With the echo of African drums, Fairfield Avenue comes alive.
Men, women and children, drawn to their front porches by the pulsing beat, witness an impromptu parade led by 60-year-old Hasan Smith. A long line of well-wishers follows him to the home that he helped rebuild — the first home he has ever owned.
“Hello, neighbors!” his wife, Mary, shouts.
They all wave, and celebrate another chapter in the rebirth of a neighborhood.
Today, the area known as Chicago Lawn is a place where kids ride bikes, where revelers gather for block parties and street dances, where shoppers frequent a farmers’ market and a resale shop in a once-vacant storefront and where neighborhood teens find work at a screen-printing business.
Though still a work in progress, this is not the South Side of Chicago of violent repute — shootings, gangs, forgotten main streets and residential blocks plagued with boarded-up houses and apartment buildings.
Chicago Lawn was once all that; its streets were littered with abandoned homes, especially after the 2008 mortgage crisis took hold. “In some blocks, it looked like a war zone,” said the Rev. Anthony Pizzo, then a priest at St. Rita of Cascia Catholic church, a rare neighborhood mainstay.
But then, a feisty core of residents, the Smiths included, banded together to save this place.
They are doing so with an unexpected mix of people in an often-segregated city, with neighbors who don’t always speak the same language, practice the same religion or trust one another. They are African Americans, Hispanic immigrants, Muslims, Catholics, Jews — and “returning citizens,” men fresh from prison, like Hasan Smith, a former gang member who served nearly three decades for shooting and killing a man in a drug-related crime. He was just 19 at the time.
“I told myself when I get there, I’m going to be running, moving forward,” said Smith, who came to Chicago Lawn in 2006 in search of a second chance. Many others are doing the same, moving into rehabbed bungalows and apartments.
And sparking nothing short of a Chicago Lawn renaissance.
The comeback is a particularly stunning feat when you consider the neighborhood’s history.
Decades earlier, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. marched into what was then an ethnic-white neighborhood, lined with quaint Chicago-style brick bungalows and small apartment buildings. Many who lived in the neighborhood worked at the National Biscuit Co. bakery, now Nabisco. King arrived with his own small but determined coalition. They came to demand fair access to housing for African Americans who’d been limited to slums by redlining. Met by angry white protesters, King was struck with a rock and temporarily deterred.
“I have never seen — even in Mississippi and Alabama — mobs as hostile and as hate-filled as I’ve seen here in Chicago,” he would say.
The racial makeup of the neighborhood began to shift as many whites left the South Side. By the 1990s, Chicago Lawn was tipping to majority African American with a Hispanic contingent that also steadily grew. Many who came here were first-time homebuyers.
Jose and Maria Mena bought a three-unit brick apartment building in 1990 to share with their extended family, including Mena’s mom and a disabled sister. Jose, now 60, came from Mexico as a teen to pick strawberries in California, then made his way to Chicago to work in a factory that produced ice cube trays and other plastic goods. He met wife Maria there. Both learned English, earned their GEDs and became citizens after being granted amnesty by the Reagan administration.
The neighborhood was rough back then, known for its drug houses and Friday night gang fights on a local school lot. But that also made it affordable. As the housing market boomed in the early to mid-2000s, it seemed like anyone could buy a home, Mena said.
But because of language barriers or confusion over loan terms, such as adjustable rates, many were perched precariously on the edge of the housing bubble when it burst in 2008. Some with lower credit scores also had received subprime loans with high interest rates. Before the collapse, block after block of storefronts were filled with mortgage lenders and real estate offices that mostly disappeared after.
“They trick the people. They just told what’s convenient for them,” said Jose, who had neighbors and extended family members who were losing their homes. He and Maria went through their own tough financial times, though never faced foreclosure.
They’d also never been very politically active. But when Pizzo and organizers from a neighborhood organization known as the Southwest Organizing Project, or SWOP, called for bank protests in 2009, the Menas were among those who stepped forward. Because they were citizens, they felt a duty to represent those who were not.
A few weeks later, the group scheduled a meeting with Bank of America officials at St. Rita’s — some inside, asking the bank to work with those in danger of foreclosure, while others prayed outside on the church steps.
“It was the first time people came out with no shame to share testimonies,” said Imelda Salazar, a Guatemalan immigrant who became a neighborhood organizer with SWOP.
Ultimately, they worked with the banks through repayment, credit counseling and refinancing to save more than 500 individuals and families from foreclosure.
When Hasan Smith first arrived in Chicago Lawn, he moved into a halfway house apartment above the neighborhood business district, 63rd Street. Until the hot water was fixed, his first few showers were ice cold. He watched his first roommate, another young man fresh from prison, come and go. “He didn’t last one day.”
Still, after spending “27 years, three months and six days” locked away, it was a strange and wonderful feeling to walk into this three-bedroom apartment that belonged to the Inner-City Muslim Action Network, or IMAN.
Smith had become Muslim in prison. He was drawn to the teachings of the Quran and the routine and still finds peace in daily prayers. The man known as Nathaniel to his family and “Slick” on the streets of Chicago — “I did what I had to do and I got out the way” — took on the name Hasan, meaning handsome and good.
Growing up in the Stateway Gardens projects, he had chosen gang life because he felt he had few options. He became, by his own regretful admission, a tyrant. But at home, he was still the baby-faced boy who dutifully did his chores and homework, even as a teen. His parents were strict but powerless against the outside forces. “All this stuff you’re doing in the streets, you can’t bring it in here,” he remembers them saying. “If you get money, we don’t want it.”
Rafi Peterson could relate. Now a well-known figure in Chicago Lawn who works both with SWOP and IMAN, he was what he called a “criminal’s criminal” as a young man, stealing from drug dealers and pimps. He too grew up in the projects and converted to Islam in prison. The two men, who would become lifelong friends, met when a physician Smith was working for introduced them.
“Come on. Bring your stuff,” Peterson told Smith, who went on to become the first graduate of IMAN’s reentry program, which teaches former prisoners work and life skills.
Smith got a job at a printing company and worked with Peterson as a violence interrupter, using their knowledge as former gang members to diffuse conflict.
It wasn’t easy. As more homes vacated, crime in Chicago Lawn grew rampant. At one point, IMAN went to court to go after gang members who were squatting in an abandoned apartment building, Peterson said. A young woman who’d been raped was found next to the building.
One year before the housing crash, Peterson purchased his own brick bungalow a couple blocks away. He resisted painting over gang graffiti inside a bedroom closet. More than a decade later, the initials were still there — S.D. for Satan Disciples, one of a few gangs that had splintered and persisted, even when their leaders were taken down.
“I wanted to remember what we came from,” he explained.
As they took a stand, neighbors started coming to Peterson, Smith and the growing cadre of “brothers” when there was trouble — often before they called police. They knew they could count on them.
By 2012, there were at least 665 abandoned homes and apartment buildings in Chicago Lawn, counted by staff and volunteers at SWOP. The boarded-up homes were most obvious. Others were given away by their stuffed mailboxes, overgrown lawns and no signs of life for days on end, except perhaps the odd feral cat and other critters that squeezed in through broken windows.
Neighbors and SWOP came together to form a plan. They also called upon outside supporters such as United Power, a large coalition of Chicago neighborhood organizations and churches, and recruited volunteer attorneys, a property developer and one large early funder, the MacArthur Foundation, also based in the city.
They would, they decided, raise funds and buy up corner properties to spark redevelopment. They would, as they put it, “reclaim” the neighborhood.
They knew this was not the South Side story people expected, and that only fueled their fire.
They started with a rally, passing the hat as attendees threw in $5, $10, maybe $20. MacArthur pledged $500,000.
Eventually, Lisa Madigan, then Illinois attorney general, agreed to tour the neighborhood. She added $3 million from funds that Illinois, other states and the federal government received from five of the nation’s largest banks — Citibank, JPMorgan Chase, Wells Fargo, Ally Bank and Bank of America — accused of fraudulent foreclosure-processing tactics in Chicago and elsewhere.
At another rally, Pizzo — the priest, known for his ability to stir a crowd and the silver crew cut that often leads people to mistake him for a cop — asked then Illinois Gov. Pat Quinn for $5 million. When Quinn politely said he’d consider it, Pizzo’s peers sent him back up to press the governor for a firm commitment.
Pizzo’s throat tightened. “You know, I’m used to preaching, right?” he said. “I can ask for things, but it was never something like this before.”
The coalition walked away that night with Quinn’s promise for $4 million and tax credits, giving the neighborhood collective enough to leverage what they had for grants and low-interest loans.
They began with a 20-block area in Chicago Lawn, among the hardest hit with 93 vacant buildings. The first project — a 13-unit brick apartment building — was finished in 2016.
Jamillah Rashad, now 36, and her two children were among the first to move into one of the apartments in a neighborhood from which her brother had been chased when he was in high school because he “didn’t belong.” Now for the first time in her adult life, she was putting up artwork on her walls.
“I never sat still enough to feel like I existed in a place long enough,” said Rashad, who works in early childhood education. This felt like home.
By last year, all but eight of the original 93 properties in that first target area had been rehabbed — some by SWOP, some by IMAN and others by private developers.
Fundraising to tackle the remainder of the neighborhood had already begun. And this time, Rafi Peterson was the first to drop $20 into the bucket.
Hasan Smith met his wife Mary at a grocery store five years ago. Drawn to her talkative, upbeat nature, Smith told his friend, “That’s gonna be my girl.” Unlike him, she was a Christian, but their values aligned. He brought her to the neighborhood and asked her to keep an open mind.
“You can be a visitor and not see everything,” Mary said recently. “So I had to see for myself.”
She noticed the security guards posted along 63rd Street storefronts. She occasionally heard gunfire in the distance. But she saw the potential — in this place and in him.
So after they married, they moved into an apartment in Chicago Lawn in early 2016 and eventually spotted a vacant home down the street that they both liked. Smith had earned his general contractor’s license, and last winter, he and a new cohort of young recruits began the work of gutting and rebuilding it.
One of them was Edward “Tron” Borden Jr. “In my world, Hasan is somebody,” the 30-year-old young man, still with gang ties, said one day after helping attach drywall to a ceiling and noticing Smith’s fading gang tattoos.
Summer temperatures brought a flurry of other activity to the neighborhood, hands digging into dirt to plant flowers or sweep streets at a neighborhood cleanup, the frequent sound of hammers tapping and saws buzzing — and still at night, some gunfire. But there has been some good news on that front: police data shows that violent and property crimes in Chicago Lawn have dropped about 45% since 2008, when the mortgage crisis began.
Of the original 665 vacant homes and apartment buildings, well over 300 are now filled, with more to come.
That success prompted Illinois lawmakers this summer to approve an additional $12 million for more rehabs — and another $3 million to bring this model to North Lawndale, a West Side neighborhood racked with violence and poverty.
Nick Brunick, an attorney and leader with United Power, is among those who’ve spent countless hours lobbying for funding. A resident of suburban Oak Park, 12 miles yet worlds away from Chicago Lawn in many ways, he also has helped bring white supporters to the neighborhood to join the cause — some who grew up there.
The newly elected mayor of Chicago, Lori Lightfoot, has taken notice. The next major goal, Brunick said, is to rebuild “1,000 homes on the South Side and 1,000 homes on the West Side.” He said an affiliate organization in New York City has similar aspirations, also “driven by local families and institutions.” As he sees it, their successful formula could help struggling neighborhoods across the country.
As Lightfoot prepared to meet this fall with a gathering of hundreds of families and neighborhood leaders pushing this movement, Hasan and Mary Smith marched down their street with the drummers, family and friends.
Hasan, a man of few words, insisted that his wife speak first as they stood in front of their new home. She thanked their friends and read a Bible verse.
That inspired Hasan, who told the group that his work was a “chance to give back to the community that I once destroyed.”
Days later, he was singing with a band assembled in their backyard as the sun set. A grandson played nearby.
“It’s been a long time coming,” he crooned. “But I know a change gonna come, yes it will.”
This was just as he’d pictured it.