Last month, the city unveiled an 8,500-square-foot outdoor plaza in Chatham, a new area packed with picnic benches and tables all surrounded by works from local artists. Mahalia Jackson Court, named after the influential gospel singer who took part in the Civil Rights Movement alongside her friend Martin Luther King Jr., is a unique space aimed at fostering community.
One of the first steps toward attracting visitors was to enlist the help of some of the area’s best food trucks, operations like I 94 Ribs, Haire’s Gulf Shrimp, the Love Juice Company, and TJ’s. The Greater Chatham Initiative sees restaurants as integral to its mission in boosting investment in Chatham and its surrounding communities. That includes 75th Street and its Restaurant Row which features Soul Veg City, Lem’s Bar-B-Q, and 5 Loaves Eatery. With the belief that restaurants can anchor communities, the initiative launched Food Lab Chicago to reestablish commercial corridors in Black neighborhoods while also giving them support to overcome pandemic-related challenges. The effort mimics a campaign in Detroit.
Food Truck Saturdays, which launched at the start of October at Mahalia Jackson Court, are a way to serve the community and expose customers to new foods while giving food truck owners a stream of potential customers. Nedra Sims Fears, executive director of the initiative, regularly patronizes food trucks and thought it would be a great idea to have them stationed in one place instead of needing to hunt them down.
Fears say Chatham is buzzing with people on Saturday afternoons, with customers shopping at Home Depot and Walmart: “We just thought after the shopping that they would want to take a break,” she says.
The court, near State and 79th Street, is near the CTA’s 79th Street Red Line Stop. Fears says the food trucks can serve commuters who use the train to get to their jobs in Downtown Chicago. She’s hopeful that they could eventually lure a breakfast truck to the plaza on a regular basis. For now, the trucks will be parked through the end of the month. For October’s final two Saturdays, they’ll also have Halloween events for the family.
“We really are appealing to the busy worker or parent and we want to make their lives as simple as possible,” Fears says. “It’s similar to the North Side where you have a transit hub where you can pick up diner and go home.”
While North Siders stood in long lines while waiting to enter a grocery store during the height of the pandemic, South and West siders had a different experience. Fears says nearly a third of the area’s grocery stores at least temporarily closed, a portion due to the civil unrest and looting that followed George Floyd’s murder. Chatham’s restaurants, which were already geared to takeout and delivery, saw an uptick in business as “literally that was where the food was,” Fears says. In the two years since Fears says nearly 90 percent of businesses have reopened.
She says they want to add more trucks to offer the area more flavor.
“We are the soul food, Caribbean, and West Indian food capital of Chicago,” Fears adds.
Food Truck Saturdays at Mahalia Jackson Court, 1 E. 79th Street, October 22 and October 29.