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, reports the New York Times.
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, Officer Wortham was on an East Coast swing, attending a police memorial service in Washington, and later participating in a fund-raising 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.