You understand the name’s grandeur when you see it: the stark lines that set it off from the sky, the expansive brick façade suggesting its enormous mass.
The Forum lies on the corner of 43rd and Calumet Street, just east of the Green Line, in the heart of Bronzeville. Its second level is Forum Hall, the oldest hardwood floor ballroom in Chicago, dating to 1897—before Bronzeville became an iconic black commercial hub. Each of the Forum’s identities traces out the rise and decline of what bright city posters in the surrounding area refer to as the “historic Black Metropolis.” The building has been a political rally hall, a jazz giants’ stomping ground, and a civil rights meeting place. More recently, it has been a crumbling ruin, its three arched front windows empty.
In 2011, a local development company called Urban Juncture purchased the building and began making improvements. Vinyl depictions of Bronzeville’s artists were hung over the hall windows, with fabled jazzman Nat King Cole front and center. The interior was cleared out, and over the past three years, extensive structural renovations have been made.
“Before, when it rained, the bricks would come raining down onto the sidewalk,” recalls Bernard Loyd, the founder of Urban Juncture. “Literally raining.”
The vital structural repairs and cleanup to make the Forum presentable finished only recently. The rooms aren’t yet ready for commercial opening, and the side annexes still need additional structural work. But the Forum began hosting neighborhood events for the first time this past spring before closing down for winter—marking its first season as a cultural destination in decades. In October, Urban Juncture even opened Forum Hall to the public as part of the Open House Chicago series. Over 1,100 people attended, wandering through the time-battered but still-recognizable chamber. It was the first time any part of the Forum has been generally accessible in five years, and the first time Forum Hall had been open in many times as long.
“Before that, the last time I was in there was probably the sixties,” reflects Sidney, a man who lives one block north of the Forum.
Forum Hall’s reopening is years off, but right now Loyd and his team are focusing on a new Forum Café on the ground level, slated for reopening during the latter half of 2015. The café will bring the first consistent signs of life back into the building, and Loyd hopes to draw more retailers from around the community. The lingering question is whether anyone will come.
“People will remember. They’ll come,” says Sidney. But his expression turns dour. “I don’t know how they’ll make money, though. People around here, they don’t have money. They’re building new housing, but it’s all Section 8. The folks coming in, they don’t have money either.”
Later, Loyd gives Sidney a tour of the darkened ground floor. Loyd’s flashlight catches a faded Red House sign, and little halos of light pool on the old tavern’s marker. “I had some real good times in here,” Sidney says, laughing suddenly. It’s a hearty burst of noise, one the tavern last heard fifty years ago.
Bernard Loyd is at home talking about his work in the dim interior of Bronzeville Cookin’, a restaurant and produce market and another of Urban Juncture’s projects. Fragments of edifice litter the poured concrete floor, and a layer of brick dust covers everything. It’s difficult to tell how much of the grey in Loyd’s workman-like outfit is from the dust. The sign on the door reads “GUARD DOGS ON DUTY—Survivors will be prosecuted”—a reminder that outside, Bronzeville is still far fallen from its heyday.
Loyd lives two blocks east of the Forum and has walked past it almost every day in his twenty-odd years of residence. He first tried to purchase the building twelve years ago, but the owner at the time viewed it as his retirement property and was asking an exorbitant price.
“At the same time, he was not maintaining the building,” adds Loyd. “The corner building has a peaked roof, but the annexes have flat roofs, and those roofs accumulated water and really started deteriorating.”
The raindrops ran through the mortar and the bricks started raining along with them, and the block club became concerned. They prompted 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell to have it scheduled for emergency demolition in the spring of 2011.
Harold Lucas, proprietor of the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center and, as Loyd puts it, one of the neighborhood’s “grand old wise men,” pled at a community meeting for someone to save the building. Loyd called the owner one more time. “And now he was motivated,” he says, smiling.
After the purchase, Urban Juncture contractors immediately began repairing the dangerous portions as mandated by the city. It became necessary to clear out mountains of debris, accumulated over the decades, that filled twenty-five thirty-yard trash containers.
The biggest hurdle, however, was capital. Loyd projects the total final cost of the project to be around $25 million. To date, all of the funds have come directly from Urban Juncture.
“Access to capital is extraordinarily difficult to secure in the South Side,” Loyd says, drawing out the syllables of “extraordinarily.” “Banks are less than interested.”
Public grants help, but they require navigating city bureaucracy. The Forum Café was originally planned to open this year, but Urban Juncture lost a Small Business Improvement Fund grant from Chicago when their permit was denied.
“Apparently, the western annex, which has housed retail for a hundred years, wasn’t zoned for retail,” says Loyd drily.
On the other hand, a promising avenue is the city’s Request for Proposal for development along 43rd Street, a program calling for independent developers to submit their plans for potential city backing. Loyd is planning a proposal based on the Council Metropolitan Agency for Planning’s idea to build a revived 43rd Street around the arts, carving a niche distinct from neighboring 47th and 51st Streets.
Trez Pugh III, the proprietor of Sip & Savor Café on 43rd and Forrestville, is optimistic about the street’s economic prospects. “When I got here in 2005, I was the first one here,” he says distractedly, preparing for an event in his bustling joint. “No one thought they could do business. It was all empty lots and tumbleweeds.”
In 2005, Pugh’s café was the only non-liquor or convenience store retailer on the street. Now, he has two neighbors: Ain’t She Sweet Café, a competitor, and Agriculture, an upscale clothing boutique. Adding the Forum Café will bring 43rd Street one step closer to the commercial corridor it once was. “Bernard’s actually asked me to work with him many times, but I’m too busy with my own shop,” Pugh says.
Loyd likes his chances as well. “We’re right next to the CTA,” he points out. “Prime territory.”
The Forum is the linchpin of the street: the only intact historical building on its block, and a former major art center. As it did forty years ago, the first floor will eventually house smaller retailers, with performances recalling those hosted at the old Bronzeville cafés. Then will come the reopening of Forum Hall as the major artistic attraction it once was.
Some of that old magic has returned already. All the events at the Forum in the past year have featured appearances by Bronzeville artists, and Loyd has enlisted several to hold “office hours” outside the Forum during the day, displaying and explaining their work to passersby.
The two figures whose posters flank Nat King Cole aren’t his contemporaries—they’re modern jazz singer Maggie Brown and “Discopoet” Khari B., both Bronzeville natives. They stand impressively in the arched windows of Forum Hall, suggesting the future with lips slightly parted, microphones in hand.