In the early twentieth century, when Chicago’s discriminatory housing policies were still in place, Bronzeville was the black downtown, a sort of mirror image of the Loop. The neighborhood provided its own shopping centers and banks, theaters and clubs, doctors’, dentists’, and lawyers’ offices, all owned and operated by black residents who were barred from working downtown. While the neighborhood suffered from massive overcrowding and high crime rates throughout the first half of the twentieth century, it was also a vital commercial and cultural center for African Americans nationally, on par with New York’s Harlem.
Following the end of legal segregation in Chicago, middle-class black residents chose to move elsewhere, citing riots, high crime, and the pressures of de-industrialization. Meanwhile, the working-class black community became increasingly concentrated in high-rise housing projects like the Robert Taylor Homes. In the difficult decades that followed, Bronzeville’s population rapidly decreased, empty apartment buildings and theaters were bulldozed or converted, and local businesses struggled. Yet to concentrate only on the bad would mean to obscure Bronzeville’s role as a vital commercial and cultural center for African Americans. King Drive’s churches were among the city’s most integral black institutions, 47th Street bustled with shopping and nightlife, the Chicago Defender continued to publish the voice of a people that the rest of the city largely ignored.
Today, Bronzeville’s history and symbolic importance for African-Americans has become a source of major appeal for the optimistic new residents and businesses entering the area. Many historic structures, complete with beautiful stonework and artifacts, are still standing or have been repurposed. Statues and murals commemorating Bronzeville’s golden age are everywhere, alongside art galleries and gleaming apartment complexes.
Bronzeville’s long tradition as a hub for African-American businesses continues. Black entrepreneurs continue to flock to the area because of its historical resonance, bringing with them newer restaurants and venues such as Room 43, Norman’s Bistro, Chicago’s Home of Chicken & Waffles, and more. Culturally, Bronzeville also remains vitally important. 2013 saw a citywide recognition of Bronzeville as the “birthplace of gospel music,” with the wildly successful Chicago Gospel Music Festival held partially in Ellis Park. Yet even with this influx of new business, modern Bronzeville remains a neighborhood in the midst of continual rebirth, constantly looking toward its storied past for the building blocks of its future.
BEST STAND-UP COMEDY EXPERIENCE: Bronzeville Comedy Showcase
Brian Babylon’s Bronzeville Comedy Showcase delivers all the gut-busting laughter that a Chicago comedy venue should. Babylon, the self-proclaimed “Prince of Bronzeville,” is a comedian himself, in addition to being the host of Vocalo’s “Morning AMp” radio show and a regular panelist on Chicago Public Media’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me!” The Comedy Showcase is his way of bringing all types of Chicagoans and performers together in the “entertainment desert” that he calls the southern half of Bronzeville—outside of the pricier Jokes and Notes club a few blocks away, the area doesn’t offer much else. Inside, the crowd is diverse and sociable. Babylon starts each free event off with a short set and continues to perform in his casual but sincere style of comedy in between the other acts. The first few acts are less experienced than the soon-tobe stars that close out the night, some of whom have been on Comedy Central or in popular TV shows, but laughter is a constant. Blanc Gallery, 4445 S. King Dr. Every other Wednesday, 7pm. Early July through late August. (773)-952-4394. (Gabe Friedman)
BEST PROCESSED MEAT PRODUCTS: H-Dogs
Give the hot dog a chance! So often considered the lowliest of snack foods, the hamburger’s shady, bowel-gluing cousin, hot dogs have undergone a glorious gourmet reinvention in Chicago. H-Dogs, situated in the commercial heart of Bronzeville, is the next major player in the never-ending hot dog revolution. Numerous types of dogs and sausages are available, with an extravagant selection of toppings above and beyond the classic Depression-era do—from turkey chili and cheddar cheese on their signature H-Dog, to blue cheese dressing and bacon on the extremely adventurous Turducken Cobb Dog. If processed meat product is not your hobby, try the salmon burger or the Healthy Hound, a grilled veggie-dog topped with peppers, onions, and cucumbers. The restaurant itself is large enough, well-lit, sparkling clean and modern. Plus, it’s only one block away from the Green Line station on 47th. Go with an open mind and a clear pyloric valve. H-Dogs, 4655 S. King Dr. Monday-Thursday, 7:30am-7pm; Friday-Saturday, 7:30am-8pm. (773)633-2978. hdogschicago.com (Dove Barbanel)
BEST BLAST FROM THE PAST: The Forum
The fortunes of this majestic redbrick hall called the Forum have ebbed and flowed in tandem with the wider neighborhood, an emblem of Bronzeville’s storied past and present-day challenges. A magnet for entertainment and retail since the 1890s, the Forum has played host to ballroom dances, Communist party meetings, and scores of music legends from Nat King Cole to Milt Hinton. Just down the block from the 43rd Street Green Line station, the building sits empty but no longer abandoned. A local developer bought the formerly derelict structure two years ago to save it from city mandated demolition. The building’s ongoing renovation is a centerpiece effort for the area’s revitalization as a whole. The Forum proudly advertises its rediscovered role as a community hub—billboards paying homage to Bronzeville’s history cover its walls. On one wall, a large chalkboard asks passers-by to fill in the blanks to the statement: “I wish 43rd Street was…” The answer to that question is hard to imagine without first considering the soon to be re-born Forum. The Forum, 328 E. 43rd St. (773)285-5000. facebook.com/TheForumBronzeville (Dove Barbanel)
BEST PUBLIC GATHERING: Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic
Most citizens of Bronzeville would be hard-pressed to recall the young Bud Billiken’s adventures on the back pages of the Chicago Defender, his 1920s heyday as a symbol of scholarly inspiration and betterment for African-American youth. Come the second Saturday in August, however, and few are willing to miss this massive parade held in the character’s honor. Every summer, tens of thousands of spectators line King Drive—from 39th to 55th Street—to check out the loud floats, high-profile celebrity appearances, and impressive performances by groups like the South Shore Drill Team. Depending on who you ask, the parade means back to school time, black pride, or simply a family tradition stretching back generations. The event culminates in a picnic in Washington Park, packed with everything from concerts and barbecue to horseback riding and free dental care. Bud Billiken Parade and Picnic, 39th-55th St. and S. King Dr. Every second Saturday in August, 10am-4pm; Sunday, noon-5pm. (773)536-3710. budbillikenparade.com (Dove Barbanel)
BEST LONE SURVIVOR OF URBAN RENEWAL: Maxey–Boyd House
In the early twentieth century, Prairie Avenue was lined with elegant mansions that were home to Chicago’s business elite. After the influx of African Americans to Bronzeville, most wealthy families left the area for the Gold Coast, and most of the houses were abandoned or subdivided into smaller apartments. Into the scene came Alva Maxey-Boyd and Charles Boyd, a young black couple who bought a house on the street in 1948 during an era when home ownership for blacks was rare. Partly as a result of their peculiar status, the house became a meeting point for young black intellectuals. In the fifties and sixties, all of the nearby houses were demolished in a series of urban renewal projects, and Alva and Charles had to single-handedly battle the law courts in order to keep their home, finally earning a stay of demolition from the elder Daley administration. Today, the ornate structure—which is now surrounded on all sides by empty lots—stands as a lonely reminder of the area’s former opulence. The Maxey–Boyd House, 2801 S. Prairie Ave. (Ben Boyajian)