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Chicago's Bronzeville Is Ready for a Reprise

By Kari Lydersen
Special to The Washington Post
Saturday, November 6, 2004; Page A03

CHICAGO -- Growing up, Cliff Rome would hear his grandmother tell stories about her life in the Bronzeville neighborhood on Chicago's South Side, running into famous musicians such as Nat King Cole and Billie Holiday and dancing the night away at the Parkway Ballroom.

African Americans from all over the city would hold high school proms, weddings and banquets at the Parkway, because it was one of the few facilities of its type open to them under Jim Crow.

Cynthia Washington and Ben Moore dance during a fundraiser at the renovated Parkway Ballroom in Bronzeville, on Chicago's South Side. (John Gress For The Washington Post)

"This was a self-contained community, so we didn't have to go downtown and get insulted," said longtime Bronzeville resident Timuel D. Black Jr., 85, a historian and the author of "Bridges of Memory: Chicago's First Wave of Black Migration." "It was all here. You could stand on that corner and see Duke Ellington walk by."

Today, African Americans go to clubs and restaurants across the city. But Rome, 33, now owns the Parkway and is in the process of restoring it as a centerpiece of the African American community and a reminder of the rich cultural and artistic heritage of the city's South Side. Three years ago Rome reopened the Parkway as a gallery and location for fundraising and social events as well as the base for his catering company, Rome's Joy.

The rebirth of the Parkway mirrors what is happening all over Bronzeville, a stately neighborhood that, from the 1920s through the 1950s, was the playground of famous African American musicians, intellectuals and artists such as Langston Hughes and Miles Davis.

"This was the place to be then," Rome said. "And history has a reputation for repeating itself. I think in five years this will be one of the hottest spots in the country."

Bronzeville fell into disrepair with the breakup of the lucrative numbers gambling scene, the racial strife that rocked the city in the civil rights era, and government and commercial disinvestment. The neighborhood, whose main artery is a boulevard now called Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, became marked largely by boarded-up buildings, empty lots, liquor stores and fast-food outlets.

Today vacant lots and run-down storefronts are ubiquitous. But the revitalization in artistic life and real estate is also evident. Alderman Dorothy W. Tillman, an Alabama native who was active in the civil rights movement in Chicago, made reviving the area her main goal when she was appointed in 1984 by Harold Washington, the popular black mayor, to replace an alderman convicted of bribery.

The process has not been smooth. Tillman, whose office is near 47th Street and King Drive two blocks north of the Parkway, has been widely criticized for being slow to revive the area and for giving favors to friends and political allies in the process.

For several years a large cultural center billed as the cornerstone of her "Chicago Blues District" redevelopment plan sat half-constructed, stalled by financial and political woes. But this summer saw the opening of the spacious, elegant Harold Washington Cultural Center, featuring a 1,000-seat theater and music school. The center was originally going to be named after musician Lou Rawls, but many residents objected to identifying with Rawls and his song "Tobacco Road" because that refers to the migration of poor, uneducated African American farmers from the South, whereas Bronzeville was known as a magnet for a better-off, sophisticated crowd.

While decorative signs on lampposts designate Bronzeville a blues district, both of its only remaining longtime blues clubs closed in the past few years. Across the street from the cultural center is a boarded-up building that for decades housed Gerri's Palm Tavern, where a multiracial crowd of artistic and literary luminaries congregated. Owner Gerri Oliver was evicted from the site three years ago after the city deemed the structure unsafe. Tillman supported removing the tavern and designed plans for a new jazz bar to be opened on the site, though it still stands vacant. The Checkerboard Lounge also recently shuttered its site half a mile north on 43rd Street to move closer to the University of Chicago.

Tillman promises 47th Street will soon be lined by new blues clubs, though she cannot give details. The comedy club Second City has committed to opening a location at 47th Street and King Drive.

"It will be an African American comedy group -- this will be a place for African Americans to develop their talent," said Tillman, wearing one of her trademark hats, this one a fuzzy leopard-print cowboy hat, with matching high heels. "Most of our traditional black communities are gone, we're the only ones who have allowed our communities to go like that. So we've had people from around the country wanting to come here."

Next door to Tillman's office is the 47th Street Marketplace, a rehabbed mall that includes an Afrocentric bookstore, art studios, an upscale restaurant called Blu 47 and the Jamaican consulate's office. The majority of tenants are young black artists or entrepreneurs, many of whom grew up in the area. Rome sees himself and two close friends who have businesses in the marketplace as pioneers of the rebirth of Bronzeville.

"Right now we're the only restaurant like this in the area, but soon you'll see restaurants on every corner," said Darryl Petty, 37, owner of Blu 47 and a Bronzeville resident for 10 years.

"Before, because of racism and segregation, black people had to go to local businesses," said Bryant Johnson, 38, owner of the Steele Life gallery. "Now we have the opportunity to go wherever we want, so we have to make a conscious choice to support businesses right here in the community. People are embracing the change here now. The torch has been lit."

As developers have bought and renovated lovely graystones and brownstones lining King Drive and surrounding streets, housing prices have skyrocketed. An analysis of census data by the local nonprofit organization We the People Media notes that in the Grand Boulevard area, which encompasses Bronzeville, property values have risen 400 percent from 1990 to 2000, and there has been a tenfold increase in applications for building permits.

"There's a real change taking place," said historian Black. "The composition of the population is changing. Middle-class African American businesspeople are moving back to the neighborhood where their ancestors lived."

With the increasing property values have come fears of gentrification, that the people who stayed in Bronzeville during its tough years are being forced to leave. This pressure is exacerbated by the fact that thousands of units of public housing in the surrounding area are being torn down as part of the city's public housing redevelopment plan.

"It's a real problem, they don't have the housing here to put them in, and with the economy being the way it is, there aren't jobs for people," said Beauty Turner, a local activist and journalist who used to live in nearby public housing. "There isn't really low-income housing around here anymore. People are having to pay mortgages and taxes triple what they used to. If it continues this way, a lot of people are going to have to leave Bronzeville."

© 2004 The Washington Post Company