by Dave Hoekstra
by Dave Hoekstra
Bronzeville is a carousel of American potential.
The Chicago neighborhood has turned round and round to the rhythms of jazz, soul, gospel and blues. Its noble clarion has spiraled across the country through novels, poetry, politics and hip-hop. Time has circled back. Bronzeville is an opportunity that Chicago cannot afford to miss.
The South Side neighborhood that transitioned from “The Black Metropolis” in the early 20th Century to an urban planning blight is returning, as sure as the sun rises over Lake Michigan. Bronzeville is an idea, always in motion.
Louis Armstrong, Nat “King” Cole and boxer Joe Louis lived in Bronzeville. Chance the Rapper and Common are from Bronzeville. In the 1940s and 50s Duke Ellington performed at the Parkway Ballroom in Bronzevile. Between 1919 and 1929 journalist and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells lived in Bronzeville. Blues legend Muddy Waters lived in Bronzeville between 1954 and 1974 and built a small studio in the basement of his home.
Harlem came back in a big way.
Harlem is only 3.8 square miles.
There is opportunity for growth in Bronzeville.
The Bronzeville District can run as far south as 51st Street, east to Lake Michigan, west to the Dan Ryan Expressway and north to 22nd Street. Check out the Bronzeville Walk of Fame along King Drive north to 22nd Street. You will see denotations to neighborhood icons Sam Cooke, Pulitzer Prize winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, Howlin’ Wolf and others. You will hear America. You will look ahead.
The eyes of Bronzeville have always been pointed towards the future. Because of segregation, the corner of 47th and King Drive was the thriving downtown for Chicago African-Americans. A monument to the Great Northern Migration commemorates the African-Americans who left the South to come to Chicago to work. A bronze statue of a man with a suitcase above a pile of shoe soles faces north to indicate the direction of his journey. Late Chicago soul legend Otis Clay once said, “Chicago was a suburb of Mississippi.”
Pilgrims---Pilgrim Baptist Church, 3301 S. Indiana.
Although the main part of the church was destroyed in a 2006 fire, this is one of the most important cultural locations in America. (The congregation still meets across the street.) It was at the Pilgrim Baptist Church in 1932 that church musical director Rev. Thomas Dorsey (a quasar for Elvis Presley) held one of the first Gospel Singers Convention which fortified gospel music. The legendary Mahalia Jackson, The Edwin Hawkins Singers and the Staple Singers all sang at this church. Everyone stand up!
Chicago neighborhoods create intense loyalty, a movement from the bottom up.
Great art rises from the intersection of opportunity and passion.
Capt. Walter Dyett was the jazz bandleader at the former Du Sable High School. He trained Gene Ammons, Nat “King” Cole, Redd Foxx, Dinah Washington (one of Bob Dylan’s favorite vocalists) and Bo Diddley, who studied violin. DuSable was designated a Chicago Landmark in May, 2013. Ebony magazine founder John H. Johnson attended DuSable as did Don Cornelius, the founder of the “SoulTrain” television show. What is the connective thread with these DuSable students?
Real life, uncompromised desire and real solutions. Urban design beats from the creative heart. Bronzeville is a hub of arts and culture that nourishes the rest of Chicago. Bronzeville is always changing. A Jan. 29, 2017 Chicago Tribune article identified the growing Asian population of Bronzeville. Citing a report from demographers Rob Paral and Associates, the neighborhood is now 70 per cent black, 13 per cent Asian and 12 percent white.
In a fluid world, character becomes a key to understanding sense of place. Character can be built by linking that current place to places beyond. So yes, Louis Armstong performed in the former hat factory that became the First Church of Deliverance on South Wabash. Neighborhood legend maintains that Billie Holiday used to bring her pet Chihuahua to Sunday services. The Marx Brothers lived in a Bronzeville house in 1910 to play the Chicago vaudeville circuit. They told people they were south side farmers, but in actuality Groucho, Chico, Harpo, Zeppo and Gummo spent their free time watching baseball games at nearby Comiskey Park.
And the original Comiskey Park was a key component in Bronzeville’s spring and summer days. Stand at the commemorative home plate in the parking lot across the street from the current stadium. Stand tall. This is where legends like Cool Papa Bell and Josh Gibson stood in 1933 at the first Negro League All-Star game before huge crowds at Comiskey Park. These men played the game as if there were no tomorrow.
How do vital urban centers return to life? In Charles Montgomery’s inspiring “Happy City” (Transforming Our Lives Through Urban Design),” a reference is made to Asheville, N.C., now one of the South’s most desirable destinations for young people. Montgomery observes, “By paying attention to the relationship between land, distance, scale and cash flow--in other words, by building more connected, complex places--the city regained its soul and good health.” The floor plan already exists in Bronzeville. A river of timeless soul runs through its boulevards.
The great poet and writer Oscar Brown, Jr. could have been one of many unofficial mayors of Bronzeville. Brown was the template modern day soul-jazz artists, such as Gil Scott-Heron and the Last Poets. In an interview at his Bronzeville home with the Chicago Sun-Times a few months before his 2005 death, Brown closed his eyes and explained, “Music will come like a shadow with the words. It doesn’t work in reverse....The word is the person. The music is the shadow.” There are as many beautiful words in Bronzeville as there are stars in the sky. It is now time to understand the rhythms of a carousel’s colorful shadow. It is a ride through the ups and downs of America that everyone should take.
Dave Hoekstra is a long time Chicago journalist, author and radio talk show host. He lives in Chicago.