Chris Devins wants to make Bronzeville a museum without walls. Mostly, he is interested in its gift shop. “When you go through a museum, you’re encouraged to exit through the gift shop and spend a little money.” So in Bronzeville, he says, “we’re going to create an outdoor museum along commercial corridors, where people might drive or ride their bikes and look at murals, check them out, see a little history—and then make the commercial corridors the gift shop.”
Devins is a researcher at the National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago, but on the side he works as an urban planner and consultant, crafting creative placemaking projects that aim to foster community development. Together with the Bronzeville Alliance, a neighborhood development coalition, he is spearheading an initiative to place large-scale photomurals around Bronzeville. Branded as the Bronzeville Legends “Represent” Identity Initiative, the project aims to promote tourism and redevelopment in the neighborhood.
“It always comes down to identity,” says Devins. “To revive any commercial corridor you need a historical ambience, some kind of identity with which to place the retail.” To create that ambience, the Initiative wants to install five large photomurals alongside vacant lots. Each will depict a historic Bronzeville resident. “One thing that Bronzeville has is a unique historical identity. Jack Johnson lived here; Lorraine Hansberry based ‘Raisin in the Sun’ here; Richard Wright wrote his first book here; Louis Armstrong played at clubs here; Muddy Waters lived here; Mahalia Jackson is from here. So the object is to put up these large-scale photomurals as a branding initiative, and to use the same visual vocabulary that a McDonald’s or a Gap would use when they put up giant billboards. Only instead of advertising for somebody that’s going to take money out of the community, we hope that the murals will activate the empty lots between them. It’s a way to turn lemons into lemonade.”
Devins first started thinking about “identity”—“the first pillar of community development,” he says—when he was working as a field manager for “Residents at Risk,” a 2003 oral history and census of the last remaining residents of the Ida B. Wells and Madden Park Homes, on 39th Street in Bronzeville. Devins grew up in the neighborhood, attending Holy Angels Catholic School, two blocks south of the Wells Homes. He now lives in Hyde Park. In 2011, he earned a master’s in urban planning and public policy from the University of Illinois at Chicago. His thesis proposed a community-driven redevelopment for 39th Street. “The corridor,” he wrote at the time, “lacks an identity. There is a sense that in a rush to tear down the Ida B. Wells / Madden Park complex and relocate its residents [in 2004], part of the corridor’s history, and therefore its identity, was erased…The future of East 39th Street involves a reversal of this loss of identity and a reconnection with the street’s identity.”
Devins proposed a small mural series to anchor his 39th Street thesis project. Then last February, Devins approached Dr. Sokoni Karanja with an expanded version of the mural series, for all of Bronzeville. Karanja is the founder and president of Centers for New Horizons, a social service agency in Bronzeville, and was one of the founding members of the Bronzeville Alliance, which formed in 2008. The two met when Devins was studying finance as an undergraduate at Roosevelt University and doing research at the Lugenia Burns Hope Center, a Bronzeville leadership institute that Karanja co-founded with Barack Obama in 1994. Karanja arranged for Devins to meet with John Owens, director of community building for Centers, and since then Devins and Owens have worked to gain community support and financial backing for the project.
In August, the Alliance kicked off a Kickstarter campaign that aimed to raise $6,500 in initial funding for the project. By the time the campaign expired, two months later, only $766 had been pledged.
The initiative is hoping to raise a total of $90,000, but so far, it has only received a $5,000 grant from the Local Initiative Support Corporation (LISC), a Chicago organization that promotes locally-driven neighborhood development. The funding is enough to install a small, nine-by-seventeen-foot mural of Ida B. Wells at the Centers for New Horizons’ Lawless Building, on 43rd and King. Devins says the mural can be applied as soon as the weather gets above forty-five degrees.
If it receives full funding, the Initiative will be able to place murals at five strategic locations in the neighborhood, alongside commercial corridors and busy intersections. The murals will be applied as concrete graphics, a type of decal that allows photographic images to be molded directly onto walls. “You can see the bricks through it, and it looks like it’s been painted on, only it’s actually a photo,” says Devins, who has previously worked with the technique on projects in Arizona. Funding would also pay for solar-powered floodlights to illuminate the murals at night. The lighting, Devins hopes, will give people a greater sense of safety and promote “an increase in nighttime activity” along Bronzeville’s retail corridors.
“I don’t think there’s going to be a problem getting the rest of the funding,” he says, “especially once we get the first ones up.” The Initiative has applied for a $93,000 grant from ArtPlace America, a national organization that funds “creative placemaking” projects, and is planning to apply for funding through the Chicago Community Trust, a neighborhood development organization similar to LISC. In late January, the Initiative launched a petition on Civic ArtWorks, a Chicago website that works to match political support to ideas for neighborhood planning and development. Devins hopes the site will encourage additional funding in the coming weeks.
Through John Owens, the Initiative has also met with 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell, who used to work with Owens in the city’s planning office. Dowell is working with the city’s budget and law offices to determine whether tax increment financing or aldermanic menu money—discretionary funding that aldermen can use for infrastructure improvements—can be used for the project. “I believe this community branding project is good for Bronzeville,” said Alderman Dowell in an email, “and I am working to find a source of funding to assist them in getting this initiative off the ground.”
The idea of strengthening a neighborhood through historical branding is not a new one, and Bronzeville has long been committed to recognizing its past. In 1967, the “Wall of Respect,” a collaborative mural project at 43rd and Langley, was dedicated with the inscription, “This Wall was created to Honor our Black Heroes, and to Beautify our Community.” Torn down in 1971, the wall included the portraits of more than fifty African-American leaders. In 2012, a Negro League baseball mural was painted under the 35th Street Metra overpass to commemorate historic ballplayers. Devins says Chicago’s 1999 “Cows on Parade” exhibition, which placed decorated life-size cow statues across the city, was an economic model for the project. “Cows” brought an additional $200 million in tourist revenue over the course of its run.
That sort of impact, Owens says, is just what Bronzeville is looking for, albeit on a smaller scale. Tourism “brings more visitors and brings more dollars. The question is, how do we take advantage of the assets that are already here? And the Identity Initiative is a perfect way to do it. It’s nothing we have to ‘create’—we just have to find a way to present [our history] to the public and raise awareness in a tasteful and artistic manner.”
“Right now,” he says, “we’re just focused on the question of how do we brand the community as a historic destination, and how do we use that to generate political awareness and education, to use that as leverage to get people to think of an even broader vision, to get people to say, ‘Oh, if we can brand the community then maybe we need to protect the community from people who might want to come in and exploit it. We better see about making sure there are no other Walmarts that are brought in to the area. And how do we create a zoning ordinance that’s going to promote small shops?’ ”
Owens hopes that sort of community-wide discussion about zoning and development is still to come. For now, though, he believes that the Identity Initiative will “serve some educational needs for our young people…create more pride in the community, and more of a willingness to take care of it—to own it, so to speak.” The Initiative is planning to hold historical tours, led by local historian Lorenzo Young, between the murals. And in April, when Devins expects one or two murals to be in place, the Initiative plans to hold a historical bike tour with Go Bronzeville, a collaborative program between the city and the Active Transportation Alliance that is aiming to promote alternative transit options in the neighborhood.
Harold Lucas, the executive director of the Bronzeville Visitors Information Center, which provided Devins access to archival materials that helped launch the project, agrees that the project can create a brand for the neighborhood and increase awareness of local history. “We are the most important African-American community in the country,” says Lucas. “I think [these murals] will help brand Bronzeville as an international tourist destination—I have no doubt about that.” Still, he is skeptical that the murals will have a large impact on the lives of residents. “Good they’re doing it, but how does it create jobs, how does it build a commonwealth, how does it help to break the cycle of poverty?”
Devins refers to “the three pillars of community development: identity, sustainability, and mobility.” Strengthening the first is, he believes, going to have a real impact on the others. By reaffirming Bronzeville’s historical legacy, the Identity Initiative is hoping to start a conversation regarding new zoning ordinances, a “style book” that codifies the design principles of businesses that move into the neighborhood, restrictions on the number of national businesses located on a single block, and property tax freezes that maintain economic diversity.
It’s all talk, as Lucas points out, but “right now,” says Devins, “we have to get the low-hanging fruit. We have to be able to affect what we’re able to affect, and one thing we can affect is the aesthetics and culture of our neighborhood, and leverage that.”
“It’s like when you discover who your parents were,” he continues, “and your grandfather. Once you know who you are then you can know where you’re going. But if you don’t know who you are—it’s hard to get where you’re going.”