A walk on the main boulevard of Bronzeville, Martin Luther King Drive, brings sights of grand stone homes that are slightly chipped around the edges, tree-lined parking lanes, and detailed murals—both fading and fresh, on the same block—of poetry and religion. From Ida B. Wells’s former home to the Sunset Cafe where Louis Armstrong frequently played to the grandiose Cultural Center and carefully landscaped street dividers, Bronzeville has an air of historical grandeur.
Storefronts and murals filled with Pan-African and civil rights art set the tone of the neighborhood as proudly African American. During the Great Migration, restrictive housing covenants—legal contractual agreements that prevented the selling or renting of property to non-whites—made 22nd to 31st along State Street the city’s “Black Belt.” The necessary creation of black Chicago’s own economy and entertainment made that same area the “Black Metropolis.”
In the overpopulated townhomes and, later, high-rise housing projects like the Robert Taylor Homes, families built the social capital that was the foundation of Bronzeville culture. Reminders of Bronzeville’s artists, businessmen, and organizers speckle the sidewalk on King Drive, with subtle diamonds memorializing some of them in what is perhaps the country’s most overlooked historical “walk of fame.”
Though Bronzeville is still a black neighborhood, not much of the grand Metropolis from history books remains. While much of the neighborhood’s middle class moved out of the area when legal segregation ended in 1948, recent years have brought the destruction of historic CHA housing and thus the dispersion of its poorer families throughout the South Side.
Historic doesn’t mean deserted—Bronzeville’s main drag of locally owned shops and chain restaurants on 35th is filled with shoppers and crowded buses. Despite some loss of unity, many activists and organizations are working within the community to build new businesses and initiatives that retain the spirit of artistic and cultural pride. “The Forum,” a famous dancehall from the twenties, boasts a timeline of its future reopening in 2015, as its new owner, Bernard Loyd, ambitiously renovates the long-closed behemoth into a new community hub. This spirit—the kind that brings about neighborhood-driven development as well as the renovation of public art—is tangible, and it can be found on the rediscovered, reinterpreted, renewed corners of Bronzeville.
BEST PLACE TO GET YOUR BIKE FIXED, GET A TOUR, AND MAKE NEW FRIENDS
Perched diagonally across an intersection from the Bronzeville Community Garden is a freshly painted, bright orange shipping container. A large yellow sign—custom designed and cut by the students at nearby Illinois Institute of Technology—reads, invitingly, “BIKE BOX.” Biking, it seems, might be Bronzeville’s new favorite pastime. Two smiling mechanics, oil permanently smeared on their hands from careers in other repair shops around the city, joke around with their young and old customers as they oil bike chains next to flower planters. Their hand-painted box has recently been filled with refurbished bikes sold at, they claim, slightly lower prices than brick-and-mortar used bike stores around the city. In addition to selling and repairing bikes, Bronzeville Bikes offers a new development in Bronzeville: themed bike tours. On the first, third, and fourth Sunday of every month, from 3pm until 6pm, residents and visitors meet at the garden. The first Sunday is a tour of “Art in Public & Private Spaces” with longtime art collector and Bronzeville art expert Patric McCoy, the third Sunday is a “Sustainability in Bronzeville” tour, and the last is “Celebrating Bronzeville History.” Bronzeville Bikes, 51st St. & Calumet. Thursday-Friday, 3pm-7pm; Saturday-Sunday, 2pm-7pm. (773)614-7433. bronzevillebikes.com (Maira Khwaja)
BEST PLACE TO GO GREEN WHILE PLAYING CHESS
Bronzeville Community Garden
On a pleasant day, walking out of the Green Line Station at 51st Street, you are likely to find groups of elderly men playing chess within the half-block garden that occupies the corner of 51st and Calumet. This particular garden is among the largest of the neighborhood’s growing number of community green spots, and it gives off the glow of community pride with its bright flowers, friendly mural, and chess tables buzzing with retirees. A happy place. The garden, started by the Urban Juncture Foundation, boasts a growing garden of fresh produce and hosts garden building workshops. Founded in 2010 by Urban Juncture, the leaders want it to be more than just a garden: an aspiring community hub, they provide a venue for shows and children’s activities, too. Bronzeville Community Garden, 343 E. 51st St. Free. facebook.com/bronzevillecommunitygarden. (Maira Khwaja)
BEST PLACE TO BE HUNGRY NOW
Ain’t She Sweet
Jerk chicken or jerk salmon—served up in a variety of wraps, salads, bowls, and sandwiches—is the most satisfying lunch you could hope to find, with just the perfect amount of spice. If you don’t like jerk (why?), Ain’t She Sweet still has plenty to offer, from their enormous paninis—just half of the Spartan Panini, with its tangy pesto on chicken underneath crisply toasted bread, is enough to fill you up—and fruit smoothies, to selections from their generous deli and mindboggling dessert case. The staff and customers of the café feel familiar after just one visit; the same chefs work in the open kitchen and the same smiling cashier serves the generous scoops of ice cream each day. Enjoy your treat in the sizeable and homey dining room, complete with comfy couches and a portrait of Jimi Hendrix. But seriously, get the jerk chicken. Ain’t She Sweet, 526 E. 43rd St. $5-$9. (773)373-3530. aintshesweetcafe.com (Maira Khwaja)
BEST PLACE TO BE HUNGRY LATER
Sitting in the shadow of the 51st Street Green Line, the only striking thing about this blocky low-rise is its particular lifelessness. Its terra-cotta husk is stripped white, a tattered neon sign teeters dangerously from a corner, and a few faded advertisements for food and liquor are the only clues pointing to former life. But there’s a colorful future in store for this building, which is set to be redeveloped into a culinary hub called Bronzeville Cookin’ under the direction of community development group Urban Juncture. Bronzeville Cookin’ will house four restaurants focused on black cuisine, each taking its ideas from different cultures of the African diaspora. In addition, a produce market will sell groceries, grown on a planned rooftop farm, and Urban Juncture has emphasized “sustainable rehabilitation,” using green technologies to reduce energy consumption. Construction began in April 2013, and the group has set a goal of a partial opening by the end of this year. An artist’s rendition of the building-to-be shows a vibrant vision, with solar panels blinking from the roof, bright orange awnings capping the windows, and lush green trees shading the bustling sidewalks. In the plans there is little left of the building’s current forlorn state except the faintly recognizable shape of the facade, and of course, the Green Line running on behind. Bronzeville Cookin’, 300-314 E. 51st St. Set to open in late 2014. (773)285-5000. urban-juncture.com (Peter Xu)