RISE AND FALL
THE RISE AND FALL OF BRONZEVILLE
By Michael Theobald
Although the first resident of Chicago was a black man, John Baptiste DuSable, the first real influx of African Americans was via the Underground Railroad in the 1850s. Once across the Ohio River, runaway slaves were whisked to Chicago by train. Many immediately boarded boats for Canada, but a few remained in the growing city despite anti-black laws in Illinois and the threat of southern slavecatchers.
As the 20th Century began, the black population of Chicago was just 30,000, a drop in the ethnic bucket of 1.5 million residents, 40% of whom were foreign born.
Over the next 40 years, the black population soared, the result of the Great Migration out of the southern U.S., fleeing Jim Crow and chasing factory jobs. They began to converge into a narrow strip seven miles long and a mile and-a-half wide, bound by wealthy white lakeshore neighborhoods on one side and white ethnic working class neighborhoods on the other side. Within that area, 300,000 people were packed by 1945. This was Bronzeville.
The neighborhood was a world to itself, with nightclubs, theatres, department stores, banks and more. 47th and South Park (now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Dr.). was the center of the neighborhood, a hub where black doctors, lawyers, accountants and other professionals plied their trades. There was a black-run hospital, the leading black newspaper in the country, the Chicago Defender, scores of churches and more.
Bronzeville was thriving, but housing was overcrowded, poorly maintained and expensive. Black homebuyers trying to get out found themselves blocked, legally and illegally, from white neighborhoods. When the federal government attempted to integrate new veteran housing developments located in white neighborhoods, neighbors rioted. More housing was a pressing need. The solution that the government arrived at was the projects.
Over the next 20 years, huge parts of Bronzeville were bulldozed and massive housing developments built. Stateway Gardens, the Robert Taylor Homes and others destroyed the fabric of the community. Poorly maintained and overcrowded, the projects became synonymous with drugs, crime and hopelessness.
At the same time, the de facto segregation of housing began to break down and middle class black residents took advantage of the opportunity to move elsewhere. Businesses in the area closed. The professionals who once filled the offices hung their shingles in other locations. To all appearances, Bronzeville was dead.
There have been efforts to resurrect the neighborhood, to recapture some of the old vitality that once characterized the Black Metropolis. The hulking, ominous housing projects have been demolished and replaced by low-rise, mixed-income apartments. The Harold Washington Cultural Center, named for Chicago’s first black mayor, was built in the neighborhood. Architectural gems have been restored and art galleries opened. A fragile sense of the old community began to reappear.
There’s still a long way to go. Poverty, crime, unemployment and drugs are still a problem. But despite those problems, there’s still hope that Bronzeville may rise again as the economic, artistic, and social hub that it once was.