May 4, 2017

The Optimist

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William Cheatham

William K. Cheatham attends most of the meetings of the City Council of Atlantic City. He attends the board meetings of the Casino Reinvestment Development Authority. He is president of the Board of Trustees of the Atlantic City Free Public Library, a member of the Shade Tree Committee and an alternate on the board of the Atlantic City Municipal Utilities Authority.

He was active in the First Ward Civic Association and was a regular at the meetings of the city Taxpayers Association (which reviewed the municipal budget) but those organizations no longer assemble on a regular basis. He’s a former member of the county construction board. Atlantic City was once renowned as the World’s Playground. It’s now the Entertainment Capital of the Jersey Shore. Cheatham has lived in Atlantic City long enough to see that devolution first-hand, but apparently he’s never been much interested in catching Wayne Newton at Harrah’s or Englebert Humperdink at the Golden Nugget. William Cheatham wants to be heard.

CRDA board meetings are held at 2:00 p.m. on the third Tuesday of each month. They tend not to be overflowing with disinterested citizens wishing to comment publicly on the agency’s agenda. Cheatham makes it a point to speak publicly at CRDA meetings. City Council meeting are better-attended, but Cheatham speaks out at those too. City Councilman Marty Small, who represents Atlantic City’s Second Ward and therefore William Cheatham, said when he became city council president last year, he shortened the public-comment period from three minutes to two minutes per person, since the average commenter took about 2:15 to wrap things up. When Cheatham came to the council meeting and made his public statement, it was Small’s duty to tell him his time was up. Members of the public who want to offer comments are required to sign in in a big book beforehand, so they can be announced. At the next meeting, Cheatham spoke for the allotted two minutes. “Mr. Cheatham, your time is up,” Small said, and asked for the next speaker, at which point the officiant read the name “William Cheatham” who had signed in twice, to recover his lost minutes. “The crowd cracked up,” remembered Councilman Small, acknowledging maybe you had to be there.

Reverend Collins Days, the pastor of the Second Baptist Church, arrived in Atlantic City in 1994 and met William Cheatham almost instantly. “The first time we met he was talking about the issues of the city—what needs to happen. And how he thought I should be engaged in the community,” Days said. Cheatham, naturally, is a member of the leadership council and a deacon at the church.

“He has an opportunity to encourage the congregation in social and civic responsibilities, and he does that every chance he gets.
“Which is often.”

Cheatham’s name flits ghostlike across the minutes of city agencies. In 2015, we read, he is concerned about loitering in the vicinity of 1433 Bacharach Boulevard (across the street from Brown Park). If a property owner is seeking a certificate of nonconformity, Cheatham asks if the owner lives there himself or rents. When a development plan is submitted on Block 305 Lot 19, Cheatham wants to know if there is enough parking (they’re working on it). When a redevelopment plan is read for the new Stockton University campus, Cheatham registers concern over the loss of tax revenue “when the property becomes a college.” When a supplemental fund is established to support the Save Lucy (the celebrated Elephant) Committee, Cheatham sees a chance to propose better transportation between tourist attractions across the island.

When CRDA resolved to dispose of an apartment building at One North Boston (to Mark Callazzo, who planned to renovate) Cheatham declared in favor of tearing it down and building a new one (the renovation went forward). When the board rejected all bids for the Atlantic Avenue façade revitalization project, Cheatham commented he was in favor of façade improvement and hoped all property owners would participate.

At times Cheatham plays the role of supportive coach, or cheerleader. From March 23, 2015: “William Cheatham commented that CRDA is doing a good job and he encouraged the Authority and other decision-makers to begin thinking more proactively about how to improve things well into the future.”
A few months earlier, he had wished everyone a Happy New Year.

Cheatham was not born in Atlantic City but was brought here to live with family members when he was a baby. He grew up on Kentucky Avenue during the days of official segregation, a condition he says he didn’t notice until he got married. At the time the city economy was healthier, for locals, if also missing a multi-billion-dollar corporate gaming industry. He remembers seeing backroom gambling parlors, and looking out his window at the long lines, stretching down Atlantic Avenue, of people waiting to get in to Club Harlem.

“I did a lot of roaming behind closed doors,” he said. “I roamed all around the city. Saw things maybe I shouldn’t have.”
He married at age 16. Neither he nor his wife finished high school, but all of his own children would. A daughter, who studied public relations in college, now works for the Marriott Corporation. Cheatham’s first job, age 11, was cleaning trays in the cafeteria at the YWCA. He was a busboy at the Astor Hotel, worked for the proprietor of a fruit market, worked for himself selling baskets on the boardwalk. “Always had some kind of job,” he says. “Always find a way to make a hustle.” The Miss America Pageant was the hot season for boardwalk basket sales, he says.

As an adult, he was assistant manager at J.J. Newbury (on Atlantic Avenue), then at W.T. Grant (offshore) and did stints at Kramer Beverage and several casinos. “Once you’ve worked at a few of them, you realize they’re all the same,” he says. He was also a notary (“still am”) but his wife, who is generally supportive, drew a line and made him do business on the porch. A marriage of 71 years is based on compromise.

Despite his zest for civic engagement, Cheatham has only sought elected office twice. He ran for city council on a “ten point program” but was unsuccessful (“nobody wanted to see that pushed”). His wife, who served as campaign manager during the first bid, found the process exhausting. A second campaign further eroded family support (“My wife got so mad at me, my daughter took her to Mexico”) and he has not sought office since.

She is tolerant of his meeting schedule, but in truth, he says, “She doesn’t like it very much.” In the old days he would sometimes stay at city hall well into the night, and his wife, worried for his safety, would call the police. Today his process is streamlined. He arrives, signs the book, “says what he wants to say” (in his words) and leaves. He doesn’t wait around for the “argue and fuss” portion of the program and is usually home before alarm bells ring.

Cheatham is 87 years old. He lives in the Best of Life Park apartment complex on Virginia Avenue, essentially in the Taj Mahal (no Hard Rock). He was effectively taxed out of his home on Maryland Avenue after lobbying CRDA for trees to be planted on the street.

He has six children, 15 grandchildren, 16 great-grandchildren. When I asked if he has hobbies apart from attending civic meetings, he laughed. “Heehee!”

“For a gentleman his age, he could have basically threw up his hands and threw in the towel and said, ‘That’s somebody else’s problem and concern.’ But he continues to fight for the people of Atlantic City,” County Freeholder Ernest Coursey, who has known Cheatham for years, said.

“It’s always the older people who are leading the charge for the young people, but at some point, the older people will fall off, pass away. Who’s gonna pick up the baton?

“Where does he get all the time and energy? He makes his way.”

When I asked Reverend Days why he thinks Cheatham takes so much time to be involved, he mentioned Atlantic City’s history—the broken promises, the optimism of the casino era—but it boiled down to this: “He loves the city. That’s why.

“He has an idea that this city can be a whole lot better than what it is. There’s so much apathy around. And he’s not one to do that. He knows that one person can make a difference. He makes his voice heard.”

“He’s always been one to tell it like it is,” Council President Marty Small said. “And he fights for Atlantic City—more than some of the elected officials.
“People of Mr. Cheatham’s age and more, they value and treasure their vote.”

When I asked Cheatham why he thought more people didn’t follow his lead, he said, “I have no idea why that is. I mean, they leave it for their leaders to do for them, and sometimes the leaders weren’t doing for the community itself. They were doing for themselves and the position they were in. That’s what was wrong.”

Naturally, Cheatham is a card-carrying member of the Best of Life Park Tenants Association, where recently he passed out schedules for upcoming CRDA meetings and tried to convince tenants to attend.

“The senior citizens in town are actually a voting bloc,” he said.

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