Bronzeville: a jewel left in the dust.

Bronzeville is a neighborhood I often ignored. In fact, I believe ever since thrill-seeking white people could no longer venture to the Black Metropolis for a brief night of fun, the neighborhood has been ignored a great deal. Often compared to Harlem, Bronzeville was a place where white people could have their fun and leave that life behind. It wasn’t the same for the black people confined to this neighborhood.

Bronzeville was where black people were pushed by the surrounding neighborhoods. Sure, many had escaped slavery, segregation, and racism of the South, but Chicagoans had planted their stakes in the ground. This was their city, the city of Broad Shoulders. The people of the South Side had built it, and they weren’t going to give it up.

The people of Bronzeville didn’t need the entertainment of everyone else. They built their own clubs, diners, and even recording studios for their new sound. This turned Bronzeville into a popular place! Although white people largely disapproved of the clubs, rock and roll music, and new style of dancing, many took weekend trips to the Black Metropolis. It was detested during the day and enjoyed at night.

One of the most famous clubs was the Sunset Cafe.

sunsetcafe

The Carroll Dickerson Band in Sunset Cafe in 1922 [1]

Today, the club is an Ace Hardware store. It has been since the ’60s. This “black and tan” club was unique. Many famous musicians played here including: Ella Fitzgerald, Louis Armstrong, and Earl Hines.

ACE

Location of Sunset Cafe now Ace Hardware at 315 E. 35th St [2]

Although the owner is very kind and willing to show the mural that remains of the old cafe, the store is a representation of the rest of the neighborhood. Bronzeville was once a place where powerful activists like Ida B. Wells lived, where record labels began recording a new sound, and where artists like Archibald Motley found their muse.

 

Bronzeville at Night.jpg

Bronzeville at Night by Archibald Motley [3]

As we walked around the neighborhood, it seemed obvious that it had lost its charm. Many shops have bars on the windows, the sidewalks were lined with cracks, and chain restaurants and businesses are predominant. But then, we turned onto South Martin Luther King Drive. The street greets you with a map of all that it meant to be Bronzeville, and The Victory Monument dedicated to the Eighth Regiment of the Illinois National Guard who fought in World War I.

This street is lined with homes, many old, that show the beauty the neighborhood once held. It’s tragic, many of these beautiful homes are left standing next to empty lots, or crumbling structures. To me, it seems like the restoration of the neighborhood is struggling. The neighborhood itself is rather large, and the homes are being renovated sporadically, by individuals rather than a community bound by one cause.

I wish I could say I feel hope when it comes to restoring the art, life, and beauty to Bronzeville. The overwhelming amount of empty lots and old buildings was disheartening. A new boutique, the historical recognitions, and some murals are shadowed by what still needs to be done in the neighborhood.

The restoration of the neighborhood can’t be achieved  by the current residents alone.  The neighborhood is isolated. You can tell a lot by looking at a neighborhood’s presence on Facebook. The Bronzeville Boutique by Lady Mocha is located at 4259 S King Drive.

What does this say about the neighborhood? Are the businesses and residents here working together to improve and promote the area? If so, are they using the right mediums and tools to access neighboring communities as well as their own? To me, there is a disconnect between those who are frequenting local businesses and liking them on Facebook; as shown by the lack of likes of the neighborhood page. It is also evident in The Forum’s renovation attempt.

We stumbled across this project trying to get on the Green Line at 43rd. What a location! Or at least, it used to be. The building faces a large, empty lot. The empty chalkboard screams to me. It speaks to how the community has abandoned this iconic building. The Forum was a dancehall and community center in a once thriving part of the neighborhood. Now, the restoration project is struggling to capture the attention it needs in order to become a place for the Bronzeville community again.

I feel like Bronzeville was used and abused by its rich, white visitors; left in the dust once white musicians began covering popular black music. Since, it has struggled to be remembered. Plaques and information posts on buildings are not the way to give back to this community the way it deserves or restore it to the wonderful place it once was.

 

Websites related to this post:

  1. Bronzeville Boutique Website
  2. The Forum’s Website

Photo Resources:

  1. Picture 1
  2. Picture 2
  3. Picture 3
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