It’s fine if the grandparents move in with their kids. It’s when little girls and their baby daddies start to move in that there’s going to be trouble.” Church, a local newspaper vendor, was talking about the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments, better known as the Rosenwald. Standing next to a shack—wooden, with a corrugated roof—from which he sells newspapers and, more frequently, cigarettes to passing Bronzeville residents, Church held forth on the building behind him, mostly deriding its criminal past but also expressing cautious optimism for its future. If all goes to plan, the Rosenwald will be renovated and reopened later this year.
Long-vacated, the Rosenwald apartment complex stands on the corner of 47th and Michigan, in the southern part of Bronzeville, punctuating a line of storefronts and shops that stretches down much of 47th Street. On its southern side, the building is enclosed by a wooden wall, papered, perhaps ill-advisedly, with posters advertising a company—“King Kong Moving”—in big, bold, red letters. Through padlocked, rusting metal doors, empty courtyards can be glimpsed, and, on one side of the building, a large pile of branches sits, bonfire-style, behind a chain-link fence. Walking by, it’s not hard to spot the structural decay that led 3rd Ward Alderman Pat Dowell, in late 2012, to refer to the building as “a huge, hulking blight on our community,” though it is harder to spot its history—a history that led to a National Register of Historic Places designation in 1981.
Now, in an initiative spearheaded by a group of real estate developers, and enthusiastically backed by Alderman Dowell and the rest of the city government, there are plans to refurbish and renovate the Rosenwald, an idea that has been met with mixed reactions—including significant vocal opposition—by some Bronzeville residents.
Built in 1929 by Julius Rosenwald, co-owner of Sears and a noted philanthropist, the Rosenwald complex was, for the first few decades after its construction, a popular, desirable home for working-class African Americans. During this period, music greats Quincy Jones and Nat King Cole called the building their home. Around the 1950s, however, the financial decline of the surrounding neighborhood began to spread to the Rosenwald; as time went on, the building decayed, until problems with plumbing and gas leaks forced the city to shut it down in 2000. The decay went so far that, in a cruel turn of events, the Rosenwald was used as a stand-in structure for Chernobyl in the 2011 movie “Transformers: Dark of the Moon.”
Toward the end of 2011, Landwhite Developers, a Midwestern real estate firm, began putting together a plan for investors to renovate the Rosenwald, with 331 residential units and 21,000 square feet of commercial space in the building. Additionally, the company plans to buy empty parcels of land adjacent to the building and convert them into parking lots for residents. Of the residential units, roughly half will be allocated for senior citizens, with the other half going to low-income families at thirty-year fixed-rate, affordable rents, ranging from $450 to $850 per month. This comes as a boon to the many Bronzeville residents who are “being priced out of the community,” according to the Institute for Community Empowerment, a Chicago organization that focuses on neighborhood activism.
While this is Landwhite’s Development’s first Chicago project, the firm is undertaking a similar venture in St. Louis with the Chemical Building, a structure that, like the Rosenwald, is culturally significant but has recently fallen into disrepair.
Meanwhile, the city has actively responded to Landwhite’s interest in the area, granting it $25 million in TIF money—and thereby subsidizing a considerable portion of the projected $107 million cost. “The new Rosenwald…will reactivate 47th Street,” Alderman Dowell stated in a press release. “In addition, the development will provide 360 construction jobs and forty permanent jobs.”
Almost immediately upon hearing of the plan, several members of the Bronzeville community formed an organization called Rosenwald for All, declaring their opposition to both the manner and the substance of the project. The group released a collective online letter to Alderman Dowell in order “to clearly document the concerns we have with the current Rosenwald plans and our inability to support the plans in their current manifestation.” One of the primary issues they raised was the manner in which low-income families would be clustered together in the building, which they said would greatly increase the risk of crime. Other problems brought up in the letter included concerns over a decreased ability to attract retailers to 47th Street and an architectural design severely lacking in aesthetic appeal, pointedly described as “conventional, unimaginative, and lackluster.”
According to founding member Byron Williams, “folks within a four-block radius of the Rosenwald are overwhelmingly against the development.” Citing Alderman Dowell’s failure to bring a big-box supermarket to the area, Williams suggested that the Rosenwald development was a “low-hanging fruit for an Alderman that desperately needs a win.” Mell Monroe, another member of the group (and owner of the Welcome Inn, immediately adjacent to the Rosenwald’s north side), described the planning process as one of community exclusion, recounting how, despite protests by Bronzeville residents, the Rosenwald plan was “rubber-stamped” through the City Council and its finance committee. Both men recounted one particular incident that occurred on February 29, 2012, when Alderman Dowell told a group of residents in a community meeting, “I don’t have to talk to you about the project,” and, “This project is moving forward, despite these concerns.” Dowell denies that this was said.
In a FAQ section on the 3rd Ward website, Dowell’s office attempts to answer some of the concerns raised by the group. They reiterate the proficiency of the Landwhite developers, stating that the company has had “extensive experience with “Low Income Housing Tax Credit and historic projects and retail deals throughout the country.” It also lists a number of concurrent developments occurring in Bronzeville, such as investments in local elementary and high schools, as well as public parks. In regards to the availability of groceries, the Alderman’s office argues that while they “work aggressively” to bring better grocery stores to the ward, senior residents will be able to shop at the local Save-A-Lot, or at either one of two proposed Wal-Mart stores (both of which are considered controversial developments in their own right), one on 47th and Cottage Grove—slated to open in summer 2014—and the other currently operating at 47th and Bishop.
In response to concerns over limited commercial and retail space, Landwhite founder David Roos declared in 2012 that they would drop the unit count to 235 and raise the retail space within the Rosenwald to 75,000 square feet, although no specific retail ventures have yet been announced.
This has failed to placate Williams, who argues that, “If they did this a year ago, we probably would have been satisfied. But there’s a bigger problem—still too much density within the building, and there’s no real plan for the commercial space.”
One bone of contention is 47th Street itself, with both parties decrying its current lack of commercial vitality. As the city hopes for some resurgence with new residents, the opposition points to an inability to support any more customers. Admittedly, walking along the short strip of stores, where there are plenty of hair salons and barber shops (as well as two competing delis across from one another) but no supermarkets, it is difficult to envision exactly where a senior citizen could conveniently get groceries.
Nevertheless, some shop owners and local residents seem eager for the added business that an influx of new residents would create. The owner of a cramped hardware store half a block west of the Rosenwald said that he lost forty to sixty percent of his business when it closed fourteen years ago. Frank, who is one of the shop’s employees and has lived in Bronzeville for thirty years, said he thought it was good that the city was giving more people a space to live, and that he wasn’t too worried about crime. He is confident “that they’ll do a good job of screening the people who move in there.”
Further down the block, at a shoeshine and barbershop, a former Rosenwald resident, Darlene, commented that while she often disagreed with Alderman Dowell, she thought Dowell was doing the right thing in this case. Darlene lived in the complex for sixteen years, and rejected its reputation for criminality, loudly reiterating that it had been a safe place for children to congregate off the streets. It was, she said, a place where “doctors and lawyers used to live and come out of.” As she gestured emphatically, lit cigarette in hand, she reassured the barbershop’s sizeable clientele that if the Rosenwald were rebuilt, she would happily move back in again.
Williams, meanwhile, is pessimistic about the success of the venture, seeing it as part of a more general pattern in Bronzeville. “Investors come in, see that their business plan is bad—there’s a number of mismanaged properties around the area.” He predicts that once Landwhite realizes it doesn’t have a specific plan for who to rent its commercial space out to, the types of stores built in the Rosenwald will be similar to those already on 47th Street, and the community will experience little positive growth or change as a result. Eventually, he believes Landwhite will depart Bronzeville after it turns a quick profit, leaving the Rosenwald in much the same position it is now. While Williams says that community activists will remain pragmatic, hoping to nudge the project in a better direction, he still feels concerned. “The investor comes in and looks for money and the Alderman gets an easy win. If [the project] passes the five-year mark, I’ll be surprised.”
This story has been revised to reflect the following correction:
Correction: February 18, 2014
An earlier version of this story was unclear about Alderman Pat Dowell’s involvement in the story. She was not specifically notified of claims that she told residents that the Rosenwald project was “moving forward, despite…concerns.” She denies those claims.