Gangs, violence, murder. It was my childhood at The hole, another name for the Robert Taylor Homes projects in Bronzeville. You did not come out of The Hole; it was as inescapable as the grave. By the late 1990s, nine of America’s ten poorest neighborhoods, with populations of at least 2,500 people, were in social housing in Chicago. The problem was compounded by a totally Wild West style of law and order absent from law or order.
But the history of the neighborhood would be remembered because Bronzeville was not always so bad.
From the 1920s to the 1950s, the South Side of Chicago, which includes Bronzeville, was the African American culture and business center in Chicago. Bronzeville itself was surprisingly small, but at its peak, over 300,000 people lived in the narrow seven-mile strip.
For a time, Chicago’s black population lived in the stretch along 22nd to 63rd Street, between State Street and Cottage Grove. The epicenter of entertainment, the true Mecca of the arts, belonged to Bronzeville and was located at the corners of 35th and State Street and 47th Street and South Parkway Boulevard (later renamed Martin Luther King, Jr. Drive) .
When I was young, these were the perfect places to get shot. Several decades earlier, however, Bronzeville was well known for its nightclubs and dance halls, entertainment, and businesses. The massive impact of the city on jazz and blues, which cannot be underestimated, developed with the arrival of musicians from the South, part of the great migration African Americans en masse from South to North, West and Midwest during the 20e century. In the 1920’s, Avalon Theater, now the New Regal Theater, has opened. Ultimately, he would become well known for hosting such famous jazz icons as Dizzy Gillespie, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington.
Bronzeville was also home to all-black businesses and institutions such as Provident Hospital, the Wabash YMCA and the George Cleveland Hall Library. Binga Bank was the first black-owned financial institution in Chicago. Named after Jesse Binga, the banker who bought property from whites and sold it to desperate blacks looking for a place to live, Binga Bank crashed during the Depression, and its founder passed away earning $ 15 per week as a janitor. But they were more than alternatives to the racially restricted downtown establishments. They were brilliant pillars in a strong community.
Key figures and residents associated with the area included: Andrew “Rube” Foster, founder of the Negro National Baseball League (who lived around 39th and Wentworth Avenue); Ida B. Wells, a civil rights activist and co-organizer of the NAACP, who lived at 3624 South King Drive; the first licensed black aviator Bessie coleman, who lived around 41st Street and King Drive; and acclaimed R&B legend Sam cooke, who lived at 3527 South Cottage Grove.
In 1920, the Chicago American Giants of the National League of Negroes won the first pennant of the inaugural league championship. At the time, the White Sox and the Cubs were both strictly white teams. But it didn’t matter – the American Giants were so popular that they sometimes drew larger crowds to the South Side Park in Bronzeville (formerly the home of the White Sox, who decamped to Comiskey Park in 1910) than either. of these teams.
The Depression had shaken the community deeply, and while federal efforts like the Works Progress Association (WPA) kept some businesses and artists operating, too much damage had been done: Black Metropolis was gone. After World War II, white veterans, taking advantage of the perks made possible by GI Bill and VA home loans, moved in. Twenty years later, they move to the suburbs, with upper and middle class residents (mostly Poles, Jews, and Italians) in the areas surrounding The Robert Taylor Homes choosing to leave. As more and more blacks entered, fewer whites remained. Like every other place in America, Bronzeville was not immune to White Flight, something that happens when 25% of a white neighborhood’s population becomes non-white. But this is nothing new. The further postwar whites moved away from the neighborhood, the more businesses they took with them when they went, and the harder the once-vital neighborhood became on the new African-American community, which was trying to gain a foothold after eventually gained a voice in the mid to late 1960s. Police presence declined. Public services have disappeared. Crime has skyrocketed. By the 1970s, Bronzeville was well on its way to becoming the hole in the ground – The Hole – for which it would become known.
They blew up the Robert Taylor houses during the years 1998-2007. Forty years of suffering, demolished in nine. I say good riddance. Now, new residences designed to attract the city’s wealthiest are appearing almost daily in Bronzeville, including this $ 6 million, 10,000 square foot facility to contain a gym, two multi-purpose club rooms and a toilet for family friends. They are not too far from low rise buildings – the “A new face of social housing”- which function as a band-aid for a systemic problem: minorities always try, and fail, to obtain safe housing, better access to schools and proper medical care. Despite Chicago’s urgent need for low-income, affordable housing – in 2017, 282,000 Chicagoans applied for housing assistance, including nearly 16,000 homeless residents – plans to change displacement policy did have not yet achieved their goal.
I spoke to two experts on how to think about expanding access to housing in new, bigger and better ways. Ann Logue, financial consultant, advisor and former professor at UIC, is well aware of what gentrification has done to the city. Logue says: “The neighborhood change is inevitable and it will displace some people. Will this move retirees who are able to sell their homes for money than they ever thought possible? This is probably fine. Will it displace families, especially those who cannot afford to raise rents? It’s not that good. Will this attract people who are committed to the neighborhood public school and who will bring income to local businesses? This is probably fine. Will this bring in developers returning properties and short-term residents who want to change everything to their tastes before they leave? It’s probably not that good.
Logue says Chicago has a long way to go before its residents, like those in what was once known as Bronzeville, can find equity – both in the form of housing and also in the form of housing. ‘a fair life. “I’m going to do a file for a League of Women Voters project, illinoisvoterguide.org, which helps people all over the state research candidates and issues before elections, ”said Logue. “Beyond that, we need real change starting at the top, and who knows if we will ever get there. More investment in schools, of course, even if it costs money. Maybe move zoning decisions out of neighborhoods and into City Hall, to increase the number of low-rental housing that is being built. “
Professor Jonathan Foiles, a psychotherapist in private practice in Chicago’s Hyde Park neighborhood and senior lecturer at the University of Chicago’s School of Human Services Administration, believes it is possible for areas like Bronzeville to become black mecca again prosperous.
“The long answer is to fight for a fairer system that works for everyone,” he says. “The way we do this involves many developments, not the least of which involves increased taxes on the rich, a guaranteed basic income and a minimum wage at the federal level that is truly livable. We also need to review disability benefits for people unable to work to ensure that people with physical and mental disabilities live in poverty. ”
He also notes that we need to look to places like Evanston, the first city in America to grant reparations to its black residents, as a possible response to the difficult situation in Bronzeville. “We have to stop pretending that the police are the answer to everything. The poor and homeless are the most over-policed people in our society, and this does nothing to make us safer and only increases their misery. None of this is possible without large-scale investments, and by that I mean repairs. Evanston has taken a small step in that direction, and I am watching their efforts with enthusiasm. We have divested from communities of color for decades, and the return of these deliberate political choices cannot be to sprinkle grants here and there. Chicago is a city whose neighborhoods have been largely shaped by redlining and other forms of housing discrimination, and the way forward must address this fact directly rather than claiming we owe no debt to the past. . Book of foils, (Mis) diagnosed: How prejudices distort our perception of mental health, was released in September.
It gives me hope. Most people know of only one historically prosperous black neighborhood in Harlem. Imagine if people knew Bronzeville and lived long enough to see it go back to Black Metropolis. I think that would be a huge show of progress in a country that constantly proves that it just wants to stay the same. I am ready for Bronzeville to be an example of the importance of black life – once again. Are you?
This article was featured in the InsideHook Chicago bulletin. Register now to learn more about the Windy City.