Not long after Chet Jackson arrived in West Humboldt Park in 2011, he thought he'd found a way to get the drug dealers off the corners. He'd open a restaurant.
Jackson had just been hired away from Kansas City as the new executive director of the nonprofit West Humboldt Park Community Development Council, and he learned several things about his new neighborhood right away. "Although it's an urban community, it's very southern," he says. "There are a lot of people who've been here 30 or 40 years. They're people who've known each other forever and a day. I walk down the street and people say, 'Good morning!' It's the country in the city."
But it was also impossible to overlook what had gone wrong.
The community development council works out of a storefront with bars over the windows, on a stretch of Chicago Avenue dotted with rundown buildings and vacant lots. Some of the surrounding residential blocks double as open-air drug markets, with customers pulled over to buy at all times of the day. It's Jackson's job to convince business owners and entrepreneurs that this is the right place to set up shop.
"I was dealing with a potential investor here yesterday," Jackson told me one morning recently. "They want to open a retail operation but they're concerned with people stealing. And I said, 'If you're scared of it, don't come here.' I'm not going to sit here and sell you a dream. It's a challenge. But you can be part of something good."
Jackson is 53 years old, with close-cropped hair and an oval face. He is polite and often wears a look of amusement, like there's a joke you need to pick up on, but he also wants you to know he doesn't have time for bullshit. Jackson believes the underlying message will be persuasive. Earlier this month the first part of his restaurant plan bore fruit when an eatery called Turkey Chop opened on Chicago Avenue—the first sit-down establishment in West Humboldt in years. He and other residents see it as a sign that the neighborhood is coming back from a long decline.
"It's really the beginning of a major paradigm shift for residents," Jackson says. "When they see a project like this, they're surprised, and it seems like it came out of nowhere, when we've quietly been working on it awhile."
Decades, in fact. Like many other west-side neighborhoods, West Humboldt was crippled by the loss of manufacturing jobs in the 1970s and '80s. Realizing the neighborhood was only going to be saved if they did the saving themselves, a group of residents created the development council in 1992. Some of the board members had worked for small businesses, but few had any experience in recruiting them. Instead, they relied on their creativity. When it was clear that investors weren't knocking down their door, the council teamed with a developer to open its own shopping center, at Chicago and Kedzie.
Still, the drugs and violence seemed unrelenting. By the 2000s, West Humboldt Park was one of the biggest heroin-distribution centers in the midwest, and emboldened dealers were moving from the side streets and setting up shop right on Chicago Avenue. Many residents felt beaten down or scared. After Alderman Walter Burnett Jr. proposed sprucing up the street with planters, some neighbors protested that dealers would just use them to store drugs.
"There were several times I thought about packing up and leaving," admits Jimmy Simmons, one of the council's founding board members. A native south-sider, Simmons had been committed to West Humboldt Park since moving there in the 1980s—he was president of his block club, sponsor of a Little League team, and a community policing facilitator. But he was getting worn out. "I just thought, 'It's the people in the neighborhood. It's not going to change.'"
After leaving the council board for a year, though, Simmons was urged to return. "I dedicated my life to this because I believe," says Simmons, who's currently the board president. The determination was shared by a core group of residents, and in what seemed like a breakthrough, they landed a commitment from Walgreens to open a store that might anchor Chicago Avenue. Then the recession killed it.
When the executive director's job opened up in 2011, Jackson was working for a community development organization in Kansas City. Board members found he was experienced, confident, and blunt. "He's feisty and sometimes he has his own way of doing things," Simmons says. "But he's knowledgeable, and he's really about making a difference."
One of Jackson's grandfathers was among the first black labor organizers in the Mississippi Delta. His father was a community organizer in New York City before becoming a college education professor. His mother taught at a public school in the South Bronx, not far from where the family lived. And Jackson himself had been working in distressed communities for three decades. In the early 90s, he taught at an elementary school in East New York, Brooklyn—a community he likens to West Humboldt. "The kids in my class were the first generation of crack babies," he says. "They were in challenging situations and they didn't know how to cope. It was about getting them to communicate."
Jackson discovered there were other ways he could improve communities—by helping people literally rebuild them. A stint on the staff of a New York state assemblyman led to a position at a low-income housing development in the Bronx, and that in turn to jobs in appraisal, affordable housing, and business development.
Jackson says he had a good thing going in Kansas City, but West Humboldt Park spoke to him in ways he can't fully explain. "People have tried all this before," he says, "but my gut tells me something different this time."
Not long after he came on the job, Jackson got word that the head of a restaurant chain had been asking about sites in West Humboldt. A couple sub shops had come and gone on Chicago Avenue, but longtime residents recalled that it had been close to a decade since the business strip had anywhere they could sit down for a meal.
Two weeks later, Jackson met with Quentin Love, who'd grown up on the south side and had launched the Quench restaurant chain based on the idea that he could make money and create jobs by serving healthy soul food in neglected areas. "Everybody needs to eat," Love says. "And that guy, that drug dealer, it changes his way of thinking to have this in his community. You create a realm of respect."
Love was interested in finding a spot close to Chicago and Kedzie, where the shopping center already attracted traffic. But Jackson asked him to take a look at an empty building several blocks west, in the middle of a troubled section of Chicago Avenue. With a little work they thought it could be rehabbed into something open and inviting.
Plus, the price was right. The building was available for just $75,000.
Jackson and Love worked out an arrangement under which the development council would buy and renovate the space. Love, along with his business partner, Goldie Fleming, would commit to opening a sit-down restaurant named Turkey Chop; should they decide to franchise it in the future, the council would have the option of joining as an investor.
Though the price tag was modest, the council didn't have an easy time cobbling together the money. Traditional banks weren't interested, Jackson says, so he had to turn to Bethel New Life and the Chicago Community Loan Fund, nonprofits dedicated to projects in underdeveloped neighborhoods. Jackson also won a city commitment of up to $83,000 in tax increment financing funds to cover some of the rehab costs.
Jackson stresses that, as with the shopping center down the street, the council was much more than a project facilitator. "Not only do we own the building, we own the tables, the chairs, the stove—all of it."
Jackson, Simmons, and other West Humboldt leaders vow that Turkey Chop won't be the only big news on Chicago Avenue this year. The Salvation Army is slated to begin construction on a major new community center just a few blocks east. After years of delays, gateways are supposed to be erected at both ends of the business strip, much like the giant Puerto Rican flags that fly over Division Street in East Humboldt Park, except on Chicago Avenue they'll be 20-foot hands.
Jackson has all kinds of other ideas for what could come after that: an art gallery, a coffee shop—and, of course, more basics, like a grocery store. "I saw an elderly woman buy $130 worth of groceries from a corner store one afternoon," Jackson says. "I was like, whoa."
Turkey Chop opened quietly earlier this month. It's a simple space, painted olive green and well lit by a picture window overlooking Chicago Avenue. Though it's barely been promoted beyond word of mouth, it already has steady business.
Jackson says he's looking into how Turkey Chop could serve as the home for a training program to prepare local residents for jobs in the hospitality industry. "This one little project is serving as the foundation for all the positive change in the neighborhood," he says. "Now eventually we want to reach out to the kids on the corner. Because there's talent on the street. They've got a product, a distribution system, and a revenue stream. If they can do it illegally, imagine what they could do legally."