Bronzeville: A struggle for identity

Once the center of Chicago's black community, 47th Street must be rebuilt. But that process is at the heart of a political war.

By Christina Pellett

October 18, 2001

Daily Northwestern, Northwestern University, Evanston, Illinois

Walking along East 47th Street between Vincennes Boulevard and South King Drive, one would never guess this strip of land was once the vibrant, glamorous “downtown” of the South Side community of Bronzeville. Today, the area consists of nothing more than a handful of boarded-up buildings, pawn shops and convenience marts, vacant lots and barber shops. Many storefronts are gated even during business hours; customers must be buzzed in to enter. At Harold’s Chicken Shack, a pane of bullet-proof glass separates the customer from the kitchen, and your food is passed to you through a rotating glass turnstile. Empty liquor bottles wrapped in brown paper bags sit abandoned on stoops that lead into buildings with no sign of the soul they once had.

But there is a curious beast at the corner of 47th Street and King Drive that seems strangely out of place. Surrounded by crooked wire fencing and rubble, partly boarded up and filled with stacks of brick, the beige stone and glass-windowed shell seems to straddle the line between something soon to be and something that once was.

This shell is the partially erected 47th Street Cultural Center, a major component of Chicago Ald. Dorothy Tillman's (3rd) decade-long plan for the redevelopment of 47th Street.

On the other side of King Drive sits a vacant lot with a large metal sign stuck into a corner of the dead grass. Alongside a fantastical pastel drawing of a tree-lined, diamond shaped park, the sign promises that the Quincy Jones Plaza will be "coming soon."

Other additions to the street, such as a Second City comedy theater, an African bazaar and a cluster of blues nightclubs and soul food restaurants are also in the works as part of the 47th-King Drive Redevelopment Plan. Led by city planning officials and Tillman, the project is intended to highlight the cultural heritage and blues culture of the street. But a rocky past and a nebulous future have led critics to wonder: Whose heritage is this plan heralding, and what will it do to the neighborhood around it?

The 47th-King Drive Redevelopment plan has a long and twisted past stretching back almost two decades. Beginning as early as the mid-1980s, the city began to pull together a plan to restore the predominantly black community of Bronzeville and create a tourist spot that would benefit both residents and business-owners. The plan led to the formation of the Mid-South Planning Commission, which, according to Harold Lucas of the Black Metropolis and Tourism Council, originally identified 43rd Street as the site of any original blues clubs, such as the Checkerboard Lounge. A plan to develop a blues historic district along 43rd Street, in addition to creating a commercial retail district along 47th, was submitted to the city, which began to work with the commission on the project, Lucas says.

At the same time, in the early 1990s, Tillman began collaboration with Chicago native Lou Rawls on a cultural center and music education center for youth to sit on 47th Street. Soon, plans for a historic district were shifted to 47th Street and Tillman took control of the project. "Basically, Tillman came in and said, 'We're going to move the plan to 47th Street and we're going to make the Checkerboard [Lounge] move,'" Lucas said. "Instead of expanding the destination and creating related developments throughout the area, she simply moved to close everything into one area, 47th Street."

What prompted Tillman's decision is not exactly clear. Despite several attempts, Tillman could not be reached for comment, but according to a city source who wishes to remain anonymous, plans for a tourist area had always involved a choice between 43rd and 47th streets. Forty-Seventh simply ended up being the logical choice because it would both support and benefit from such an economic stimulus.

"The intention of the redevelopment plan is to foster an African-American cultural entertainment destination in an area that already had historical place in African-American history," the city source said, "and on top of that to be able to create an economic engine for the area."

But Lucas accuses Tillman of demagoguery and claims she displaced the Mid-South plan simply to further her own personal interests

"We have allowed elected

officials with their own political agendas and deep pockets to control our livelihood," Lucas said. In addition to the 47th Street Cultural Center, plans are underway to build two more centers within a two-block area on 47th. "I support all these projects, but why has nothing happened on 43rd Street?" Lucas asked. "There's just a disconnect between what's best for the community and what the alderman wants as far as controlling development."

One concern over converting 47th Street into a blues historic district, is that blues was never truly part of the history of the street. "If you want to give a musical style to 47th Street," said historian and lifetime resident Timuel Black, "it would be jazz, not blues. You had Count Basie, Duke Ellington, and if they played blues, in was in their jazzy style."

Three years ago, the city began placing street signs designating 47th Street "Tobacco Road." This is not only the title of a 1964 Lou Rawls' song, but also the name of Tillman's nonprofit organization, incorporated in 1992 to help raise money for the cultural center. But Black argues that this name is a misnomer for the street that was once anything but Tobacco Road.

"Do you know what Tobacco Road is?" Black asked. "It's in the low-down, nitty-gritty South. And not just the South, but the grimy South, the overalls-wearing South. Can you imagine Langston Hughes, W.E.B. Du Bois or Paul Robeson walking down Tobacco Road? I don't think so. It's an insult to give 47th a name which in no ways is descriptive of the population that once inhabited the street."

Black remembers 47th Street as being the place to "gawk and be gawked at."

"Oh it was so exciting," he said. "You would get dressed up with your date and go meet people you knew, you'd go to places like the Regal Theater, torn down in 1973 and there would be Count Basie and Duke Ellington, and then you'd go to a bar and talk all night long."

In the 1930s and 1940s, Bronzeville was a city within a city that originally stretched from 22nd Street to 55th Street along State Street. Early in the 20th century, its "downtown" was 35th and State, but by the end of the Depression, 47th Street was the heart and soul of the area. Residents didn't need to go into Chicago to shop at fine department stores or shoe stores, to get insurance or a tailor-made suit. They could make a decent living right where they lived, Black said. "I knew a gentleman who worked his entire life in the Black Belt, between 45th and 47th on King Drive," Black said. "He sent his daughter to the finest universities in the country, and his wife had two houses, one in the city and one in the country. He made that kind of money."

But with the influx of Southern migrants after World War II, Bronzeville became even more crowded than it had been before, Black said. With the disappearance of restrictive covenants in the 1950s, those who could afford to move from the area did, taking with them their experiences and their knowledge of entertainment, culture and the entitlements to social services that such a neighborhood had.

Public housing also came to the area in the 1950s, bringing with it poverty, family breakdown, violence and drugs. Modernization took away the previously plentiful factory jobs that residents once made a living from, and soon, the area became unsafe and unsavory. Those from surrounding communities no longer came to Bronzeville to shop or go out on the town. Stores shut their doors for lack of customers, theaters such as the Regal shut their doors due to poor attendance, and the place became a ghost town at night and a hangout by day, Black said.

But in recent years, Bronzeville has become the hot spot for young, professional, upwardly mobile blacks. Its magnificent architecture and proximity to downtown has made it a popular neighborhood to branch out into, and the resulting gentrification has displaced thousands of residents over the past few years, Lucas said.

Some fear the 47th-King Drive Redevelopment will further gentrify the area and drive out residents who can't afford the higher cost of living. Eric Bacon, co-owner of Bacon's Clothing, 507 E. 47th St., said that, although business owners who pay rent are most in danger at the moment, the sting of the redevelopment will not be isolated to them. "Everybody will be affected," Bacon added. "We just don't know how yet. It might take two or three years, but you'll see property taxes going up, people won't be able to afford to live here anymore. It'll just be a big mess."

The most clearly affected person to date is a woman named Gerri Oliver, whose struggle to stay on 47th Street, according to some, clashed with Ald. Tillman's plans to rehaul the area.

Geraldine "Mama Gerri" Oliver had owned Gerri's Palm Tavern, formerly at 446 E. 47th St., since 1956. Originally opened by policy king James "Genial Jim" Knight in 1933, the bar and eatery attracted an impressive and far-flung clientele throughout its heyday years. Nat King Cole, Lena Horne, Louis Armstrong, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Miles Davis, James Brown, Redd Foxx and Richard Wright were among the bar's famous repeat customers. Boxer Joe Louis proposed to his wife in one of the corner booths, and Harold Washington also celebrated his 1983 mayoral victory at the tavern.

But according to the city source, Gerri's Palm Tavern hasn't been so glamorous for many, many years. Oliver had been living in the tavern for almost a decade when the city discovered its decaying condition after a fire broke out in the kitchen one night.

After repeatedly citing Oliver's landlord for code violations, the city filed eminent domain proceedings in an attempt to purchase the property. This past August, the court filed in favor of the city, and Gerri's Palm Tavern was boarded up. "Knowing the historical significance of this building and its entertainment purposes, the city went ahead and decided to purchase it," said the city source. "Gerri's was never excluded, though. The city has made it crystal clear that this building will be rehabbed for entertainment purposes, something it has wanted to do all along, but it could not be done in the previous situation." If anything, the city source claims, they are the good guys for getting Oliver out of the tavern and her squalid living conditions before things could get any worse.

But Lucas, who was involved in a massive campaign to save the Palm Tavern, sees the city as anything but good. "Gerri Oliver was unceremoniously shut down by the city," Lucas said. "They shut down a building that was a natural tourist attraction and that was generating wealth, and then are opening it back up with our tax dollars going to sources other than Gerri Oliver. We simply feel as though the authentic cultural experience of Bronzeville is being shut down by the powers that be."

As part of the purchase, the city agreed not only to cover all of Oliver's moving and storage expenses for her historical artifacts and personal belongings, but also to help her locate housing and pay for approximately three years of her rent. But shortly after the building was boarded up and before Oliver had a chance to have her belongings removed, a fire broke out in an adjacent building. The blaze was extinguished before any damage could be done to the property, but Lucas said Oliver's belongings suffered significant smoke damage. The city adamantly denies that any damage occurred and maintains that the building was under surveillance by security guards who were, in fact, a close second in calling in the fire to police.

Another bizarre twist in the history of the redevelopment revolves around Lou Rawls' involvement in the 47th Street Cultural Center and Lou Rawls Theater. According to David Brokaw, Rawls' longtime manager, Rawls had always been interested in doing something to improve the neighborhood, and when he took his idea for a cultural and music education center for youths to Tillman in the early 1990s, she wanted to get involved. Rawls pledged his time and resources, and according to a city source, members of Rawls' presented Tillman with a "huge, blow-up check." But the money never materialized, and last year, rumors abounded that Rawls was dissatisfied with the lack of progress on the center. The city claims that Rawls simply had a change of heart.

Brokaw said that Rawls is indeed not as involved in the project as he has been previously. He said that Tillman has simply become more in control over the cultural center, which has dropped "Lou Rawls Theater" as part of its name and is now simply referred to as the 47th Street Cultural Center. But Brokaw could not discern what brought about the change.

If Rawls was indeed put off by delays in construction, he wouldn't be the only one. Critics such as Lucas wonder why entrepreneurs like Oliver are being moved out while he hasn't seen any workmen on the cultural center site in almost a year. But Joel Werth, director of communication for the Department of Planning and Development, denies allegations of lapses in construction and maintains that the project is still underway and near completion.

"The delays aren't any different from delays on many other construction projects," Werth said. "It's a big project, and they've had some changes in contractors and the work plan, but again, that's not dissimilar from other small and large and huge construction projects." The next step, Werth said, is in finalizing the programming for the building itself and moving onto the construction of the interior.

As far as the timeline on creating an entire entertainment district, the city takes a "Rome wasn't built in a day" approach. "Something like this isn't going to be done in matter of a year or two," said the city source close to the project. "Creating an entertainment district will take many years, especially when this has the potential to become an economic engine and an international tourist destination."

Regardless of how quickly the project is completed, it still unsettles critics like Lucas.

The feeling that the city is creating its own version of history is enhanced by what Lucas and others see as a lack of communication between the city and the neighborhood concerning how redevelopment could best benefit the community. "I can look out my back door and see the cultural center," Lucas said, "and I've never gotten a notice about something that has over $4 million of public dollars invested in it. I get notices about reelection and what the alderman wants to do, but never anything asking us what we want."

For some, this is made even more despicable by the overabundance of government money involved in the project. In April 1998, the Chicago Sun-Times reported that the plan was being funded almost entirely by public dollars. Of the $4 million poured into the center at that point, all but $23,000 had come from "state grants, federal empowerment zone funds, and general obligation bond revenues earmarked for educational and cultural activity."

"In most projects you see only 15 percent of the money comes from the public sector," Lucas explained. "In this case, about 90 percent of the money funding this project is public money coming from tax payers. But with this money, there's no public participation."

The city source says that no alderman would undertake a project as large as the 47th-King Drive Redevelopment Project without consulting the community, and that in fact Tillman did just that. "There were lots of opportunities for the public to weigh in on the development of this project," said the city source. "I think there's some people in the community that feel they didn't get what they want because what they want just isn't what the alderman wants. This is just another intercommunity squabble, and you'd be hard pressed not to find that in any ward. Any time you do a project, whether it's a small community park, a substantial park or a cultural center, there are those who like it and those who hate it."

For Lucas and business owners like Gerri Oliver, it's not just a matter of personal opinion. "This is a case of elite interests coming in and rewriting the history of an entire area," Lucas said.

"It's like going to the North Shore to learn about blues culture. It's just wrong."