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Palm Tavern

Please Read Our "Open Letter" to CHICAGO Mayor Richard Daley, below

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Open Letter to Mayor Richard M. Daley, City of Chicago

and Alderman Dorothy Tillman

Delivered: May 25, 2001

Dear Mayor Daley and Alderman Tillman:

We are writing to you with grave concern about the future of the Palm Tavern, a Chicago cultural institution, internationally recognized as an important link in the history of American music.

The Palm Tavern, which presently serves its neighborhood as a venue for plays, jazz sessions, poetry readings, artistic collaborations and other entertainment, will soon become the property of the City Hall through the power of eminent domain. Without your immediate intervention, the doors of the Palm Tavern will be padlocked and its windows boarded up. It will also result in the eviction of Geraldine "Mama" Gerri Oliver whom just last year you honored with a Proclamation that recognized her as a "cultural icon, for refusing to alter the Palm Tavern and refusing to give up on 47th Street."

The Palm Tavern is the LAST AUTHENTIC PIECE OF BRONZEVILLE of its kind that exists. None of the other historic buildings of Bronzeville have their 1930s interior and business fixtures intact. The restaurant booths, the bar, hat racks and other fixtures that appear in pictures of the era at the Chicago Historical Society and the Library of Congress are STILL in the Palm Tavern. The Palm Tavern's business, under the management of Geraldine "Mama Gerri" Oliver for the past 45 years, remains today as a living link to what was arguably the greatest era in Chicago's African American history; "The Bronzeville Era". A woman and African American, " Mama Gerri" is a living testament to the nurturing of Black economic life in Bronzeville.

When the Palm Tavern first opened its doors in 1933, the Chicago Defender called it "the most high classed Negro establishment in America."

Chicago Tribune music critic Howard Reich has written:

"It would be difficult to overestimate the room's role in nurturing black musical culture in Chicago and beyond. This was the place where ideas were exchanged, tunes discussed and collaborations conceived.

Over the decades, the Palm Tavern was an unofficial clubhouse for generations of African-American musicians, including Duke Ellington, James Brown, Count Basie, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and Muddy Waters."

Governor George Ryan honored Gerri Oliver in his 1999 "Salute to Living African American History" and then wrote a personal letter stating:

"For the past 65 years, the Palm Tavern has been an active participant in the business community in the Chicago area. Your success over the years has contributed to the economic vitality of your community as well as our state. It continues to be a historic landmark that preserves memorabilia of famous customers and patrons."

The editor of a nationally recognized jazz magazine "Down Beat," Jason Koransky, commented in the March 2001 edition:

"On 47th Street, the club sits in Bronzeville, around the corner from the location of the old Regal Theater. Politicians, business leaders, athletes and entertainers in the neighborhood made the club -- which Gerri has owned since the mid '50s -- a focal point of their social activities. What a shame it would be to lose this living shrine. Chicago should keep the Palm as part of any new plan. A rejuvenated Bronzeville must not be a polished, Disney-fied strip. It needs the club as an anchor, to provide an important link between Chicago and Africa."

At this point we do not know IF the City has specific plans for the PALM TAVERN. If there are plans for restoring the Palm Tavern we commend you, however, these plans have not been made public. The Palm Tavern is being condemned under an eminent domain process and community and business leadership has not been informed of the specific plans for the real estate. Furthermore, we are concerned because the City has not assigned a budget to perform basic maintenance to ensure the survival of the structure after years of neglect by David Gray and Midwest Partners, current owner of the building. While the City's action to take the premises away from the slum landlord is a good one, the City's inaction and lack of a public plan endangers the historical significance of the Palm Tavern. In contrast, the creation of a plan by the city to restore the Palm Tavern is an excellent business and community development opportunity.

There has been no community input or public involvement in the redevelopment plans that include a Blues District. We are concerned because it has been reported that the City is utilizing federal empowerment zone dollars and state appropriated funds and relying on the 47th Street TIF which currently has no available increment.

We urge the City to work with the community development task force to make the Palm Tavern a cornerstone in the redevelopment of the 47th Street neighborhood. The city has a unique opportunity to take an existing African American owned business in Bronzeville, complete with its historic 1930s fixtures, and leverage its "world class star power" an attraction for capital investment and tourism to the 47th Street neighborhood.

We ask for your leadership to establish a private/public project that develops a specific business plan for the Restoration and Preservation of the Palm Tavern in the Third Ward. This project would focus on revitalizing the facilities as a major community center as well as a tourist attraction and a visitor information center.

We recommend that you assign a member of your team, perhaps your new deputy chief of staff, Lee Bey, who has extensive knowledge of historic preservation issues to join the Palm Tavern Restoration Project to manage the project and assign a budget, and that the public play a substantial role in this process. We feel confident that a community-based team, working with your staff, has the talent to determine the "highest and best use " of this invaluable community asset, one that should transcend local politics.

Music has long been a bridge through which Chicagoans have been able to cross divisive racial and ethnic boundaries. Music, also, opens doors for the world to get to know our city. We ask your commitment to a restoration plan that recognizes the Palm Tavern as a historic landmark and supports its restoration as part of a redevelopment plan that respects the community, its heritage and its culture.