Challenges in Rebuilding Bronzeville
A Chicago Case Example

The Black Metropolis

Chicago’s Bronzeville community exemplifies the need for commercial development in poor urban communities. Bronzeville is a community of roughly 100,000 residents located on the Southside of Chicago . Bronzeville enjoys a rich history as the “Black Metropolis”, a primary destination point for blacks migrating from the south from the turn of the 20th century to the 1930’s and 1940’s in search of opportunity. Denied housing elsewhere in the city and with limited access to downtown stores and other opportunities, blacks created a vibrant community around a strong, local consumer-driven economy and a large number of attractive entertainment venues.

Commerce was the glue to the community and diversity of income and occupation marked each neighborhood. Shoe shiners in kitchenette apartments lived next to barons of business in lofty mansions. Ebony Magazine, Soft Sheen, The Chicago Defender, The Supreme Life Insurance Company, Binga Bank and many other black businesses were born in Bronzeville in this era. Culture and the arts flourished.

Decline and Despair

Bronzeville’s fortune began to decline in the 1960’s and 1970’s. With the elimination of restrictive housing covenants, middle class blacks followed the broader societal trend to the suburbs. At the same time, local businesses lost many of their customers to well-capitalized downtown and suburban competitors that were newly opening their doors to black patrons. These trends were worsened by three other key external factors:

     • The placement of large numbers of publicly-subsidized housing units in Bronzeville, which brought many additional low-income residents to the community;

     • Decreased access to opportunity-rich communities west of Bronzeville, due to the building of the Dan Ryan Expressway, which acted as an effective barrier; and,

     • The overall decline of the Chicago economy including, the intense difficulties of two major Southside industries, the stock yards and steel mills;

Together these forces drove a decades-long decline of the economic and resident base of the community. Between 1960 and 2000, Bronzeville lost a large portion its residents and housing base, most major businesses closed or moved out, and virtually all of its quality retail and entertainment, venues shut downat one point, Bronzeville included several of the poorest census tracts in the nation.

Bronzeville’s economic problems persist. According to the 2000 U.S. census, more than 35% of Bronzeville residents live below the poverty line and roughly 25% are unemployed. Moreover, a McKinsey & Company “deep dive” study performed in conjunction with the Grand Boulevard Federation, a group of leading social service agencies, and focused on an extended Grand Boulevard community, comprised of nearly half of Bronzeville’s residents, revealed needs that are even deeper:

     • The median household income of Grand Boulevard families was less than $25,000, with over 40% of households living below the poverty line of $16,500 for a family of four;

     • More than half of the residents of working age are not employed, the majority of which are no longer in the workforce;

     • Less than half the community’s youth graduate from high school;

     • The infant mortality rate is almost twice that of the state average and Grand Boulevard ranks among the 10 worst in almost every maternal and infant health category of 77 Chicago community areas; and,

     • Crime is a serious problem with violent crime occurring five times more frequently than in the rest of Illinois.

Bronzeville’s dismal economic condition prompts large human services expenditures. The study found that over one-quarter of a billion dollars annually is spent to serve an estimated 60% of Grand Boulevard’s 47,000 residents. This funding comes from a number of federal, state, city, and private sources and supports a wide array of services intended to stabilize the community.

In the Turnaround - A Place for Everyone?

At the turn of the 21st century, another wave of changes seems set to transform Bronzeville. The Chicago Housing Authority under its Plan for Transformation is demolishing all of its galley-style, family-focused, high-rise housing developments and investing roughly a billion dollars in Bronzeville to replace them with low-rise mixed-income housing meant to blend in with and support the surrounding neighborhoods. At the same time, a Chicago-wide housing boom has begun to bring significant numbers of middle class African Americans to the community, reversing a pattern of out-migration extending for over 4 decades. In aggregate, these trends are creating a substantially increased pool of market-rate housing and are likely to attract middle-class residents looking to take advantage of the community’s proximity to downtown and what remains of the gracious, century-old housing stock.

Commercial and industrial development is required to create local jobs that would help lower-income residents find an economic footing as well as to provide the basis for the interaction between all residents that is critical to building cohesive communities. Unfortunately, commercial lags far behind residential development. The lack of local jobs will make it extremely difficult for long-time residents to remain in the community in the face of rapid gentrification. Moreover, an impending half-billion dollar reconstruction of the Dan Ryan Expressway threatens to eliminate a dozen ramps, further reducing access to jobs and isolating community residents and institutions. Consequently, Bronzeville faces the possibility that rather than returning to its latter day role as a commercial and residential haven for people from all walks of life, it will become an exclusive refuge for middle and upper-class Chicagoans, a suburban-style bedroom community 15 minutes from the Loop. Long-time lower-income residents are likely to be pushed further out the economic margin, to southern suburbs that offer even less economic opportunity and access to the regional economy. Bronzeville may grow, but Chicago and our nation would continue to pay the high price of supporting failing lower-income communities.

*Bronzeville is generally considered to be bounded by 22nd Street on the north, 67th Street on the south, Stewart Street on the west, and Lake Michigan (north of 47th), Drexel Blvd. (47th to 51st), and Cottage Grove (51st to 67th) on the east.

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