Ellie Mejía

Tucked away on a quiet residential street in Greater Grand Crossing, an unassuming house boasts a rich legacy. From 1953 to 1994, the house located at 7428 South Evans Avenue was home to none other than Gwendolyn Brooks, the Topeka-born, South Side-raised poet, author, and teacher. Built in 1890, today the house remains modest but well-kept by its current owner. Its one-and-a-half story gray and white exterior is a welcome change among the predominantly brick two-story houses surrounding it. Though the house is far from flashy, a closer look reveals endearing details, such as the delicate white latticework tucked below its welcoming veranda. Its simple structure is transformed into something truly remarkable when one imagines the world of creative expression it held for the four decades that Brooks lived there—and what it took to get there.

Born on June 7, 1917 in Topeka, Kansas, her mother’s hometown, Brooks came to live in Chicago with her family shortly after her birth. Chicago remained her home for the rest of her life and she took great pride in the city: in a 1994 interview, she said, “I am an organic Chicagoan. Living there has given me a multiplicity of characters to aspire for. I hope to live there for the rest of my days. That’s my headquarters.” However, life in Chicago did not always come easy for Brooks and her family. They arrived in the city as part of the Great Migration, when segregation and racist housing policies constricted Black homeowners, excluding them from white neighborhoods and exploiting their basic need for a place to live.

As adults, Brooks and her husband faced many of the same obstacles tackled by their parents. Gwendolyn’s housing troubles, however, coincided with her rise to literary prominence. Upon publishing her first book of poetry in 1945, Brooks became widely recognized as one of America’s foremost poets for her simple but powerful depictions of the lives of the urban poor on Chicago’s South Side. In 1950, she became the first Black Pulitzer Prize winner for her second collection Annie Allen. Later, she would become the Poet Laureate of Illinois and the Consultant in Poetry to the Library of Congress. But not even consistent recognition from a predominantly white literary world would protect Brooks from the same housing discrimination faced by all Black people in Chicago at the time.

Early in their marriage, Brooks and her husband bounced around the South Side, financial woes and hard times making it difficult to stay in any one place for long. They moved six times, including brief stays in a one-room apartment, a converted garage, and several kitchenette buildings, before landing on South Wentworth Avenue. There, Brooks and her family lived in a large housing project called Princeton Park Homes. Since renamed Ivy Park Homes, the development occupies eighty acres of land between 91st and 95th Street, just west of the Dan Ryan. It was here, in a project built in the 1940s to house poor Black workers and their families, that Brooks made history by becoming the first Black winner of the Pulitzer Prize.

In a 1986 interview with the Library of Congress, Brooks described the night she found out about the good news. She received a phone call from a reporter and she and her nine-year-old son celebrated in the dark—they hadn’t paid their electricity bill. She recalls being “absolutely petrified” when photographers and reporters came the next day, knowing they would discover her secret when they tried to plug in their equipment. However, someone—she never found out who—paid her bill just in time and she was saved from embarrassment.

For most, the image of a Pulitzer Prize winner living in the projects, unable to pay her electricity bill, falls somewhere in the realm between surprising and downright unbelievable. However, in reality, Brooks’s fraught housing history is inseparable from her work. Brooks’s poetry is an honest depiction of the world she knew growing up and struggled to settle down in. In collections like A Street in Bronzeville, she devotes herself to understated yet evocative portraits of individuals struggling in impoverished neighborhoods. Rather than explicitly tackling large-scale issues like racism and poverty, she lets her stories tell themselves, subtly reflecting the oppression woven inextricably in her characters’ lives. Housing, of course, serves as the inevitable backdrop for these stories.

Brooks settled down at last in 1953 when she used the profits from the sale of a later Kalamazoo, Michigan home to purchase the house on South Evans Avenue for $8,000. Even there, however, life was not always smooth sailing, and Brooks and her husband were often in danger of losing the house to foreclosure. In America Magazine, Brooks’s daughter Nora Brooks Blakely recalls growing up in the Greater Grand Crossing home: “I was eating far more beans and chicken wings than I would have liked. When my mother wrote about people in tight circumstances, she was living it.”

Despite ongoing hardships, Brooks wrote and published much of her most famous work, including the collections In the Mecca and The Bean Eaters, within the house’s white doors. In 1994, after over forty years, she moved out. Brooks passed away six years later on December 3, 2000. Today, the house serves as a testament to Brooks’s ongoing legacy. It was designated a Chicago landmark ten years after her death, ensuring both symbolic recognition and concrete protection. Just last year, the nation celebrated the Gwendolyn Brooks Centennial for what would have been her one-hundredth year. To this day, students and poetry fans alike travel to the quiet street to gaze up at the little gray-and-white house, their humble respect a testament to the continuing impact of the work written there.

One of Brooks’s most powerful poems is called “kitchenette building,” named after the style of cramped housing frequently endured by poor Chicagoans, including Brooks herself, in the Black Belt. In the poem, Brooks laments the struggle of a dream to rise above the fumes of fried potatoes and yesterday’s garbage. In the end, the dream loses out, its lofty nature no match for the concrete realities that come with poverty. Luckily, Brooks’s dreams, unlike those of many like her, made it out—and the world is better for it.

Correction (2/8/2018):  This story has been updated to clarify that while Brooks was born in Topeka, Kansas, her family already resided in Chicago prior to her birth.

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