Home for us is Bronzeville

Home for us is Bronzeville
Not Our Idea of Local Shopping

Bronzeville Past to Future

The composite photo on this blog represents the past, the present and something of the future for Bronzeville. Russell Lee captured the look and feel of Chicago’s Bronzeville in the 1941 photograph known as Negro Boys on Easter Morning. We caught a bit of Bronzeville spirit in the Time to Unite mural adorning the walls of the once famous rail from Bronzeville to the Stockyards. The final picture is the home of Bronzeville resident and board member of the Bronzeville Urban Development organization, Julian Dawson. Though this home stands in Bronzeville at the present; it represents the forward thinking in our community.

The 1940′s sparked the “Great Migration” of African Americans into the Chicago area. Seeking employment, these entrepreneurial people moved north and settled in the strip of land just south of the downtown area to a stretch between 26th Street on the north, south to 67th Street , and west to the Rock Island (now the Dan Ryan), and east to the Illinois Central Railroad tracks.

Walter Williams in the September 2004 issue of Capitalism Magazine stated that during the 1900’s, Bronzeville was home to several black newspapers and 731 business establishments. During this time, Bronzeville was known as the “Black Metropolis,” one of the nation’s most significant landmarks of African-American urban history.

The Bronzeville of the early 1940′s was a mecca of the arts. African American artist like Mahalia Jackson frequented the community. Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Bessie Coleman, Ida B Wells, Andrew Foster and others called Bronzeville home during its heyday. Club DeLisa, the high point of Bronzeville’s nightlife, was, according to the Chicago Defender, the “nicest of its kind in town,” Chicago’s Cotton Club, a favorite haunt of the 1930’s most famous jazz musicians.

According to my parents, it was the hot spot at which they too danced and sipped. People came to hear and see jazz and blues greats like Chippie Hill, Tommy Powell and the De-Ho Boy, and Albert Ammons and his Rhythm Kings and Louis Armstrong. We drew them all.

Segregation and red-lining by insurance companies, banks and other mortgage providers kept minority families pinned in communities like Bronzeville but it also kept us shopping in our own neighborhood. I remember going to the poultry market on 43rd Street with my mother. She picked out the chicken of her choice; the butcher took it out back squawking and brought it back wrapped in brown butcher paper (minus feathers, head and entrails).

The neighborhood barber was also the neighbor. Any child living in Bronzeville might be less than a block away from his/her current grade teacher and that teacher did not hesitate to call your parents. The neighborhood physician also resided in the ‘hood.

Romanticizing those times is not my intent. It was not perfect by any means but aspects of that past might be the dose needed for the future. Let’s start with shopping locally.


• If half the population spent $50 a month in the community, $42.6 billion would be generated.
• For every $100 spent locally $68 stays in the community
• The same $100 spent in a national chain leaves $43 in the community and
• That $100 spent via on line shopping brings a fat $0 back

These figures are supported by numerous studies done all over the place. For example, a 2003 case study of Mid-coast Maine covering several lines of goods and services validated these findings. The study surveyed eight locally owned Maine businesses, and found that the businesses spent 44.6 percent of their revenue within the surrounding two counties. They spent another 8.7 percent elsewhere in the state of Maine.

The four largest components of this local spending were wages and benefits paid to local employees, goods and services purchased from other local businesses, profits that accrued to local owners, and taxes paid to local and state government. (Courtesy of BALLE)
The concept is easy enough to understand but the implementation is tough, especially on the south side of Chicago.

Recently Bronzeville lost a local coffeehouse. The coffee was good, so were the pastries. In fact, the pastries were far superior to the stuff at Starbucks. So why are the doors closed? Just not enough traffic. Maybe location too far from heavy pedestrian traffic; not close enough to the mass transit a few blocks down; not close to other well-traveled spots, these could all be reasons.

One thing is certain, Bronzeville is having a rough time bringing new locally owned businesses to the community. This is the case for many of our sister communities of color but not so with Hispanic communities. Take a quick trip west on 18th Street or 26th Street and you can find everything you need.

El Guero Supermarkets are just one example. Your first thought is probably that the Hispanic community is thriving because they can cater to Spanish speaking clients. That might be true but look west on Devon Avenue at the Indian community.

Dress shops, tailors, grocery stores, notions, hardware you name it, it is available. By the way the majority speak English. Andersonville is famous for the availability of local goods and services as well. Andersonville is now considered one of Chicago’s “hot” neighborhoods. It also enjoys nationwide renown for its unique commercial district, comprised almost entirely of locally owned, independent businesses.

In 2004, an economic study of Andersonville was reported in newspapers across the globe. It demonstrated what Andersonville locals have known for a long time: that the locally owned businesses are a crucial part of Andersonville’s vitality and quality of life, returning far more to the community in economic benefits and neighborhood involvement than would non-local businesses. Closer to home, count the South Loop (this site has great information on the area) as an up and coming local effort.

What’s up with Bronzeville? Firstly, as a life-long resident of the community I will not give up living in Bronzeville. I refuse to succumb to the idea that local shopping in Bronzeville is primarily illicit drug traffic. It’s not. Susan Laws owns and operates a truly upscale hair salon on East 43rd Street (1009 E 43rd St ).

Just down the street is Norman’s Bistro an absolutely gorgeous spot to have brunch. Norman also hosts jazz at Room 43. Mel and Angie Monroe play host at the Welcome Inn Manor. I have visited bed and breakfast spots all over the country and Welcome Inn Manner at 4563 S Michigan Avenue is one of the most luxurious. Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles at 3947 S King Drive serves up good soul food and breakfasts. You can grab breakfast or brunch at Ms. Biscuits at 5431 S Wabash. Gallery Guichard at 3521 S Martin Luther King Jr. Drive is a superb stop on any art lovers’ tour. All this being said we still don’t have a locally owned bakery or a grocery store for example. This needs to change.

To really respond to the issues in Bronzeville another look at the history of this community is in order. Below is a direct (cut and paste) from a web surfing session I had. Business: Business in Bronzeville. Let me make sure I state this emphatically THIS IS A CUT AND PASTE from an article dated Monday, Apr. 18, 1938.

Although Chicago has 100,000 fewer Negroes than New York, it is the centre of U. S. Negro business; last census figures showed Chicago’s Negro establishments had annual net sales of $4,826,897, New York’s were only $3,322,274. Chicago’s Negroes all hail from the South, work generally as laborers in packing plants and steel mills, have a community feeling; New York’s are less homogenous, work mostly in hotels and apartments.

Great majority of Chicago’s Negroes live in a south side section known as Bronzeville. Here the principal shopping districts are on 43rd, 47th, sist (51st?) and syth(6oth?) Streets. Virtually all of this property belongs to whites, most of them Jews, and they make it tough for Negroes to go into business in these prize areas. Leases generally have clauses forbidding Negro tenants; and if a Negro manages to wangle a lease anyway, he is apt to find his rent tripled when the lease comes up for renewal.

When the Jones Brothers started the world’s only Negro-owned department store they had to buy the property to get onto 47th Street. When dapper little Frank Howell Jr. started Mae’s Dress Shoppe, he was forced to pay six-and-a-half months’ rent in advance. This smoldered in Negro Howell’s breast and continued to as he prospered. After Marva Trotter, fiancée of Prizefighter Joe Louis, bought her trousseau from Frank Howell, four other Mae’s Dress Shoppes were started by rivals eager to cash in on the publicity; but Frank Howell’s Original Mae’s Dress Shoppe is today the biggest and most fashionable in Bronzeville.

Read more: http://www.time.com/time/magazine/article/0,9171,759569,00.html#ixzz1VPdqL5P6

This article from 1938 certainly put a bee in my bonnet. Let’s hope Bronzeville, this story puts a B.U.G. in your ear. Own it, market it and support it locally!


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  • I think Bronzeville needs some organized, concentrated residential development. What has taken place there up to now is very scattered and surrounded by empty lots and boarded up buildings. I guess in this environment no one is going to take on such a project but look at how successful University Village was. Something like that would be ideal for the area and the proximity to the city would be awesome.

  • I'm having trouble with the $50 a month / $42.6 billion math. You need 71 million people spending $600 a year to get to $42.6 billion.

  • Hi Gary, I certainly agree that Bronzeville has too many vacant lots. There may be more than one explanation for this.
    Many of the lots were purchased by speculators betting on the Olympics. We didn't get it. Quickly the housing bubble burst had a huge impact all over the country. Bronzeville was really hit hard. We have condos and new construction empty. We have an abundance of planned housing at a stand still or scrapped all together.

  • Hi Joe you are right on. Here's how we stack up according to the U.S. Census

    As of 2010 the United States had a population of 308,745,538, Illinois Population, 12,830,632, Chicago, 2,833,321 (2006)

  • I know historically that AA of different income levels have lived together. That was when everyone shared the same values,morals, and goals. A lowincome family was indistinguishable from a high income family. The same is not possible today as the low income people have developed a different culture and mindset that makes living with them not possible. When this area reaches its full potential there won't be economic diversity unless there is middle class diversity like someone making 45K and some one making 90K.

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