again.”

When asked how was he going to achieve that goal, Sawyer said, “Sometimes you have to get people mad.” He gave the example of a pawnshop that wanted to open up in the community. Sawyer said he sent the pawnshop people to the community.

Well, that awakened a sleeping giant in Chatham where more than 150 people came to a meeting normally attended by 20 and they voted it down. “That’s what I am looking for that engagement once again with our community with individuals who are stakeholders. I want them to get off the sidelines and get into the game. We need everybody in this fight to preserve Chatham, all of our communities.”

The way to do that, he said, is getting people excited about what is going on in the neighborhoods.

Asked about the crime issue in Chatham, Sawyer said, “There will always be some levels of crime but it was not nearly as it is now. You knew most people on your block. I talk to people and they don’t know their next door neighbors.”

Sawyer said given this scenario people “open up themselves to anti-social behavior” because they don’t know who is living next door to them while their neighbors may be watching their every move. “They know when you leave from work, when you get home. They know they have a small opportunity to get what they’re trying to get. Often times we become lax. We leave our curtains open and they can see our big screen TV’s in the front room and people notice these things especially those with ill intent….

“It’s at a point where we are not watchful enough for each other,” said Sawyer which is why he says these “punks” are breaking in and robbing seniors who are trying to keep up their property. “Break-ins and robberies on the streets are the main problems and that leaves out gang-related shootings.”

“It’s a daunting task” to curb crime, he said explaining it is putting a lot of pressure on police resources. “You can’t be every where and these kids are out here with guns, can’t shoot straight, killing innocent bystanders and reeking havoc on the community and it’s got to stop.”

He’s hoping the police implement an enforcement program and crack down on offenders. “It’s time to stop playing games with them. They have to be dealt with. If they don’t want to conform and do what is right, the police department needs to deal with them swiftly and harshly with the combination of our police and our court system.”

Asked what are his plans for 2012, Sawyer said there is a lack of resources in the community that are desperately needed like: service providers, hospitality, stores, shops and restaurants. “We have a pretty solid middle class neighborhoods” including a lot of retirees many of whom own their own homes.

Sawyer said, “We don’t provide them enough options in the Chatham community. I want to change that. I want to make sure we have things available to our citizens to give them a reason to stay in our community rather than going to Orland or downtown to shop and entertain themselves. I want them to have an opportunity to do that in Chatham.”

Sawyer is meeting with city planners to “reinvent” some of the arterial streets suitable for some of these new businesses. “We don’t effectively plan our neighborhood like we should.  Over the years, we have gotten incompatible businesses next to each other which will stifle growth for each other.”

He is planning areas at a time. “Sometimes we’ve got businesses in our community that are not really collectively putting them together in our best interest and those are the things we have to make adjustments and change. It’s difficult because I am thinking about the possibility of having to move some businesses, trying to relocate them so we can plan to make sense in our community,” said Sawyer.

He wants Chatham to mirror other communities that have transformed like Bridgeport, Maxwell Street or Wicker Park  Sawyer wants people to want to set up shop and keep the revenue flowing within Chatham. “Those communities have transformed and we haven’t.

“We’ve not caught up with the times, and I think this is one issue we need to address in order for us to continue to attract younger people to stay in Chatham or those looking for a new place to live…. We have to entice them. We need a carrot to entice them. Chatham has not changed in more than 30 or 40-years.”

But, Sawyer made it clear that he will be working with existing restaurants but said, “we need more options.” “We should start having conversations about having more variety in our community both sit-down and take-out. We need to have healthier options. We need to create a new lifestyle change for our eating habits particularly children.”

With Army & Lou’s and Izola Restaurants now closed, Josephine’s Hardtimes Cooking is one of few restaurants left in Chatham. “What we need to start doing is to reinvigorating new and different concepts of restaurants. The restaurant industry has evolved and unfortunately Chatham has not kept up with that pace.

“In addition to our seniors, there are people my age and younger who want the option to entertain themselves in our community…. I want them to spend their dollars enough to generate tax revenue here in Chatham,” Sawyer said.

“There are no sports bars, no coffee shops, no cafes to any great degree, no places where I can take my computer and have a cup of coffee and some tea. We have some but not enough.”

When asked what is the carrot to draw new business to Chatham, Sawyer said, “I want to re-plan our area, and I want to get additional streetscaping, make it walking friendly while being accommodating to the cars. I want to get that sense of community back in Chatham. We’ll do it one step at a time, area by area.”

Saying he wants to make sure Chatham is a viable community where people are comfortable living and raising families, Sawyer said, “in order for us to do that we have to maintain our status as a strong community” which includes re-opening closed block clubs and community groups partnering with schools. “We have to show community pride, bake sales. Let’s go old school what ever we need to do to show a sense of pride in our community then let’s do that….

“Once we show we are a community again, that we care what goes on and doing everything necessary to achieve that people will see Chatham is the envy of others and we will have that 100 occupancy rate once again. We will fill our houses and our (housing) inventory will be gone. That’s my goal,” said Sawyer.

Asked about why he became an alderman, Sawyer, the son of the late Ald. Eugene Sawyer (6th) who later became mayor of Chicago after the death of Mayor Harold Washington, said, “I was the one who caught the (political) bug.” He stayed at his father’s side and began working elections at the age of 12 posting signs, working precincts and became an election challenger at the age of 18.

After graduating from law school, Sawyer said, “I had the itch. I love politics and it is something I want to continue,” but for now, Sawyer’s goal is to fill every vacant house in his ward and to transform Chatham and the other communities to mirror other communities in Chicago and to come up with the carrot he needs to attract new businesses.

Chinta Strausberg is a Journalist of more than 33-years, a former political reporter and a current PCC Network talk show host. You can e-mail Strausberg at: