Light in Lawndale

Ari Bendersky:

Six or seven days a week, Erick Williams leaves his two-story, red-brick single-family home to head to his job as executive chef of MK restaurant in River North, the kind of place that hosts estate wine dinners and offers $79 tasting menus. He gets there in his new Chrysler 300, driving by a mix of restored graystones and empty lots where dilapidated homes sat before they were demolished by the city.

This is Lawndale, one of the city’s poorest and most dangerous neighborhoods. It’s also where he lived until he was 9.

Williams, 41, knows that his neighborhood, which he returned to in 2007 and where he bought a home as well as nine rental properties, is dangerous. But he says he minds his own business and people tend to leave him alone. He has seen fights break out on the street, but the violence generally is directed only at the people involved in the fight.

Lawndale is a food desert, so he and his wife, Tiffany, the principal at Catalyst Maria Elementary School in Chicago Lawn, do most of their grocery shopping elsewhere. His car has been vandalized and, yes, he has a home security system. They have a nice backyard and, when Williams fires up the barbecue and his neighbors are outside, he’ll invite them over for some food and drink.

“I could move anywhere I want, but if everyone who has resources leaves the neighborhood, it wouldn’t have any resources,” Williams says. “My wife and I are successful, and I think it’s necessary for people who are successful to be in the environment to help offer a glimmer of hope.”

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