In Chicago’s Bronzeville a New Wave of Resurgence Is Picking Up Steam

In Chicago’s Bronzeville a New Wave of Resurgence Is Picking Up Steam

In the years leading up to the recession and housing bust, hordes of frenzied buyers, flippers, and real estate speculators scrambled to capitalize on undervalued land and housing in the far-flung Chicago neighborhoods with the greatest profit and transformation potential, assuming an inevitableness of rapid appreciation.  While the downturn wreaked havoc on developments and investments throughout the city, most of the purported “next big neighborhoods” (Hyde Park, West Town, Logan Square, Humboldt Park, Pilsen, Bridgeport, Andersonville, etc.) not only weathered the free fall, but are now surpassing their pre-recession desirability.

It’s been a slightly more complicated story for Bronzeville, which for years many have seen as the gentrification heir apparent. Though Bronzeville has indeed experienced a great deal of revitalization over the last three and a half decades as result of an influx of middle and upper-class African-American professionals, it’s been sporadic and not ubiquitous within its borders.  Perhaps most disappointingly for many residents and boosters, the wave of newcomers has not eradicated higher than average levels of crime  and not resulted in a large-scale revival of the commercial districts.

Nevertheless, the tide seems to be turning for this lakefront bastion.  With its unique history and location, recovering residential market, planned developments, and steadfast business owners whose fortunes are inextricably tied to the community’s growth, it’s becoming increasingly apparent that Bronzeville is reemerging as a neighborhood bound to bloom with renewed vigor.

Pilgrim Baptist Church

By Harold Allen, photographer [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Not unlike most Chicago neighborhoods, Bronzeville has undergone a number of metamorphoses.  Douglas, the community area that encompasses Bronzeville’s northern half, began as the property and home of Abraham Lincoln’s debating foe, Stephen A. Douglas.  During the Civil War, the North established Camp Douglas on the premises as a POW camp detaining Confederate soldiers.  By the 1880s the area had developed into a well-to-do Jewish enclave, apparent in Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan’s impressive Kehilath Anshe Mayriv Synagogue (later Pilgrim Baptist Church) completed in 1890.  Further south in the Grand Boulevard section of Bronzeville, many of Chicago’s elite, including stock yard barons the Swifts’ and the vaudeville stars the Marx brothers, had established stately homes along the lavish boulevards.

It wasn’t until the 1890s that the neighborhood began to transform into an extension of the black community that had been residing in the Near South Side.  The subsequent decades saw Bronzeville’s absorption of an enormous wave of migrants escaping the Jim Crow south.  What became known as the “Black Metropolis” had its heyday from roughly the 1910s through the 1940s.  Rivaling, if not surpassing the Harlem Renaissance, Bronzeville became the Second City epicenter of black working, middle, and upper-class culture and establishment.  Restaurants, clubs, theaters, and other businesses of “the city within a city” were found on and around State Street between 30th and 35th (“The Stroll”) and 43rd Street and 47th Street between State Street and Cottage Grove Avenue.

One notable surviving structure is the old Chicago Defender Building at 3435 S. Indiana Ave.  The nationally circulated weekly newspaper was pivotal in promoting Chicago and other northern cities as “the promised land” for Southern black migrants.  Besides its role in the Great Migration, the Chicago Defender published the poetry of Bronzeville resident and Pulitzer Prize winner Gwendolyn Brooks and columns by Langston Hughes.  The paper’s founder, Robert S. Abbott, was also responsible for creating the Bud Billiken Parade, which is the oldest and largest running African-American parade in the U.S.

Two nearby buildings that are significant for their musical history are Pilgrim Baptist Church at 3301 S. Indiana Avenue and the former Sunset Café at 315 E. 35th Street.  Under the direction of Thomas A. Dorsey and featuring singers, such as Mahalia Jackson, Pilgrim Baptist Church is recognized as the birthplace of gospel music.  Despite a devastating fire that left the interior in ashes, the brick and stone walls still stand and will serve as the exterior for the reconstruction of this landmark.  The Sunset Café, which later became the Grand Terrace Café, was one of the most pivotal institutions in jazz history.  It was here that residents King Oliver, Louis Armstrong, Cab Calloway, and Earl “Fatha” Hines, as well as orchestra members Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Nat “King” Cole were regular performers and received major exposure.  Though the building now houses a hardware store, many of the original murals have survived.

Ida B. Wells-Barnet House

TonyTheTiger at English Wikipedia [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY-SA 2.5-2.0-1.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

Bronzeville’s recent resurgence has fostered a revived interest in the neighborhood’s historic, architectural, and cultural attractions.  In addition to the landmarks already mentioned, notable surviving remnants of its former eminence include the Overton Hygienic Building (3619-27 S. State St.), which housed a preeminent African-American cosmetics producer, the first black owned insurance company in the north and current home of the Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council's Bronzeville Visitor Information Center in the Supreme Life Building (3501 S. King Drive), and the former homes of Louis Armstrong (421 E. 44th St.), “Native Son” author Richard Wright (4831 S. Vincennes Ave.), and influential civil rights activist Ida B. Wells (3624 S. King Drive).

Roloson Houses
photo credit: Robert W Roloson Houses via photopin (license)

For art, history, and architecture enthusiasts, rewarding neighborhood strolls abound.  Visitors are provided a view of dignified late 19th and early 20th century attached row houses in the Calumet-Giles Prairie District (aka “The Gap” due to its survival sandwiched between two housing developments) on Calumet, Giles, and Prairie Avenues between 31st and 36th, the Giles-Calumet District on the 3700 and 3800 block of Giles and 3800 block of Calumet Avenue, and the Washington Park Court District between 4900 and 4959 S. Washington Park Ct.  On the 3200 block of Calumet Avenue, the Roloson Row Houses, Frank Lloyd Wright’s singular row house development and among his earliest commissions after leaving Louis Sullivan’s firm, exhibit the prairie school pioneer’s burgeoning signature and proclivity for pleasing geometric harmony.  Among Chicago’s most impressive boulevards, Martin Luther King Drive is not only replete with ornate 19th century greystone and brownstone mansions, but also hosts a range of public and private art, including Alison Saar’s “Monument to the Great Migration” at 26th Street, “The Victory Monument” at 35th Street, which commemorates an African-American regiment that served in France during WWI, and contemporary exhibits at Blanc Gallery between 44th and 45th.

One of the most hyped upcoming additions to Bronzeville is the Mariano’s grocery store under construction at S. Martin Luther King Drive and 39th Street.  With its sleek design by Johnson and Lee Architects, who also designed Chinatown’s Ping Tom Boathouse, the store is expected to have a presence worthy of the grand boulevard.  Mariano’s is projecting to employ 400 workers and will take up about 7 out of the 55 acres of the former site of the Ida B. Wells Homes.  While further development is anticipated on the site, housing advocates are demanding that the Chicago Housing Authority make good on their commitment to replace affordable and low-income units on the grounds.  Regardless of the controversy surrounding the site, the new grocery store will be greatly impactful in chipping away at an expansive South Side food desert.

Crown Hall
photo credit: The Architecturally Renown S.R. Crown Building via photopin (license)

Just southwest of the Mariano’s site, the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) is striving to reenergize its campus.  IIT’s grounds already showcase a wealth of modernist marvels: twenty Mies Van der Rohe designed buildings including the architectural exemplar Crown Hall, Dutch “starchitect” Rem Koolhaus’ striking one-story student hub and concrete and steel tube enclosure of the Green Line coined the McCormick Tribune Campus Center, and Helmut Jahn’s deviceful State Street Village residence halls.  Central to luring potential students and tech talent is the planned $40 million innovation center being designed by John Ronan Architects and Shepley Bulfinch.  The five-story, 100,000 square foot building will add classrooms and facilities for startups to take advantage of onsite resources.  Once completed in 2017, the new facility will be designated the Ed Kaplan Family Institute for Innovation and Tech Entrepreneurship.

Whereas Bronzeville’s rejuvenation is visibly apparent on many residential streets, especially in the Douglas section east of IIT, to the south Grand Boulevard’s main arteries have significantly lagged in restoring the spirit of their former glory.  A plethora of vacant lots and storefronts line the once bustling thoroughfares.  The underutilized Harold Washington Cultural Center and underwhelming “Chicago Blues District” serve as sobering reminders of the challenges facing business owners and neighborhood advocates.  However, there is building momentum in bringing new life to these commercial streets that characterized “The Black Metropolis”.

Two new promising developments now essentially bookend the stretch of 47th Street between Martin Luther King Drive and Cottage Grove Avenue.  At the west end at 436 E. 47th Street, a large 1920s era building and former site of a black-owned department store has been transformed into the new home of Gallery Guichard.  As with the previous location at 35th and S. Martin Luther King Drive, the new 4,000 square foot ground floor gallery space displays African art created by U.S. and African artists.  The second and third floors are occupied by the Bronzeville Artist Lofts, which include event and live-work spaces.  The $7 million renovation of the erstwhile dilapidated three-story building preserved much of the original charm including the floor to ceiling timber trusses on the top floor.

photo credit: Shops & Lofts on 47th via photopin (license)

At Bronzeville’s eastern border at 47th and Cottage Grove Avenue, a major retail and residential development has recently opened.  Dubbed the Shops and Lofts at 47, the first major mixed-use complex in over half a century in the neighborhood boasts 55,000 square feet of commercial space and 96 mixed-income apartments.  Though far from ideal for those who would prefer a locally owned anchor in lieu of an infamous corporate entity, the Walmart Neighborhood Market, which has absorbed 41,000 square feet of available space, has delivered fresh food and groceries to a large swath of the city that had endured as a food desert.  As a key component of the city’s investment in Opportunity Planning Areas (link), residents and planners are hopeful that Shops and Lofts will provide a significant boost in reviving the 47th Street commercial corridor.

The city also sees redevelopment potential for 43rd Street.  The Department of Planned Development will soon release proposals from developers for seven vacant lots between Indiana Avenue and Martin Luther King Drive.  Due to the sites’ proximity to the 43rd Green Line station, new housing and retail with a TOD (Transit Oriented Development) slant could soon be on the docket.  One project that could be a major catalyst for reviving this stretch of 43rd is the renovation and reuse of the Forum building.  Constructed in 1897, The Forum was a former dance hall, jazz and blues mainstay, and meeting place for community activists.  Though the owner Bernard Lloyd, founder of neighborhood real estate business Urban Juncture, has estimated it will cost at least $25 million to create the planned community and entertainment complex, his first projected endeavor will be to get a café up and running on the site.

Further east a small series of businesses is beginning to cluster.  At 43rd and Forestville Avenue the second outpost of Hyde Park’s Sip and Savior has recently taken up shop, wedged in between the popular Ain’t She Sweet Café and the men’s clothing store Agriculture.  The coffee shop is adorned with local art, has free wifi, and a large back patio in the works.  Though unlikely to occur in the short term, the success of this attached string of businesses could feasibly spark an incremental commercial boom for 43rd Street.

Urban Juncture has also been working to galvanize a section of 51st Street near the Green Line station through several ventures.  In 2010, the Bronzeville Community Garden opened at 51st and Calumet Avenue, delivering fresh food, gardening tutelage and workshops, and a locale for avid chess players.  On what once was a vacant lot catty-corner from the community garden, a repurposed shipping container now houses the community bike enterprise Bronzeville Bikes.  Patrons can purchase spruced up bikes or receive repairs at a competitive price.  Additionally, local experts lead free periodic guided bike tours that highlight the neighborhood’s art, architecture, history, and sustainable developments.  Adjacent to the Bronzeville Bikes lot and on the western side of the Green Line platform, Urban Juncture has been rehabbing and transforming a terra-cotta clad building into Bronzeville Cookin’.  The ambitious plan includes four restaurants, a rooftop farm, and produce market.

Rendering of 35th Street Bridge, City of Chicago

Rendering of 35th Street Bridge, City of Chicago

Bronzeville is also in the process of revamping its recreational assets.  New forthcoming pedestrian and bicycle bridges will provide improved access to lakefront gems such as Burnham Park and the lustrous 31st Street Marina.  At 35th Street, an $18 million Teng + Associates designed suspension bridge is replacing a crumbling 75 year old bridge.  The gleaming 620 foot long structure is projected to open before the end of the year.

Sketch of 41st and 4rd St. Bridges, Chicago Tribune

Sketch of 41st and 4rd St. Bridges, Chicago Tribune

Though technically located in the Oakland neighborhood nestled in between Bronzeville and the lake, two curving bridges at 41st and 43rd will serve as lakefront passageways for residents of Grand Boulevard.  While the new 43rd Street Bridge will replace an antiquated, wheelchair inaccessible bridge, the 41st Street Bridge will bestow an ancillary entry point.  Completion of the Cordogan, Clark & Associates designed bridges is expected in 2017.

Additionally, two inland parks are slated to receive major enhancements.  Ellis Park, at 35th and S. Cottage Grove Avenue, will be obtaining a new $11 million field house imbued with steel and precast concrete.  The 30,000 square foot facility will include a gym, swimming pool, fitness room, and space for clubs.  Eco-friendly features such as a green roof, rain garden, and a solar thermal system for hot water will be employed in the construction.  Further southwest, just a block south of the 43rd St. Green Line station and Forum Building at Calumet Avenue, the diminutive Buckthorn Park will be annexing two additional acres and receiving major upgrades.  Proposals include an amphitheater, water feature for children, an exercise area, and a walking path.  The refurbished park will be renamed Hadiya Pendleton Park in memory of the tragically slain teen.  Groundbreaking will take place this summer with a projected opening next year.

Perhaps the most encouraging aspect of Bronzeville’s new wave of resurgence is its increased density.  The city estimates the neighborhood’s population has grown by 5% since 2010.  The CHA’s replacement of demoed public housing projects like the Ida B. Wells Homes, Stateway Gardens, and the Robert Taylor Homes with the mixed-income developments Oakwood Shores, Park Boulevard, and Legends South has spearheaded much of the growth.  Currently, historic renovations of the Rosenwald Courts Apartments, which were once home to a young Quincy Jones, Gwendolyn Brooks, and Nat “King” Cole, and Unity Hall, one of 8 buildings belonging to the Black Metropolis Historic District, will contribute senior and affordable housing and market-rate student housing respectively.

Looking forward, Bronzeville’s upswing will be anchored by the confluence of its current developments with the increasing investment in the surrounding neighborhoods: Motor Row and McCormick Place to the north, Chinatown and Bridgeport to the west, and Hyde Park to the south.  Additionally, though far from certain, selection of the proposal to place the Obama Presidential Library in Washington Park would bring legions of visitors to the area.  As new amenities materialize for residents and newcomers increasingly discover its magnetism, the vitality of the neighborhood may begin to resemble the kinetic streets of its past.  Apparent to those who appreciate its charms, Bronzeville has too much to offer not to flourish.

(For the featured image at the top of page)

photo credit: 31st & Prairie? via photopin (license)

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