African immigrants hope for a Chicago community of their own

One of the city’s fastest-growing immigrant groups seeks a Chicago community on par with Chinatown, Hispanic enclave at 26th Street

Africans are among the city’s fastest-growing immigrant groups, and the newcomers are hoping to establish a South Side community on par with Chinatown and Little Village’s Latino enclave.

Over the past decade, the 700 block of East 79th Street has undergone a transformation that points to another shift in Chicago’s ethnic landscape.

First came Yassa, a Senegalese restaurant whose spicy, rich cuisine has garnered attention from foodies across the region. Then Mandela, an African grocery store, opened next door, followed by two hair braiding shops and a Senegalese tailor across the street.

Now, the colorful business strip lies at the heart of hopes within one of the city’s fastest-growing immigrant groups for an “African village” that can stake a claim to a neighborhood in the same way that newcomers have shaped pockets of Chicago for generations.

“We see this as an anchor around which we can see other community development aspects flourishing and, over time, use it to create our resources and, hopefully, our political power, just like in other communities,” said Alie Kabba, director of the United African Organization, an umbrella group that has been scouting the 79th Street area for property to use as an African community center.

Since 1990, the number of African immigrants in the Chicago area has quadrupled to an estimated 42,300, now the country’s fifth-largest African population behind New York, Los Angeles, Washington and Minneapolis, U.S. census figures show.

The growth comes as older immigrant groups like the Italians and Irish that once dominated certain city neighborhoods shrink, and as members of larger groups such as Mexicans and Poles move to the suburbs or return to their native lands in search of better opportunities.

For decades, African immigrants have been concentrated in North Side neighborhoods such as Uptown and Edgewater, where refugees from Ethiopia, Eritrea and Somalia moved to be close to the many social service agencies based there.

While those communities continue to grow, Africans from Senegal, Nigeria, Mali and Ghana have been moving to the South Side, where rents and home prices are cheaper, community leaders say. Others have been moving to the southwest suburbs.

The community’s growth on the South Side can be seen in hair braiding shops that do brisk business among soul food restaurants and sneaker stores in Bronzeville and Chatham or in the clusters of taxicabs parked outside mosques and churches in the shadow of the Chicago Skyway.

Ousmane Drame, the imam at a mosque named Al-Farooq in Greater Grand Crossing, said 600 to 700 Africans from several countries attend weekly prayers there, most of whom live nearby.

The mosque was started in 2002 inside a 73rd Street storefront building for a handful of Mali immigrants, Drame said.

After more Africans began attending, the group purchased a sprawling brick building on Stony Island Avenue. “We moved to this place in December of 2010, and now after three years, we’re almost about to outgrow the place,” Drame said.

The Senegalese shop owners on 79th Street want to reinvigorate their Chatham neighborhood business district and give it a distinct identity.

Keba Mbungue, 58, who moved to Chatham in 2007, said he envisions an African version of Chinatown or Little Village’s 26th Street shopping district around his shop, which sells both West African and American fashions.

“When you go to a Chinese neighborhood, they got it. When you go to a Spanish neighborhood, they got it,” Mbungue said, his deep voice competing with the sound of a French news anchor on a radio in his shop. “Why not African people?”

The vision held by Mbungue and others remains far from reality. The 79th Street strip where they’ve staked their dreams also includes a currency exchange and vacant buildings including an old grocery store.

But Kabba said his group is convinced this is where Africans will make their economic and political presence felt in Chicago. With many African families now established on the South Side and providing a foothold for fellow countrymen, he sees the potential for a solid and thriving African stronghold.

“Where others see blight, we see a future, a bright future,” Kabba said.

Much of the hope on 79th Street is built on the success of Yassa, a modest restaurant that features African artwork on its walls and a framed poster of a young Muhammad Ali scowling over a toppled Sonny Liston in their 1965 heavyweight boxing match.

Madieye Gueye and his wife, Awa, opened the restaurant in 2004.

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