Bronzeville and Beyond
The Future Looks Bright for Chicago's Historic African American Places
By Jennifer Farwell | Online Only | Feb. 13, 2009
With the historic election of President Barack Obama, some might say that Chicago has come full circle. The city that represented hope for 50,000 disenfranchised black southerners between 1916 and 1920 (more than 500,000 before the Great Migration ended in 1970) has now served as the political cradle for America's first black president. Today, as tour guides in the city add "Obama stops" to their itineraries, it's clear that Chicago is proud of its African American heritage.
Nevertheless, as in other large urban areas, many of Chicago's African American sites have been scraped from existence by bulldozers in the name of progress. Even in tourist magnets such as the Black Metropolis, the Near South Side's "city within a city" that was a beacon of African American culture and prosperity in the 1920s-1940s, the landscape has been forever altered.
This historic neighborhood, which centers on the intersection of 35th Street and Martin Luther King Drive, was once home to several black icons, including musician Louis Armstrong, NAACP organizer Ida B. Wells, and Bessie Coleman, the first female African American pilot. Today, the area has been decimated by demolition and waves of new construction that began in the 1940s with massive housing projects. Only nine landmarked structures remain to comprise the Black Metropolis National Register district (a themed district with no geographic boundaries).
Despite these earlier losses, or perhaps because of them, the will to revitalize and preserve this area of Chicago is strong. One of its champions, Paula Robinson, is optimistic about the area's future. Robinson, the Illinois advisor to the National Trust for Historic Preservation, is deeply involved in efforts to have the "Black Belt," a historically African American section of Chicago that surrounds the Black Metropolis National Register district (also known as Bronzeville), designated by Congress as the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area.
The Black Belt was the only sector of Chicago where blacks could legally live or own property until the 1940s, when the Supreme Court proclaimed that restrictive covenants based on race were unconstitutional. These restrictions had the unintended consequence of fostering cultural and economic vibrancy, Robinson notes. "There are very few places where you can talk about a city within a city," she says. "All the cultural products—all the entrepreneurship, the need for the first black insurance company—sprang from here."
According to Robinson, the 700-square-block area is far more historically and culturally rich than the numbers might suggest. In a GIS map of all the heritage assets in the proposed National Heritage Area, her group identified 83. "We have a huge preservation stewardship responsibility," she says. "This is very much the Ellis Island for African Americans. They were coming here, being told the streets were paved in gold. That is our story and we have to find ways to tell it that are really relevant and accessible."
From the Civil War to Oprah
To protect this area and ensure its economic viability, Robinson and her team constantly seek new ways to market it and fascinate a diverse array of visitors. The Belt contains a Confederate burial ground at Oak Wood Cemetery as well as the tomb of Stephen Douglas, who, during the Great Debates, confirmed Lincoln's anti-slavery stance. "We started recognizing these sites and saying, 'Wow, we can tell a whole American story,'" she says. "We are peeling back the layers of the onion and seeing all these connections. … On Veteran's Day, we started a new military tour, the Tour of Duty. We're on the tour, and we go by the Sunset Café," (one of Chicago's earliest jazz venues). "A tourist from France says, 'Hey, you didn't mention the Sunset Café. This is how we got exposed to jazz in Europe, because the black military bands brought it."'
Robinson's group is already planning for 2016, which will be the centennial of the Great Migration and possibly Chicago's next shot at hosting the Olympics. In the meantime, she's working on funding the feasibility study for the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area, due in June 2009. She also says they are developing a new itinerary, the O Factor Tour. "People want to know if we are going to see anything relating to Oprah, and, 'Are we going to go by Obama's house? And where are the Olympics going to be?' We want to make sure everyone feels they have a shared heritage."
Despite Robinson's enthusiasm, preservation challenges continue to plague the area. In 2006, the 115-year-old Pilgrim Baptist Church, widely credited with being the birthplace of gospel, was largely destroyed by fire. According to Jonathan Fine, president of Preservation Chicago, the vision for rehabilitation is ambitious, controversial, and incomplete. "We are still waiting for some rebuilding plan," he says.
At the center of another firestorm is the Pickford Theater, the only surviving movie house from the heyday of Chicago's black entertainment district. Landmarks Illinois Advocacy Director Lisa DiChiera reports that theater owner DeLaSalle High School initially pledged to incorporate historic interior details into its new auditorium. Now, however, the school wants to demolish the entire structure. "They claim developers have informed them that [preservation] is too costly," DiChiera says. "They haven't petitioned the city to change the agreement—yet."
A mile and a half away, outside the Black Metropolis but within Robinson's proposed Heritage Area, preservationists ponder the fate of the empty and deteriorating Michigan Garden Apartments, a 447-unit, five-story complex now on the market for an undisclosed sum. Built in 1929 with the assistance of Sears Roebuck & Co. president Julius Rosenwald as low-cost housing, the complex has been vacant and deteriorating for many years. "Right now the whole economy is collapsing," says Fine. "We don't know when any of these buildings will be rehabbed."
Robinson remains upbeat and confident, pointing to positive developments in the area, including the newly restored Overton Hygienic Building, one of the eight Black Metropolis landmarks. The temporary Chicago Defender building (the second home of the African American Chicago Defender newspaper) has been purchased by a restaurant group that did an adaptive reuse of an old firehouse in the South Loop.
"If the Olympics doesn't come, we are still going to do our Centennial," says Robinson. "We will continue to do interpretation and education in a way that is really relevant and accessible to people. We entered this trying to save the buildings, but now we are hearing and learning. It is making us ready and stronger to tell our story of preservation, art, and culture to a larger audience."
Jennifer Farwell is a freelance writer in New Orleans.
Jennifer Farwell is a freelance writer in New Orleans.
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