Chicago/Chatham-South Shore

Chatham-South Shore is a district at the heart of Chicago's South Side, home to the real Chicago blues, some mind-blowing BBQ, and the best soul food in town.


Lee's, the reigning king of the Blues

This side of Chicago does not feature in many travel plans. If you ask a hotel concierge in the Near North to make arrangements for a trip here, the reaction — whether incredulous or simply bewildered — should be a sight to behold. Don't be fooled, though; Chatham and Greater Grand could be the highlight of your trip to Chicago. The best blues clubs, the last true juke joints, are way down here.

Greater Chatham (Chatham, Avalon Park, Calumet Heights, Burnside) is a residential stronghold of middle and upper class African-American Chicagoans. No sightseeing to be done, but Chatham boasts some of the best food on the South Side (including the ultimate Harold's), as well as one of the city's best blues clubs.

Greater Grand rivals Chatham for soul food, BBQ, and blues club supremacy. It also has the Oak Woods Cemetery, which is both beautifully laid out and resting place to some of the most famous residents of the South Side's past.

South Shore is home to a lively arts scene, largely thanks to the ETA Creative Arts Foundation and the magnificent South Shore Cultural Center. It is also home to one of the city's best and least known beaches, Rainbow Beach. Incidentally, many of Chicago's most prominent black politicians call this community home. Its main commercial strip runs alongside Metra's Electric Line on 71st St and is literally lined with kids hanging out when school's not in session.

Get in

By car

If you are traveling by car, it is very easy to get into the district — the two major highways on the South Side cut right through it. From the Chicago Skyway (I-90), heading northbound, there are exits at 73rd, Stony Island Ave, 87th, and 95th (there are no exits heading southbound from the Dan Ryan junction to 92nd St, past the tollbooth). Off the Dan Ryan (I-94), the principal exits are at 67th, 71st, 76th, 79th, and 87th. The major relevant east-west routes within the area occur every mile, at 71st, 79th, and 87th. For north-south travel within the district, the most useful routes are Cottage Grove Ave, Stony Island Ave (by far the widest route), and to a lesser extent South Chicago Ave.

Parking is widely available in each neighborhood. It is a relatively poor section of the city, and is far enough away from the city center that on-street parking should be easy to find. The only main streets lacking on street parking are in South Shore, along 71st and Exchange.

By rail

Rail is not the best way to visit this section of the city, as you will need to take bus transfers wherever you want to go.

The one relevant CTA line, the Red Line, passes through the western side of Greater Grand and Chatham, right in the center of the Dan Ryan.

The Metra Electric Main Line runs straight from Millenium Station downtown through the heart of the district and, while the trains run less regularly, can be more convenient than the CTA.

For visiting South Shore, on the other hand, Metra is the best way to go, as the Electric South Chicago Branch runs right on top of the main strip the entire way through the neighborhood, with a very convenient stop right by the South Shore Cultural Center.

By bus

Bus, while certainly less convenient than driving, is the most widely used mode of transport throughout most of the district. Route #4 runs the length of Cottage Grove Ave from Chicago State University up King Drive all the way to Michigan Ave in the Loop. Route #4 runs the length of Cottage Grove Ave from Chicago State University through Hyde Park, and all the way to Michigan Ave in the Loop. #6 runs express from downtown to 47th Street running through Kenwood/Hyde Park south to Jackson Park South Shore ending at 79th Street and South Shore Drive. This route provides front door access to the South Shore Cultural Center. #28 runs along Stony Island Ave from eastern Hyde Park all the way to 103rd St on the Far Southeast Side. #14 runs from express Downtown to 67th Street and then South along Jeffery Boulevard to all the way to 103rd St on the Far Southeast Side. #15 runs just like #14 except it is a local route running from the CTA Red Line at 47th Street then east along 51st Street/Hyde Park Boulevard and then down Lake Park Avenue/Stony Island Avenue through the Hyde Park neighborhood to Jeffrey Boulevard all the way to 103rd Street as well. For traveling east-west, the routes are simple, following the main roads: #67 along 67th St, #71 along 71st St, #75 along 75th, #79 along 79th St and #87 along 87th St.


Confederate POW memorial at Oak Woods Cemetery


Rainbow Beach has lovely South Side views of the Chicago Skyline


Inside St Michael the Archangel


This section of the city is spoiled for neighborhood restaurants. The city's most renowned soul food is served up here at famous locations, long serving just about every prominent African-American figure who has set foot in Chicago. The city's best Memphis-style BBQ is here, too. Greater Grand is home to the city's best donuts; Chatham to the city's best fried chicken.

Now, if you are looking for something that resembles healthy food, your options are limited. Soul Vegetarian is a very good option, and the various ethnic restaurants are not quite so heart attack-inducing (mostly Jamaican, but with the odd Trinidadian and Senegalese restaurant tossed in for good measure).

South Side BBQ

Follow these rules, and you'll get some great cue:

  • Get your sauce on the side! There's no reason not to, and it allows you to control just how drenched the meat gets.
  • Follow the guide. You can easily go astray in these parts with sub-par BBQ — you cannot with the ones listed below.
  • Order sparingly. One combo can easily feed two, so if you're solo, plan to either make it two meals or get one of the small dishes.
  • Make sure they've got your order right, as communication through bulletproof glass is difficult.
  • Take your cue somewhere else. Good options include the Midway in Hyde Park, or better still the 63rd St Pier east of Jackson Park.
  • This is the real deal, dig in with those fingers and make a mess!



Pitmaster and an aquarium-style smoker at Lem's



Jazz and Blues on 87th

Don't be fooled. There are plenty of blues clubs throughout the city, but none hold a candle to the following. Blues clubs are undoubtedly a matter of taste — you could have a great or a bad experience at any one of these, but the risk is worth it. Lee's Unleaded is probably the flagship club. Jazz lovers spending much time in the city should not miss a Tuesday night Von Freeman gig at the New Apartment Lounge.

South Side blues clubs, though, constitute a fragile ecosystem. Try not to descend en masse. The music and atmosphere will adapt to you; you won't get the real experience. Come in couples or trios instead, and immerse yourself in the culture of the real Chicago blues.


Know what you're getting into if you are thinking of staying here. The options are pay-by-the-hour flop houses and run-down motels, with all the shady characters, dubious mattresses, and loose security that entails. And, well, cabs might be reluctant to pick you up if you give them one of these addresses. If staying here, though, know that the motels on Stony Island are the most secure.


The South Shore Cultural Center

There are four public libraries offering free wifi and public terminals. The Exchange Cafe above is another good option.

Stay safe

The South Side experiences here can potentially outshine those you could have anywhere else in Chicago. There's one hitch though, and that's violent crime. Alas, the levels of violent crime in this area, especially in the northwest neighborhood of Greater Grand Crossing, are higher than you'd find traveling in much of the world; travel here is not for everyone, and many travelers will find visiting this area of the city to be beyond their comfort level.

Nonetheless, a casual visitor is very unlikely to be the target of crime; you just are not spending enough time here, so the odds are you'll be fine. Avoid side streets, where you can run into unabashed drug trade. On main streets, you might get mildly harassed if you look lost, insecure, or unfamiliar with your surroundings — if it happens, avoid eye contact, and keep walking.

It's a hassle to deal with public transport, especially if you're not staying here, and waiting around in the wee hours of the night at a bus stop, having stumbled out of a bar, is not a great idea. If you're going to be at a club, you're going to have some booze, and you'll need a ride. Arranging a point-to-point taxi ride is a good idea if you are coming from downtown. Arrange that in advance; residents rightly complain about the difficulty of getting a cab at night.

Go next

Routes through Chatham-South Shore

The Loop Southwest Side  N  S  Far Southeast Side END

This article is issued from Wikivoyage - version of the Thursday, January 21, 2016. The text is available under the Creative Commons Attribution/Share Alike but additional terms may apply for the media files.