Sweet Home Chicago: From the Delta to Bronzeville

Part I. From the Delta to Bronzeville

Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” carries a century of Chicago history from the Great Migration and growth of the Black Metropolis/Bronzeville to current efforts to reinvigorate a community that contributed substantially to national and international music culture.

Part II. Building the Black Metropolis

The Black Metropolis of the 1920s-1930s was a city within a city, confined geographically by segregationist policy while growing through migration and the efforts of black entrepreneurs in banking, real estate, entertainment and leisure enterprise and the Policy Wheel.

Part III. Jazz and Blues on the Stroll

The Stroll was the center of Bronzeville jazz and blues. It was said “there was so much music in the air you hold a horn up and it would play itself.” Musicians played in high class venues and off the street rent parties and buffet flats. They drew on southern roots, infused sacred sounds with the blues to create gospel, and sent the sound back to the Delta on records and radio.

Part IV. Blame it on the Blues

The female blues stars of the 1920s were followed by masters of blues guitar and then guitar-piano duos. Robert Johnson would make his name by fusing his Delta roots with the sounds of famous urban musicians. “Sweet Home Chicago” was a masterful reworking and renaming of music that was popular in the Black Metropolis since the 1920s. For a young Delta musician with aspirations, Chicago was the destination. Johnson died in 1938 at age 27 before he could fulfill his promise.

Part V. I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man

Robert Johnson became a legendary figure as the Delta blues were carried up to Chicago, electrified, internationalized and merged with rock ‘n’ roll. Lawyers fought over ownership of Johnson’s music and estate while others debated who owned his soul.  “Sweet Home Chicago” followed its own route, its lyrics reworked to became a Chicago blues standard, the city’s unofficial anthem and one of the most covered songs of all time.

Part VI. Back to that Same Old Place

Bronzeville, Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago,” is in its third incarnation. The city within a city of the 1920-1930s was leveled, sealed off and rebuilt as high rise projects. Bronzeville population plummeted as the projects were torn down and the Great Recession left foreclosed and abandoned properties in its wake. With new investment supporting community renewal, the questions remain who will populate Bronzeville and will it be absorbed into an expanding central city. “Sweet Home Chicago” is a cultural marker in Bronzeville. It is a reminder that a thriving arts and culture district was a core component of Black Metropolis life and can be central to Bronzeville revitalization.

Notes and Sources




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Sweet Home Chicago: Part VI. Back to that Same Old Place

We will never know what images of Bronzeville inspired Robert Johnson to compose “Sweet Home Chicago.” The song emerged from Chicago Black Metropolis musical roots and spoke of the city as an aspirational destination. Newsreel footage celebrating Chicago in the 1920s highlights Michigan Avenue, the Wrigley Building and the new bridge spanning the Chicago River (renamed the DuSable Bridge in a more inclusive era). The camera going south always stops somewhere around Grant Park. There are no black faces in those newsreels. In the 1920s and 1930s, Bronzeville, not State Street, would be the place to go if thinking about heading north from the Delta.

“Sweet Home Chicago” was brought up to Bronzeville well before the 1960s search for Robert Johnson. It was recorded by his traveling companions Johnny Shines and David “Honeyboy” Edwards as well as by his mentee Robert Jr. Lockwood. Pianist Roosevelt Sykes (who Johnson reportedly met) and Magic Sam recorded it along with dozens of other well known, Presidential and lesser known blues players. It was electrified and made to speak of that “same old place, sweet home Chicago.” But the Black Metropolis/Bronzeville destination in the song has changed. Bronzeville has gone through two incarnations and is on the cusp of a third.


Robert Jr. Lockwood and Johnny Shines

In the second wave of the Great Migration, Chicago’s growing black population expanded to the south and west of downtown and gave rise to public policy containment strategies including redlining by the FHA. Black migrants remained confined to a Black Belt of too limited scale and insufficient public investment. The Bronzeville of the 1930s was cut through by the Dan Ryan Expressway in the 1950s, separating it from neighboring Bridgeport to the west. It was leveled in part to make way for high rise projects, another barrier between communities, which sustained a segregated city without producing an improved quality of life. The Ida B. Wells Homes were built as a haven for lower middle class blacks in 1939-1941 and celebrated in Works Progress Administration photos and essay. The project eventually became plagued by neglect, drugs and violence. Demolition began in 2002.


A family in the Ida B. Wells housing project, the father works for the War Department (right). Children attending school at the project (left). Jack Delano, 1942. Library of Congress

The Robert Taylor Homes were built along the Dan Ryan Expressway from 39th Street to 54th Street. The Homes were comprised of 28 high rise buildings designed for 11,000 residents. Population peaked at 27,000, over 20,000 were children.  Political pressure blocked efforts to created integrated housing and HUD guidelines forced poor construction. The homes were named for an African American activist and Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) board member who advocated for racially integrated housing and resigned when the city instead chose locations that would maintain segregation. Residents suffered as manufacturing and other well-paying industrial jobs left Chicago and the project’s neglected buildings became magnets for gangs and drugs. By 1975, 92 percent of residents were on government assistance. The black population that could leave moved further south or to the suburbs.

By the turn of the century, the CHA accepted that the projects were a failure and began their demolition under its Plan for Transformation. The Plan called for replacing the city’s elevator buildings with new mixed income communities. Demolition shunted many residents to poor neighborhoods rather than providing for an “opportunity move.” While those occupying 15,416 units would have a “right of return” to public housing, by 2010 only 2,163 were living in new mixed income properties. The rest were in renovated public housing projects, had taken a voucher to seek private sector housing, or had moved out of the area.

In Bronzeville, CHA demolition began in 2002 and removed over 10,000 public housing units. As of 2012, 755 new CHA public housing units were built, along with a nearly equal number of affordable and market-rate units, leaving Bronzeville with a less than a third of its original number of public housing units.


The Robert Taylor Homes. An initially well intentioned plan to house low-income families produced bleak, prison-like, demeaning warehouses for the poorest of black Chicagoans.

The Douglas and Grand Boulevard communities, the heart of historic Bronzeville stretch from 26th Street to 51st Street east of the Dan Ryan Expressway. Washington Park, from 51st Street to 63rd Street is included in some renderings of Bronzeville boundaries.  They were all impacted by the Plan for Transformation. The post 2007 financial meltdown/Great Recession then resulted in a devastating increase in foreclosures. Owners and renters were driven out, leaving empty lots and abandoned properties that were magnets for crime. Douglas, the community closest to downtown, had a lower percentage of vacant properties than did Chicago as a whole. The percentage in Grand Boulevard and Washington Park was up to four times higher than in Douglas. The collapse of the housing bubble extracted considerable capital from the community, the homeowner equity that was a major source of Bronzeville savings.

The population of Douglas and Grand Boulevard had increased from 137,290 in 1930 to 193,302 in 1950 and then plummeted to 40,167 by 2010.  Adding Washington Park to the Bronzeville profile yields a similar result: population of 181,306 in 1930; 250,158 in 1950; and 51,884 in 2010. Population in the black communities further south peaked in the 1960s and 1970. Chicago’s population peaked in 1950s with a precipitous decline beginning in the 1970s, the era of white flight.

The decline of the Bronzeville population and decimation of the community was part of a larger movement of African Americans out of the city. Chicago lost 200,000 residents between 2000 and 2010, 181,000 of whom were black. Some moved further south and to the suburbs, while some moved back to cities in the south and the west. By 2015, thousands more black residents would leave seeking a better life with more opportunity and less violence. One former black resident who moved to the suburbs said “I’m saddened by the fact that trips to the city are filled with less enthusiasm, more apprehension and a much more sobering view that “Sweet Home Chicago” is more so in song than reality.”

The story of population loss stemming from demolitions under the CHA Plan for Transformation, and later the Great Recession is the denouement of the second Bronzeville incarnation. The third incarnation involves both conflicting and compatible forces that include repopulation by a black middle class, gentrification with or without displacement and cultural heritage branding.

In her forward to the 2015 edition of Black Metropolis, Mary Pattillo, reports on studies showing that in cities like Chicago with an historic Black Metropolis and vibrant urban economies, “black professionals  are drawn to black neighborhoods to recreate the class integration and cultural vitality of Drake and Cayton’s era.” Private reinvestment in Bronzeville associated with a returning black middle class was a key component of the mid-1990s plan for Restoring Bronzeville. The plan also was predicated on a cultural legacy claim to Bronzeville turf. The plan included the designation of an eight square block Black Metropolis Historic District and the development of a Blues District. In her analysis of the plan, Michelle Boyd notes that by developing tourist-oriented, black owned business, preservationists hoped to market racial heritage tourism.

A Black Metropolis Historic District was established. Some Bronzeville buildings have been repurposed and saved while others have already been demolished. Demolishing buildings destroys the physical community, destroys memories and destroys history. Robert Abbot’s Chicago Defender Building at 35th and Indiana stands empty while Anthony Overton’s Art Deco Chicago Bee building is now the Bronzeville branch of the Chicago Public Library. The historic Supreme/Liberty Life Building, once headquarters to the first African-American owned and operated insurance company in the north, was nearly demolished before it was purchased and rehabilitated in 2005 by the Bronzeville Convention and Tourism Council.

Other Black Metropolis Historic District buildings have been restored and repurposed, but face away from Bronzeville and do not necessarily contribute to its reinvigoration. The architecturally striking Chicago Illinois Automobile Club, home to the Defender from the 1950s to 2005, will open in 2017 as the Revel Motor Row venue. Situated across from McCormick Place at 2400 S. Michigan Avenue and drawing on its convention business, the new venue will, in the words of its developers, “help fuel the resurgence of the neighborhood into a thriving entertainment district.” Unity Hall, home to Oscar DePriest’s Peoples Movement Club and headquarters of Democratic political leader William Dawson has been renovated to serve as housing for IIT students.


Chicago Illinois Automobile Club, home of the Chicago Defender from 1950s to 2005. Photo by Revel Motor Row.

The only building included in the District associated with the nighttime Stroll is the famous Sunset Café/Grand Terrace Café, now Meyers Ace Hardware at 35th Street and Calumet. The building was sold and the hardware store closed in March 2017.


Earl Hines in front of the Grand Terrace Marquee (left). Remnants of club decor in Meyer’s Ace Hardware interior (right).

Blues District statues and markers were placed around 47th Street and King Drive, prior home to the Regal Theater and Savoy Ballroom. A more recent Bronzeville icon, the Checkerboard Lounge, once owned by Buddy Guy, where Muddy Waters played with the Rolling Stones, has been moved to Hyde Park’s Harper Court so University of Chicago students could listen to the blues without leaving their neighborhood. The Hyde Park Jazz Society moved their meetings to 43rd Street soon after the Checkerboard Lounge moved to Harper Court, although it holds its annual Jazz festival in Hyde Park and Kenwood venues. The Checkerboard Lounge closed in 2015 with the death of its owner, L. C. Thurman.


Buddy Guy (striped shirt), co-owner L.C. Thurman second from left and company outside the Checkerboard Lounge. 1982. Photograph by Marc PoKempner.

The Restoring Bronzeville plan highlighted tensions regarding who “owns” the community’s heritage. Those who had remained in Douglas and Grand Boulevard felt that they had been the keepers of that heritage and should not be displaced by gentrification masquerading as community redevelopment. Davarian L. Baldwin notes that “the racial trade marking of the area, as a heritage tourism destination, was a savvy attempt to claim ownership of the neighborhood through stewardship…The value of Bronzeville heritage tourism destination required that black people actually lived there.” Construction of Central Station in the neighboring Near South Side (aka the South Loop) set off alarm bells that Bronzeville would be next.

In 2004, a committee was formed to work on a proposal for a Black Metropolis National Heritage Area (NHA) under National Park Service auspices. A feasibility study published in 2013 defines the general boundaries of greater Bronzeville community as 18th Street to the North, 71st Street to the South, Lake Michigan to the East, and Canal Street to the West. The NHA would “establish a framework…to interpret the area’s distinctive landscape, history, and culture of the Black Metropolis and the story of the Great Migration.” The people, collections, buildings and environmental resources within the NHA boundaries can tell a “compelling story of what it was like to be an African-American during the Great Migration.” The NHA could build on the memories of those who knew what it was like to “walk the Stroll, the center of the Black community, enveloped by music, nightlife, and a bustling business community.” National Heritage Areas are lived-in landscapes. The ultimate goal of the NHA is to focus on tourism and economic development. Legislation is to be introduced to create, recognize and help fund the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area.


Historical landmarks within the narrowly defined Bronzeville area of the NHA.

Depending on one’s perspective, Douglas is either the growing and relatively affluent upper end of a revitalizing black Bronzeville or the next community to be absorbed into an expanding multi-racial, multi-ethnic downtown.  Douglas has become less black since 2000, going from 85 percent non-Hispanic black to 73 percent in 2010. It has a higher median income than Grand Boulevard which in turn has a higher median income than Washington Park. At the same time, Douglas’ median income is about half that of the Near South Side.


Detail of Chicago neighborhood map color coded by race/ethnicity. Each dot represents twenty-five people. Black line represent neighborhood boundaries. Block level data from 200 census. Original map by Bill Rankin, Shift:Blog.

There have been recent publically funded investments in Bronzeville, mostly in Douglas with its proximity to downtown. Plans generally include the stated expectation that public investment will stimulate private investment and result in a reinvigorated Bronzeville. In the Drake and Cayton era, segregation was maintained through a combination of public policy and violence. The racial composition of neighborhoods is now influenced by inclusionary zoning rules (encouraging income diversity), exclusionary zoning rules (the opposite), property tax policy, the allocation of tax increment financing (TIF) funds and decisions by public sector land owners (e.g. CHA) and transportation authorities.

Heralded as a significant event for a rebirth of Bronzeville, The Arts and Recreation Center at Ellis Park opened in July 2016. Located at 35th and Cottage Grove Avenue, down the street from where the Ida B. Wells Homes once stood, it provides a much needed venue for community gatherings. The center has a full-size swimming pool (the only one between downtown and Hyde Park), fitness-rooms, gymnasium and multi-purpose rooms, as well as rooms with wood sprung floors for dance classes. It took a decade to arrange funding for the project which eventually drew on a combination of TIF, Chicago Housing Authority funds and Federal tax credits. The Park District and Chicago Public Schools donated the land.


Ribbon cutting ceremony at the Arts and Recreation Center at Ellis Park.

Nearby, the construction of the new 35th Street bridge will connect Douglas to the lakefront. For Blair Kamin, “the design opens skyline views and a sense of possibility.” A Mariano’s opened in late 2016 at 39th and King Drive. Some community members objected to CHA giving replacement land to Mariano’s noting that a couple of thousand units of housing had disappeared and only 250 replacement units have been built. The alderman said that Mariano’s was the type of amenity needed to attract people to the community. CHA said that it has sufficient land to accommodate those residents who have the “right to return.”

In February 2016, the Chicago Planning Commission approved the first phase of the Lake Meadows development, located at 35th and King Drive, to include a shopping center, high rise apartment buildings and high rise hotels. As originally proposed in 2008, the developer would raze the 70 acre Lake Meadows apartment development, between 31st Street and 35th Street, and completely redevelop it as a new planned residential community. It would include almost 20 new towers totaling 7,845 residential units and over 500,000 square feet of retail to be constructed over a 30-year period. The property benefits from its location in a neighborhood with relatively inexpensive land and its proximity to the McCormick convention area. As stated in a project review: “If successful, a redeveloped Lake Meadows could be a catalyst for further development on the south end of town, an area chronically overlooked by new development and beleaguered by a reputation for crime and blight.”


Lake Meadows Development as proposed in 2008, a new Bronzeville city within a city.

Like the Blues District, the first phase of the Lake Meadows development is a marker. It is set at the southwest corner of the larger envisioned development that would extend the reach of downtown. If developed as proposed, it could increase the current population of Douglas by about 42 percent.

Further south in Grand Boulevard, between 46th and 47th Street along Michigan Avenue, 421 shuttered units have been renovated and opened as the Rosenwald Courts Apartments. The former Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments were an upper middle income counterpart to the Ida B. Wells Homes and a 1929 gift from Julius Rosenwald, a Sears Roebuck magnate. The buildings had been cut up by their subsequent owner into kitchenettes and were in decline by the mid 1960s. Allowed to deteriorate further along with surrounding properties, the Apartments were closed in 2000. A gut rehab converted the eight buildings to senior and affordable housing. The two acre courtyard was renovated and made private. The renovation was financed by a private developer with leverage from a combination of TIF funds and low-income and historic tax credits. Community leaders hope that the Rosenwald Courts Apartments will act as a catalyst for continued reinvestment in the community.

Julius Rosenwald funded construction of Negro schools throughout the south. In 1942, David “Honeyboy” Edwards, one of Robert Johnson’s traveling companions, was recorded for the Library of Congress by Alan Lomax in a Rosenwald school in Clarksdale, Mississippi.

On a smaller scale, Urban Juncture is trying to renovate the Forum Hall, an entrepreneurial effort that fits the Restoring Bronzeville model. The Forum is a south side hub at 43rd and the “L.”  Built in 1897, the structure contains one of the most important assembly and performance halls in the city and possibly the oldest hardwood ballroom dance floor in Chicago. It is a piece of Bronzeville blues, jazz and gospel history. Captain Walter Dyett directed the Pilgrim Baptist Church orchestra at the Forum. Nat King Cole played on its stage. Urban Juncture also has plans in the works to open several restaurants in the area.


The Forum

The upscale Gallery Guichard, near the intersection of 47th and King Drive has exhibition and artist loft space as well as an arts incubator. The Harold Washington Cultural Center is another Bronzeville building that took a decade to fund and build. It runs visual and performing arts programs including Broadway in Bronzeville. Its mantra is “Off the Streets and on the Stage“. The Cultural Center plays an essential role in the community, directing teens to the arts and away from gun violence.

Trick you one time, sure gon’ do it again

A program to reinvigorate Bronzeville poses questions: How to present and interpret Bronzeville history, a transformative period in local and national culture. Who will inhabit Bronzeville, tell its history and share its historic space.

Presentation and interpretation can bring historic Bronzeville back to life by recounting the lives and experience of the famous, the lesser known and the infamous who contributed to its culture and commerce. Musicians like Thomas A. Dorsey who played blues, was pivotal in the creation of gospel and navigated the demands of the sacred and the profane; Robert Johnson who lived in the Delta and wrote an aspirational blues about Chicago; and Muddy Waters who sent electrified blues beyond Chicago. Legendary builders of Bronzeville like Robert Abbot who excoriated the Jim Crow South and worked to advance the Race in Chicago, Jesse Binga who promoted housing and banking to grow Bronzeville and bore the brunt of economic depression, Policy Kings who helped finance a Bronzeville cut off from Loop banking, and C.J Walker and Marjorie Stewart Joyner who promoted black beauty culture in a white consumption dominated world. They were all part of the city within a city. They stood at the starting and ending points of the Great Migration.


Top row: Oscar Micheaux, Sister Rosetta Tharpe, Anthony Overton, Arizona Dranes, Oscar DePriest, Thomas Dorsey. Middle row: Marjorie Stewart Joyner, John “Mushmouth” Johnson, Jesse Binga, Lil’ Hardin Armstrong, Mayo “Ink” Williams. Bottom row: Madam C. J. Walker, Robert Abbott, Muddy Waters, Robert Johnson, Willie Dixon.

In reflecting on Restoring Bronzeville and the role of racial heritage tourism, Michelle Boyd contemplates the second question: the degree of control the black community will have over development decisions and whether “new forms of neighborhood redevelopment will emerge” or we will simply observe “well-established patterns of displacement and gentrification.”

“A new form of neighborhood redevelopment” suggests a mixed income community with development buoyed by a black professional middle class and providing housing and employment to current lower income residents. Bronzeville of the Great Migration had mixed income housing characteristics in part imposed by segregation. Drake and Cayton noted tension between established and new residents who were differentiated by class and background. Contemporary efforts to create mixed income housing in minority communities have resulted in some conflict along lines of race and income. At the same time, some mixed income developments have minimized conflict through management and design.

Over Chicago’s relatively short history, many of its neighborhoods have undergone substantial change in class, race and ethnic composition. Prairie Avenue went from the home of the elite to a neighbor of the Levee to an upscale piece of the South Loop. Hipsters flock to what was Nelson Algren’s gritty Wicker Park. Chicagoans go to Pilsen for Cinqo de Mayo. Mies van der Rohe’s Crown Hall sits on the site of Gwendolyn Brooks’ Mecca while other ITT buildings have claimed the site of the Binga State Bank and the Binga Arcade. Thomas A. Dorsey gave birth to gospel choirs and Robert Abbot housed the Chicago Defender in South Side synagogues.

“Sweet Home Chicago,” a Delta blues rooted in Chicago DNA, is both a clear reminder of the contribution Bronzeville made to local, national and international music culture and an aspirational marker in support of a reinvigorated Bronzeville.  Building on the first, Janice Monti, Dominican University Professor and Director of the Blues and Spirit Symposium, recently responded to the Chicago Tribune’s call for a new Plan of Chicago. Monti recommended developing the South Side Record Row as a true Music Row, a cultural art and entertainment district anchored by a blues and R&B museum complex, and an open-enrollment school oriented toward Chicago’s musical heritage.

Bringing this proposal to fruition would certainly help to revitalize Bronzeville. It could support more capital infusion in Douglas and Grand Boulevard and help to complete projects by African American entrepreneurs. In Design on the Edge, Lynn Osmond, President and CEO of the Chicago Architectural Foundation reminds us that “the construction of arts- and culture-centered neighborhoods…results in a sense of belonging for residents and gives new life to underused buildings and infrastructure.”

Art and culture are necessary components of what Drake and Cayton called the Black Metropolis Axis of Life: Staying Alive, Having a Good Time, Praising God, Getting Ahead, and Advancing the Race. Arts and cultural institutions are an encouragement to public and private investment and a product of that investment. They help to define a community, help to attract population who spend income, and in turn create jobs and draw in more population. It is a virtuous circle.

Having a heritage district does not require a replication of the past. The Stroll wasn’t planned. The music was new. Venues were created as musicians and the audience came together. A vibrant arts and culture area can create its own vision. To achieve this, Bronzeville needs to overcome what Design on the Edge contributor and architect Darryl Crosby calls its “stigmatized perception/identity” and to reclaim its “large zones of vacant and underused land.” It needs improved transit hubs along the Green Line and effective connections to points within the community; links to business, entertainment, arts, cultural and theater sites.

Chicago neighborhoods are always in a state of flux. The Bronzeville communities of Douglas and Grand Boulevard are contested territory buffeted by the forces of utopia and dystopia. Downtown is surrounded by a mix of neighborhoods that are often homogeneous within and distinct one from the other.  A revitalized Bronzeville would add to the mix and could, as all development plans state, spread benefits further into the African American community.

Bronzeville is at a crossroads. It is a hundred years since the beginning of the Great Migration that brought waves of African Americans to Chicago. It is eighty years since Robert Johnson recorded “Sweet Home Chicago,” drawing on the sounds of the Black Metropolis and expressing a Delta yearning for the sweet life it could afford. Bronzeville communities swelled with more people than its housing stock, public services and infrastructure could support. Much of the black middle class moved on to other majority African American communities. The Plan for Transformation and the implosion of the housing bubble pushed much of the remaining Bronzeville population out of the neighborhood and many out of Chicago.

Public investment in Bronzeville such as the new Arts and Recreation Center at Ellis Park may signal a turn of the population tide, drawing in more of the black middle class to create a mixed income community.  Bronzeville is close to downtown and has abundant land, much of it vacant. It has wide tree lined boulevards and retains a stock of attractive Greystones. The Chicago Housing Authority envisions, but has been slow to promote, public mixed income housing developments in the neighborhood. Private investment in large-scale infill and redevelopment projects could follow.

Chicago was once an aspirational destination. Encouraging the growth of a vibrant arts and culture district that extends into Bronzeville could draw in people, revenue, jobs and create safe neighborhood space. It would help to recreate the Black Metropolis Axis of Life and fulfill the expectation of Bronzeville as “Sweet Home Chicago.”

Bronzeville street scene, Bronzeville sign and cover of Robert Johnson, Sweet Home Chicago, Remastered.

Bronzeville street scene, Bronzeville sign and cover of Robert Johnson, Sweet Home Chicago, Remastered.

Notes and Sources


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Sweet Home Chicago: Part IV. Blame it on the Blues

Thomas Dorsey was an active composer and blues performer before his gospel breakthrough in the early 1930s. In 1910 at age 11 he sold candy at Atlanta’s famous 81 Theater where he first heard William “Pa” Rainey and Gertrude “Ma” Rainey, billed as “Rainey and Rainey, Assassinators of the Blues.” There he was exposed to other minstrel and vaudeville performers with the T.O.B.A. (the Theater Owners Booking Agency also referred to as “tough on black artists” and later as the “chitlin circuit”).


Gertrude “Ma” Rainey

Ma Rainey was an electrifying performer known for her elaborate dress and gold coin jewelry; her singing, dancing, comedy routines and overwhelming personality. She sang classic blues, a standard form most associated with East Texas and the Mississippi Delta. Rainey was upfront about her life and loves and made no qualms of her attraction to women and young men. After an arrest for an indiscretion with female members of her chorus, she famously sang in “Prove it on me:”

I went out last night with a crowd of friends,
I t must’ve been women ‘cause I don’t like men.
Wear my clothes just like a fan
Talk to the gals just like any old man

Cause they say I do it, ain’t nobody caught me
Sure got to prove it on me.

By 1912 her fame grew along with the popularity of the blues, aggressively promoted via sheet music by W. C. Handy after publication of his first blues, “Memphis Blues.” Rainey claimed to have first used the term ‘blues” after hearing a girl sing about the man who left her. Handy tells of first hearing what he later called the blues at a train station in Tutwiler, Mississippi where an “old Negro man” was sliding a knife along the neck of a guitar and singing that he was “goin’ where the Southern cross’ the Dog.”

Dorsey dropped out of school at thirteen, learned to play and read music from instruction books and within a year was good enough to play at juke joints and rent parties around Atlanta. He polished his improvisational skills and adopted effective performance techniques. Dorsey moved to Chicago in 1916 and played piano in Bronzeville buffet flats. Buffet flats once provided lodging for Pullman Porters between runs, and later became less respectable, unlicensed clubs allowing sexual encounters and after hours drinking. Musicians, often pianists, would play familiar blues rather than the faster syncopated jazz available at more expensive venues on the Stroll.

Dorsey found it a hard way to make a living. He went to the Chicago Music College and learned composition, arranging and songwriting. This satisfied Musician Union requirements and allowed him to play in more upscale venues. He began writing and copyrighting classic blues songs including “Riverside Blues” recorded by Joe “King” Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band in 1923. W.C. Handy had earlier followed the same route to greater exposure giving his Loveless Love (a version of the traditional “Careless Love”) to Erskine Tate at the Vendome Theatre and then taught the song to Alberta Hunter who sang it at the Dreamland.

Ma Rainey hired Dorsey as pianist for her bookings on the T.O.B.A. circuit and to lead her Wildcats Jazz Band. He debuted with Rainey in April 1924 at the Grand Theater at 32nd and State. Dorsey wrote many blues for Rainey including “Blame it on the Blues.”  Rainey sings that she’s sad and worried, got no time to spread the news; she can’t blame it on her daddy, her mother, her brother, her lover, her husband, her man. She finishes with “can’t blame it on nobody, guess I’ll have to blame it on the blues.”

Ma Rainey and her Wildcats Jazz Band, 1923. Gabriel Washington (drums), Albert Wynn (trombone), David Nelson (trumpet), Ma Rainey (vocals), Eddie Pollack (saxophone) and Thomas Dorsey (piano).

Ma Rainey and her Wildcats Jazz Band, 1923. Gabriel Washington (drums), Albert Wynn (trombone), David Nelson (trumpet), Ma Rainey (vocals), Eddie Pollack (saxophone) and Thomas Dorsey (piano).

Dorsey married Nettie Harper in 1925. They traveled with Ma Rainey on the road until 1926 when Dorsey was hospitalized for a nervous breakdown. After minimal success living off his compositions of religious songs, he returned to the blues in 1928 to support Nettie.

The late 1920s to early 1930s were a time of seismic change in the world of jazz and blues.  Talking pictures pushed out live theater acts and contributed to the closure of T.O.B.A. theaters. Black urban audiences wanted the newer sounds they heard on records and radio not the older countrified throwbacks to early minstrelsy. Venues on the Stroll had suffered from reformers and the appeal of the Savoy Ballroom and Regent Theater. The crash in 1929 hit music consumer’s disposable income. By early 1930s classic jazz and classic blues had died as a form of professional employment. Male country blues singers were an exception that still drew black audiences.

August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom is set in March 1927, a year in which Rainey recorded some her biggest hits; new versions of “Bo-weevil Blues” and “Moonshine Blues.” Her nephew introduces the song about the dance, the black bottom, with “all right, boys, you done seen the rest…now I’m gonna show you the best. Ma Rainey’s gonna show you her black bottom.” The record was released in 1928.  Afterwards Rainey had a month long engagement at Chicago’s Monogram and then her recording contract was cancelled.  In the play, Wilson characterizes the studio owner as preoccupied with money and insensitive to black performers. Reminiscent of lines Bessie Smith once sang but never recorded: “All my life I’ve been making it/All my life white folks have been taking it.”  The owner says that jazz is gaining in popularity and pushing out female blues stars like Rainey. The big shift in musical taste would be to swing and the big band sound of Benny Goodman and Duke Ellington.

Ma Rainey would go back to traveling, her famous gold coin necklace replaced with fake pearls. She would retire in 1935, move back to Georgia and return to religion. Her “protégé” Bessie Smith would last record in 1933 and die tragically in 1937. Billie Holiday’s star would rise, but with more popular songs.

A shift in listener preferences for a more urban sound would make 1928 a good year for Dorsey. He had a financial and artistic hit performing “It’s Tight like That” with country blues guitarist Tampa Red (Hudson Whitaker). Dorsey agreed to write music for Tampa Red’s lyrics although he was reluctant since the lyrics were risqué. Double entendre lyrics had been a blues staple throughout the 1920s and their wordplay became the definition of hokum. Dorsey recorded under the pseudonym, Georgia Tom. Tampa Red and Georgia Tom were among the pioneers of piano and guitar blues duos. “It’s Tight like That” was a great success, sold almost one million records and made the hip and urban duo instant stars. The pair recorded some 60 sides between 1928 and 1932 often as the Famous Hokum Boys.

Tom and Tampa

Georgia Tom and Tampa Red

Dorsey had his gospel breakthrough in 1932, organizing and conducting gospel choirs in Ebenezer Baptist Church then Pilgrim Baptist Church, both bastions of Bronzeville Protestant decorum. Once able to make a living with his real love, gospel, Dorsey abandoned the lyrics of the blues but not its sound and styles.

Leroy Carr and Francis “Scrapper” Blackwell recorded the other big blues hit of 1928, “How Long, How Long Blues,” destined to become a blues standard. Carr was a pianist, born in Nashville and settled in Indianapolis with his wife. Elijah Wald describes him as the first blues “crooner,” a twelve bar Bing Crosby. Carr sang softly and plaintively over his rolling piano rhythms. Guitarist Blackwell was less well known but an essential part of their piano/guitar duo sound, slipping improvised single-string guitar fills and punching bass riffs in between Carr’s blues lines. Mayo Williams had suggested that the two play together. Robert Johnson and his contemporaries would play and build on “How Long Blues.” Robert Palmer speculates that the song “must have seemed like the epitome of world weary sophistication to a black teenager growing up in the Delta.”

leroy carr and scrapper blackwell lcrumb_6-8_copy2

Carr and Blackwell by R. Crumb

Sweet Home Chicago

By the early 1930s, Robert Johnson was acknowledged by his contemporaries as an exceptional musician who could hear a tune live, on a record or on the radio and produce his own unique version. He was proud of the single record released from his first recording sessions (Terraplane Blues) brought copies to relatives, and no doubt hoped that his music could bring him fame and fortune. Johnson would have heard that the Delta’s own Charlie Patton bought a new car every year and was invited to play at house parties in Chicago and other northern cities. The road to fame would not come from just playing music with Delta roots but from creating unique versions of songs played by the male recording stars most popular in Chicago’s Black Metropolis. His recording sessions did include versions of blues standards and adopted techniques associated with his mentor Son House and with Nehemiah Curtis “Skip” James, another Mississippi slide guitar master. Beyond these Delta roots, Robert Johnson was influenced by the music of the most prolific Chicago recording artist including Tampa Red, Lonnie Johnson, Leroy Carr, Scrapper  Blackwell, Peetie Wheatstraw and Kokomo Arnold.


This is the only known photograph of Peetie Wheatstraw, the “devil’s son-in-law” and the “high sheriff from hell.” He played piano on most of his recordings.

Blues musician’s all borrowed lyrics, melodies and techniques from each other, a musical exchange greatly facilitated by records and radio and, for Johnson by his ability to meld these components into something that was new and was uniquely his. Elijah Wald traces out the lineage of Johnson’s moodily soulful “Come On in My Kitchen.”  It builds on Tampa Red’s “Things About Coming My Way,” which is an upbeat rendering of the popular Mississippi Sheikhs hit “Sitting On Top Of The World,” itself a variation on Leroy Carr/Scrapper Blackwell’s “How Long, How Long Blues.” In his “Kind Hearted Women” Johnson’s guitar accompaniment includes piano lines played by Leroy Carr, guitar riffs of Scrapper Blackwell and touches of Kokomo Arnold. Johnson’s “Dust my Broom” is based on Leroy Carr’s “I Believe I’ll Make a Change” with its title from a line in another Arnold blues. Elmore James would later have his biggest hit in Chicago with his 1952 version of “Dust my Broom.”

Most significant for Robert Johnson’s legacy, “Scrapper” Blackwell also recorded “Kokomo Blues” in 1928 with the lines:

Mmmm, baby, don’t you want to go?
Mmmm, baby, don’t you want to go?
Pack your little suitcase, papa’s going to Kokomo

And I’ll sing this verse, baby, I can’t sing no more
I’ll sing this verse, baby, I can’t sing no more
My train is ready and I’m going to Kokomo

James Arnold, a left-handed guitarist from Georgia settled in Chicago where he made his living as a bootlegger and played a lightning fast slide guitar on the side. In 1934 he recorded a version of Blackwell’s song, adding the counting Robert Johnson would use in his “Sweet Home Chicago” and renamed it “Old Original Kokomo Blues.”

One and one is two, mama
Two and two is four
You mess around here, pretty mama
You know you got to go
Cryin’, oooh, baby don’t you want to go
Back to the Eleven Light City
To sweet old Kokomo

Arnold counted up to twelve and sang six more verses, each ending with the refrain “back to the eleven light city, to sweet old Kokomo.”  With the song’s success he changed his stage name to Kokomo Arnold and recorded 88 sides by 1938. The meaning of “eleven light city” remains somewhat of a mystery. It would seem all but obvious that the reference is to Kokomo, Indiana; Scrapper Blackwell lived in nearby Indianapolis. Kokomo had eleven stop lights in the 1930s. It also had eleven speakeasies which would have had lights in front to identify them. Arnold told blues writer Paul Oliver that the “eleven light city” referred to a Chicago drugstore where a girlfriend worked and “Koko” was their brand name of coffee.


A Commonwealth Edison advertisement for Chicago lighting. Roosevelt Sykes referred to Chicago as that “bright light city.”

Robert Johnson took “Old Original Kokomo Blues,” radically reworked the guitar accompaniment and swapped “Chicago” for “Kokomo,” a trans-formative act that turned one of Johnson’s lesser pieces into a city’s anthem: “Sweet Home Chicago.” Indianapolis based Scrapper Blackwell may have enticed his baby to go with him to Kokomo, but it was no big deal; it was not Chicago, the promised land of the north.

Sweet Home Chicago” by Robert Johnson

Oh baby don’t you want to go
Oh baby don’t you want to go
Back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

Oh baby don’t you want to go
Oh baby don’t you want to go
Back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

Now one and one is two
two and two is four
I’m heavy loaded baby
I’m booked I gotta go

Cryin baby
honey don’t you want to go
back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

Now two and two is four
four and two is six
You gon’ keep monkeyin’ ‘round here friend-boy
you gon’ get your business all in a trick

But I’m cryin baby
honey don’t you wanna go
Back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

Now six and two is eight
eight and two is ten
Friend-boy she trick you one time
she sure gonna do it again

But I’m cryin hey hey
baby don’t you want to go
back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

I’m goin’ to California
from there to Des Moines Iowa
Somebody will tell me that you
need my help someday

Cryin’ hey hey
baby don’t you want to go
back to the land of California
to my sweet home Chicago

“Sweet Home Chicago,” Copyright Delta Haze Corporation

“Sweet Home Chicago” would become Johnson’s song most covered by blues musicians. It would be a South Side standard before being heard by a wider audience with release of the 1970 album King of the Delta Blues, Volume II. It also would be Johnson’s most verbally tweaked song to leave no doubt that Chicago was the musician’s destination. Ward suggests putting in a silent “or” leaving California and Chicago as aspirational options. Baldwin writes that Chicago had become such a “powerful symbol of prosperity and freedom” that Johnson “literally relocated the city within the much older American mythos of the Western frontier.”

By the mid 1930s images and the sound of the Black Metropolis were familiar in the Delta. In 1930 Charlie Patton (the first Delta blues man to record) traveled to Grafton, Wisconsin to record for Paramount along with Sun House (a mentor to Muddy Waters as well as to Robert Johnson), Willie Brown (who is called out by Johnson in his “Crossroad Blues”) and pianist Louise Johnson (who started the trip with Patton and ended up with Sun House). Robert Johnson would soon emerge as a brilliant guitarist and lyricist and have his recording sessions with Vocalion. In 1938 John Hammond Sr. would send emissaries to the Delta to invite Johnson to perform at his “From Spirituals to Swing” concert at Carnegie Hall. Johnson was already dead; his music, myth, and legacy waiting to be carried up to Chicago. Hitler had yet to invade Poland, start World War II, and initiate the second wave of the Great Migration.

Next: Part V. I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man

Marshall Bronzeville with RJ Crossroads Blues

A Bronzeville neighborhood, song lyrics rise out of the windows of an apartment building, songs by Marvin Gaye, Jackie McLean, gospel singers and Robert Johnson’s “Cross Road Blues.” Kerry James Marshall, 7 am Sunday Morning, 2003 (detail). Collection of Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago.

Notes and Sources


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Sweet Home Chicago: Part III. Jazz and Blues on the Stroll

Chicago in the 1920s was a melting pot for jazz and blues, a vibrant mix of musical styles from different parts of the south. Jazz came up from New Orleans early in the century and spread nationwide along with economic good times. Female classic blues vocalists were the biggest performing and recording stars of the era, notably Mamie Smith, Ma Rainey, Bessie Smith, Victoria Spivey, Ida Cox, Ethel Waters and Alberta Hunter. Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake were among the most notable country blues guitarist/street singers. The late 1920s witnessed the popularity of urban piano-guitar duos such as Tampa Red/Georgia Tom and Leroy Carr/Scrapper Blackwell. Jazz and blues filled cabarets and dance halls. Sacred music was reworked with blues inflection as a gospel sound by evangelical performers and gospel choirs. Blues, jazz and gospel were recorded in Chicago on race record labels. By the 1930s Chicago had established its reputation as the capital of the blues and a home of gospel.

The world of music that Robert Johnson would have experienced in the late 1920s to mid 1930s Mississippi Delta has been explored in Elijah Wald’s  Escaping the Delta. Johnson could have heard everything from blues to Tin Pan Alley, jazz to polkas, crooners to opera. Like other itinerant street and juke joint musicians he would have been able to play to his audience’s tastes. Johnson bought his first guitar in the late 1920s when the Black Metropolis was firmly established and Chicago was sending out the sound of blues, jazz and gospel on records and on the airwaves. “Sweet Home Chicago” and some of his other recordings are rooted in that music.


Saturday night juke joint outside of  Clarksdale, Mississippi Delta. Marion Post Wolcott, 1939

Viewed from this perspective, Chicago music of the 1920s and 1930s was grafted onto the more indigenous roots of the Delta blues to produce what Johnson would record in 1936 and 1937 and other Delta musicians would later bring back up to Chicago. Chicago’s Paramount along with Okeh, Vocalion and Columbia were among the pioneers in searching out black musicians for race record labels.

That Bright Light City

Bronzeville was Chicago’s most vibrant music scene. Bandleader Eddie Condon said that there was so much music in the air on the Stroll that you could hold a horn up and it would play itself.  The Stroll projected the image of the bright light city onto black consumer culture. High end venues on the Stroll drew heavily on white Chicago and white tourists for revenue. Some cafes were segregated; others like Jack Johnson’s Café de Champion on 31st and State were black and tan. The Sunset Café at 35th Street was called black and tan but its high price of entry excluded many residents of Bronzeville. Far more numerous were the buffet flats and rent parties that were supported by those who lived in the Black Metropolis. A wider black audience supported race records and listened to jazz and blues broadcasts on radio.

Bronzeville 4

Negro Cabaret. Russell Lee, 1941.

Jazz and blues were branches of the same folk roots music, the difference between the two often a matter of instrumentation, improvisation and vocalization. The contrast between classic blues and jazz is evident in listening to the 1922 recording of W. C. Handy’s “St. Louis Blues,” Bessie Smith’s 1925 version of St. Louis Blues backed by Louis Armstrong and Armstrong’s later tribute version of “St. Louis Blues” .

Premier and well advertised jazz and blues venues included Chicago’s black-owned and policy supported cabarets, dance halls and theaters. During prohibition some venues were also supported with money from purveyors of bootlegged spirits. The Musician’s Protective Union Local 208 vetted musicians for their performance skills and ability to read music and served as gatekeepers for employment in the best venues. Revenue came from entertainment charges and selling liquor. Music and performance was the draw.

Prominent venues included Robert T. Mott’s Pekin Theater on 27th and State, one of the first northern theaters to feature jazz. From the 1910s through the 1920s the Dreamland Ballroom/Café at 36th and State featured Joe “King” Oliver and his Creole Jazz Band, Johnny and Warren “Baby” Dodds, Alberta Hunter (the “South Side’s sweetheart”), Lil Hardin, Louis Armstrong, Sidney Bechet and a young Cab Calloway. Armstrong came up to Chicago to play with his mentor Joe Oliver and married Lil Harden. Armstrong and Hardin would later perform at the Sunset Cafe with their Hot Five and Hot Seven bands.

Earl “Fatha” Hines and Jelly Roll Morton were featured at the Elite No. 1 on 30th and State. Hines would lead the orchestra at the Grand Terrace and broadcast jazz to a wide audience in the 1930s. Ma Rainey played at the Monogram on 34th Street. Erskine Tate, Bessie Smith and New Orleans trombonist Kid Ory played at the Grand Theater on 31st and State. Davarian L. Baldwin maps a dozen prominent jazz and blues venues located between 27th and 39th Streets during the 1920s. The Chicago Jazz Archive lists some 45 venues between 27th and 63rd Streets along with notable musicians advertised as performing.

Joe "King" Oliver's Creole Jazz Band in Chicago, 1923. Honore Dutry (trombone), Baby Dodds (drums), Louis Armstrong (second cornet), King Oliver (cornet), Lil Hardin (piano), Bill Johnson (bass, banjo), and Johnny Dodds (clarinet).

Joe “King” Oliver’s Creole Jazz Band in Chicago, 1923. Honore Dutry (trombone), Baby Dodds (drums), Louis Armstrong (second cornet), King Oliver (cornet), Lil Hardin (piano), Bill Johnson (bass, banjo), and Johnny Dodds (clarinet).

Black musicians were models of urban sophistication and held in high regard in the Black Metropolis. They played to black and white audiences. White musicians came to Stroll venues to watch, listen and learn, but only played with their black counterparts after hours.

The Stroll suffered financially in the late 1920s. White businessmen who had ignored the area came to recognize its economic potential and created an alternative business area around 47th Street where they controlled most of the property. The center of nightlife moved south with the opening of the Savoy Ballroom at 47th and South Parkway in 1927 and the adjacent Regal Theater in 1928. There were large whites only dance halls on the north and west sides. The Savoy was the first dance hall as well as the most “elegant, elaborate and expensive entertainment complex” built in the Black Metropolis.

Stroll venues that sold liquor had been protected during prohibition under the regime of Mayor William “Big Bill” Thompson despite pressure from reformers. The closing of a loophole in the  Volstead Act sounded a death knell for Chicago speakeasies and many jazz and blues cafes on the Stroll. A court ruling made it illegal to operate a place of business where people carrying liquor congregated. Prior interpretations required proof that liquor was being sold. Clubs closed and many of the best Chicago jazz musicians left the city for New York in the late 1920s. The 1929 Depression hit entertainment and leisure enterprise as rising unemployment squeezed disposable income. Bessie Smith said times were so bad nobody wanted to hear the blues. But for many, music remained one of the few means of escape.


Tavern of the South Side, after Prohibition. Russell Lee, 1941. Library of Congress

Archibald Motley, the Art Institute trained Jazz Age modernist offers a vision of the Stroll in his paintings.  Motley was an outsider, living in white Englewood. He socialized downtown and shared other Chicagoan’s fascination with “black primitivism.”  Motley paintings re-imagine the Stroll with a good dose of “pictorial hokum” (irreverent humor and stinging satire) and provide a unique visual rendering of an urban space defined by jazz and blues. They capture crowded moments on the street and in clubs, minstrel shows, theaters and house parties. He provides images of the “bright light city” of pianist Roosevelt Sykes “Sweet Old Chicago.” His scenes are filled with singers and dancers, saints and sinners, workers and gamblers, the racially dignified and the racially caricatured. Saturday Night (1935) places the viewer in a night club without apparent physical boundaries, patron dancing and drinking, a jazz band driving the action. Motley’s Stomp (1927) is a more restrained house party set in a well appointed apartment, a jazz band in the foreground.

Motley Saturday Night 1935 Howard University Gallery of Art, Wash DC copyright Valerie Gerrard Browne

Archibald Motley, Saturday Night, 1935, Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Theaters and cabarets on the Stroll and later around 47th and South Parkway were the most famous nightspots, but not necessarily those where working class residents of the Black Metropolis would hear jazz and blues. Music was played in numerous buffet flats, house  parties, and rent parties, a less visible world with scant mention of who played and where.  Theater publication Variety said there were “16,000 Beer Flats in Chicago.” These continued to vie for nightlife customers. Living room and dining room cabarets lined State Street between 43rd and 55th well into the depression.

Many Stroll musicians played at buffet flats and rent parties after hours for extra income. Thomas Dorsey had played at buffet flats early in his Chicago career. Prominent blues recording stars Blind Lemon Jefferson and Blind Blake also played at these informal venues.

Blind Blake and Lemon Jefferson

Blind Blake pictured at time of his first Paramount recording session in 1926. Blind Lemon Jefferson, circa 1926.

Blind Lemon Jefferson was born in Couchman, Texas around 1893. He had a complex, fast finger picking style. He was among the first recorded country blues guitarists and one of the best selling recording artists of his time. Notable songs include “Matchbox Blues,” “Black Snake Moan” and “See That my Grave is Kept Clean.” He left his last recording session in 1929 on his way to play at a house party. He was found the next morning, frozen to death on a Chicago street. He was buried in Texas in a unmarked grave. A Texas Historical Marker was placed nearby in 1967 and finally a granite headstone was dedicated in 1990 with his lyrics “Lord, it’s one kind favor I’ll ask of you. See that my grave is kept clean.”

Blind Blake was from Florida or Georgia and came to Chicago in the mid 1920s. He was skilled at finger picking his guitar in a ragtime piano style which was good for dancing. He recorded some 79 known sides in Chicago and played at house parties. Notable songs include “Early Morning Blues,” “West Coast Blues” and “Diddie Wa Diddie.” He also recorded a version of Jimmy Rogers’ “He’s in the Jailhouse Now” where one crime is pure Chicago – voting twice in an election. Blake was said to have had an apartment at 31st and Cottage Grove in the heart of the Stroll.

While a range of nighttime spots from premier Stroll cabarets to living room rent parties provided entertainment for the Black Metropolis, records and later radio spread the sound of jazz and blues nationwide. Race record labels grew after Mamie Smith’s “Crazy Blues” sold 75,000 copies in its first weeks on the market in 1920. A major craze for black female blues singers lasted through most of the 1920s. Chicago was home to Paramount Record’s Race Artist Series managed by Mayo “Ink” Williams.  His nickname derived from his readiness to sign up artists for his company. Williams would make the rounds of south side vaudeville theaters to find talent for Paramount. He hired Thomas Dorsey, Tiny Parham (a jazz pianist) and Lovie Austin (a female band leader who wrote blues for Ma Rainey) to identify good performers. Dorsey would train the performer for recording, would make an arrangement of the number, and would then transcribe lead sheets and sheet music for copyright and sale. William’s Chicago Music Company would be able to profit after it sent the musician to Paramount for recording.

Instrumentalists recorded with sidemen and as accompaniment to popular female blues singers, requiring  great musical flexibility to match diverse styles. Ma Rainy recorded with Tampa Red, Georgia Tom, Coleman Hawkins, Fletcher Henderson and her famous “See See Rider Blues” with Louis Armstrong. (Paramount’s use of inferior recording equipment is evident here. It was a furniture company located in Grafton, Wisconsin that made records to sell its phonographs.)

Records became a means for musicians to spread their name and sound, build their reputation and attract an audience to pay to hear them at night spots on the Stroll. Records also were a good way to supplement income. In August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, Rainey makes $200 for a recording session and her band each make $25. She signs a release of rights to the record company who keeps all proceeds from record sales. William Kenney notes that sidemen in Chicago would be paid $30 for each master cut and $5-$10 per master when accompanying a vocalist. Musician might earn $45 to $75 per week in a dance hall or cabaret so a recording session could amount to more than wages. Records were sold in shops, by mail order, by newsboys and brought down south by Pullman Porters along with the Defender.

Artists were sought out and records were pressed to appeal to a wide range of tastes including classic blues, ragtime, street corner pickers, gospel, jubilee, string bands, recorded sermons and all varieties of ethnic music. The recording industry had its own take on segregation. Blues were more targeted to a black record buying public than jazz. The race of the performer was less obvious in instrumentals and record company owners believed that white audiences wanted to hear black jazz. Owners limited black musicians to recording the blues. Lonnie Johnson, a very popular Chicago vocalist and virtuoso guitarist said he could play any popular music, but won a blues contest so became a blues musician to record for Okeh. Lonnie Johnson made about 130 records between 1925-1932 and recorded with, among others, Victoria Spivey, Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington and Eddie Lang.

Russell Lee Negro Tavern Chicago 1941 FSA Office of War Information collection LOC

Jazz and blues guitar virtuoso Lonnie Johnson (in center) playing at a tavern on the south side. Robert Johnson listened to his records, admired his music and used some of his riffs. He told folks that his middle initial “L” stood for Lonnie. Russell Lee photo, 1941. Library of Congress

I’m Going Home on the Morning Train

The sound, rhythms and performance techniques of the blues were not limited to the world of entertainment and leisure. They also were essential to the creation of gospel. Thomas Dorsey, the “Father of Gospel,” was not the first to use the sound and rhythms of the blues to speak of a heavenly home and an escape from the drudgery of blue-collar work. Pentecostal/Holiness churches with southern roots had earlier distinguished the medium of the blues from its secular message. Its raw sounds, rhythms, and embellishments could support worshipers in giving God public praise.


Members of the Pentecostal church on Easter Sunday praising the Lord. Russell Lee. 1941.

There were hundreds of storefront churches in Bronzeville.  Drake and Cayton observed that the evening hours in lower-class neighborhoods were noisy with the cacophony of hymns and blues, gospel songs and “low down” music.  Some people in Bronzeville took their pleasure in “making a joyful noise unto the Lord.”  Davarian L. Baldwin offers his vision of the proximate geography that encompassed nighttime Stroll venues and storefront churches. “Stepping out of the show at the Regal Theater or Savoy Ballroom… spectators can be quickly converted into saints by wandering into a ‘church on the street,’ where singing women evangelists packaged preaching, and praying, and praise into a momentary haven of heaven on earth with a blues backbeat.”

Motley Street Scene 1936 detail tight crop

Archibald Motley, Street Scene, 1936 (detail)

Arizona Dranes was one of the most influential performers in Chicago within the Pentecostal/Holiness church network. She was a blind pianist and singer who brought her barrel house and ragtime style to worship, and among the first to take secular styles and put in words of praise to make gospel music. She was notable in performance for standing up off her bench, turning around and sitting down again to continue playing.  Dorsey acknowledged Dranes as one of his influences and she might have inspired his performance style of standing-while-playing. Dranes’ sings and plays her barrel house piano in “I’m Going Home on the Morning Train.”

Dranes’ style had a significant impact on a younger guitar evangelist and gospel innovator Sister Rosetta Tharp who played in churches around Chicago and caused controversy by also playing in nightclubs. She didn’t record until the 1930s, but then was listed among favorite performers by young listeners in the Delta.

Records and later radio allowed these gospel voices to reach out and create a larger black audience. Elder Lucy Smith’s radio ministry was the most successful in this regard. She started The Glorious Church of the Air in 1933 and promoted the work of other gospel musicians. Elder Smith reached a mass consumer audience, both black and white.

There were competing narratives in sacred and secular music that played out in Chicago as in the south. The blues spoke of travel and personal relationships. They offered a narrative of navigating the trials and tribulations of life in the secular world. The sound was the same, but there was a clear difference between “I followed her to the station” and “I’m going home on the morning train.”

W.C. Handy says his preacher father told him “son …I’d rather follow you to the graveyard than to hear you had become a musician.” For his father, becoming a musician would be like selling his soul to the devil. It was controversial for Sister Rosetta Tharp to play with Cab Calloway. Many years later Mahalia Jackson told Studs Terkel that she loved listening to Bessie Smith when she was young, but didn’t sing the blues since she was saved. Thomas Dorsey recalled listening to one of his early inspirations, Reverend A.W. Nix preaching in Chicago about the “Black Diamond Express to Hell,” with good-timers, whiskey drinkers and card players on a train that was going the wrong way.

Not all musicians drew as hard a line as Mahalia between blues and gospel. Dorsey wrote great blues and great gospel until his success with the latter.  W. C. Handy who wrote blues that would become standards, lamented the “low-down dirty blues” that were not “witty double entendre but just plain smut” and arranged nineteen spirituals in his last years. At the same time there were entertainers who emphasized satanic associations, such as popular blues pianist Peetie Wheatstraw (William Bunch) who promoted himself as the “Devil’s Son-in-Law” and the “High Sheriff from Hell” (here playing “Stomp”).

Many Bronzeville residents would visit Stroll venues on Saturday night to hear blues and jazz and go to church on Sunday to hear gospel choirs. Blues, jazz and gospel were all part of the community soundtrack.

Some established residents of the Black Metropolis were critical of the public behavior of the new southern migrants, believing the world of the blues and of street evangelism brought discredit to the Race.  A member of the black working class could look at a Motley painting (for example, Black Belt, 1934) and see the swing and stride of his nighttime Stroll as an upbeat alternative to work-a- day realities. In contrast, some members of professional and middle class would view the boisterous and demonstrative behavior of these citizens with approbation. A behavioral list of “do’s and don’ts” for new citizens of the Black Metropolis was published by the Defender in 1919. Included were admonitions regarding gambling, intoxication, allowing buffet flats in a neighborhood (a venue for after hours jazz and blues), hanging around saloon and poolroom doors and use of vile language in public. On the other hand, some members of the working class characterized the critics as dicty.

Thomas Dorsey successfully changed attitudes regarding proper church music to create and spread the gospel sound. He set a sacred narrative to a blues beat and pulled thousands of congregants into major churches to share in a glorious sound and performance. Others with a crucial role in this transformation, who A City Called Heaven, author Robert Marovich refers to as the Gospel Nexus, included Mahalia Jackson, Sallie Martin, Theodore Frye and Magnolia Lewis Bates. After Dorsey’s wife Nettie died in August 1932 he wrote his greatest gospel, “Precious Lord Take My Hand.” Mahalia Jackson would sing it in 1963 at the March on Washington. It was Martin Luther King Jr. favorite song.

Next: Part VI. Blame it on the Blues

Motley the Picnic 1936 Detail

Young man playing guitar in Archibald Motley, The Picnic, 1936, (detail), Howard University Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C.

Notes and Sources

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Sweet Home Chicago: Part II. Building the Black Metropolis

Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world at the end of the 19th century; population doubled to one million between 1880 and 1890, grew to over two million by 1910 and passed three million by 1930. Population growth and economic growth were inextricably linked. Opportunities in the stockyards, meat packing, steel, manufacturing and trade drew people from within the US and from Europe. European immigration halted during the First World War and black migration from the south was promoted to fill industrial demand. Northern labor agents met local resistance from post-Reconstruction white southerners wanting to keep their cheap and indebted labor.

The Chicago Defender aggressively advocated migration as a means to build a black community in the north and as an escape from oppression in the Jim Crow south. The Defender would advance the Race, the term current in the black press and community to define itself. The Mississippi Delta was easily linked to Chicago via the Illinois Central. Its Pullman porters distributed the Defender in the south. W. C. Handy, author of the “St. Louis Blues,” had a sideline while living in Clarksdale, Mississippi surreptitiously supplying “Northern Negro” newspapers to folks in the town as well as to farmers, croppers and hands from outlying counties. Some two-thirds of Defender readership was outside of the Chicago with a heavy concentration in Mississippi.

Photo from Chicago Commission on Race Relations, 1922.

Photo from Chicago Commission on Race Relations, 1922.

Chicago’s black population predominately lived on the South Side in an area white Chicago called the Black Belt. Its residents re-imagined it as the Black Metropolis and Bronzeville. With the turn of the century Great Migration, Bronzeville expanded by 1920 to encompass neighborhoods south of the downtown business district from 18th  to 39th Streets  and then past 63rd Street by 1930. The black population increased from 30,150 in 1900 to 109,458 in 1920 to 233,903 in 1930. Migration slowed substantially in the early years of the Depression and then grew again in the late 1930s, black population increasing from 236,305 in 1934 to 277,731 in 1940. Migrants in search of housing pushed up against ethnic boundaries to the west and east and absorbed previously white neighborhoods to the south. Violence at the margins of black and white neighborhoods and restrictive covenants in white neighborhoods blocked access to the additional properties that could satisfy growing black housing demand.

Drake and Cayton Fi 6 Expansion of Black Belt

Map of the Black Belt. From St. Clair Drake & Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City, originally published in 1945

Apartments in older dilapidated buildings closer to downtown were increasingly cut up into smaller and smaller units, creating crowded tenements and kitchenette dwellings. Six or seven families would rent a kitchenette in a flat previously leased to two families, a most profitable deal for landlords. By the 1930’s, housing shortages allowed landlords to rent space to as many as three hundred families in a space that once housed sixty families.  As more immigrants crowded into the poorer northern end of the Black Belt, wealthier and middle class blacks spread south when possible into better (previously white) neighborhoods.  The Great Migration created a “Negro market” for all types of black owned business with real estate speculation among the more lucrative.

Edwin Rosskam April 1941 Children in front of kitchenette apartment, Black Belt, Chicago, Illinois

Children in front of kitchenette apartments, Black Belt, Chicago, Illinois. Edwin Rosskam, 1941, Library of Congress

A decade of violent conflict primarily over housing and the expansion of the Black Belt culminated in the race riot of 1919. The spark was the drowning death of Eugene Williams who had strayed into a white’s only bathing beach and was stoned by white bathers. Thirty-eight died and over 500 were injured in the prolonged rioting. White gangs attacked black stockyard workers and streetcar passengers. Black mobs retaliated against whites working in the Bronzeville. Forty-seven homes were burnt down in the Stockyard district, allegedly by blacks. The New Year ushered in renewed bombing on the South Side, targeting the Washington Park home of Jesse Binga for the fourth time, a successful black realtor who had moved into a primarily white area. Some whites called for more segregation.


Opening intertitle of Oscar Micheaux’s silent film Within our Gates (1920). Chicago based Micheaux, one of the countries most prolific contemporary film makers, made the film to promote a grand narrative of race specific concerns and in response to W.D. Giffith’s Birth of a Nation.

The 1919 riot highlighted the challenge facing the black community which was both dependent upon Chicago’s dominant white economy and excluded from many of its economic and social opportunities. Most employment was in white owned enterprises outside Bronzeville and black consumer dollars often went to white owned stores in Bronzeville. St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton report in their path breaking Black Metropolis: A Study of Negros in a Northern City  that in 1938 about 50 percent of the enterprises in Bronzeville were Negro owned but accounted for less than 10 percent of the money spent. Some white Chicago money came into the Black Metropolis as philanthropy or investment, but black entrepreneurs where essentially cut off from capital from white banks and other investment market sources. Black Metropolis banks (notably the Binga Bank and Anthony Overton’s Douglas National Bank) and black owned and operated insurance companies could re-circulate capital within the community. With employment available primarily in the service sector and the lower income reaches of manufacturing, savings from wage income was not going to feed a significant flow of investable funds through banks or insurance companies.

Drake and Cayton Fig 12 Distribution of Citys Work

Employment data for 1930 collected by the Works Project Administration, for St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, Black Metropolis: A Study of Life in a Northern City. 

Confronted with these challenges to advancement of the Race, the Black Metropolis would need to be built on a philosophy of self-help and self sufficiency, the emergence of a “New Negro” consciousness, and the efforts of entrepreneurs who provided legitimate and illegitimate goods, services and employment to the black market place. The creation and growth of the Stroll entertainment and leisure phenomena was a major cultural production of the Black Metropolis. Chicago became a hub of jazz and blues in the 1920s and 1930s while the next wave of blues was incubating in the Mississippi Delta.

As told by cultural historian Davarian L. Baldwin,the New Negro wanted opportunity rather than philanthropy to control both mental and manual labor and to have sufficient economic power to engage in black cultural production and pursue consumption strategies. Boxer Jack Johnson was deemed an early exemplar of an aggressive race consciousness. On July 4, 1910 he defeated Jim Jeffries, “The Great White Hope” to win the heavyweight boxing championship. His victory precipitated the first ever national race riot. Local and state efforts to suppress showing films of the fight were bolstered by a congressional prohibition on the interstate circulation of “boxing films.”

Jacl Johnson in car

Jack Johnson sitting in the driver’s seat of an automobile, Chicago, 1910. Chicago Historical Society

The Black Metropolis by Day

Confined geographically, daytime business activity and night time entertainment shared space within the Stroll. In the early decades of the century, the Stroll was located on State Street from 26th to 39th and centered on State and 35th. The opening of the Savoy Ballroom and the Regent Theater in the late 1920’s shifted the center of Bronzeville activity to 47th Street and South Parkway (now Martin Luther King Jr. Drive).

Bronzeville 11

Regal Theater and Savoy Ballroom. Edwin Rosskam, 1941. Library of Congress

The daytime commercial and institutional Stroll of the 1920s was a city within a city. Bronzeville took great pride in the Wabash Avenue YMCA opened in 1913 and funded through a combination of community and philanthropic donations. It offered comprehensive housing and employment services to new migrants.  The Provident Hospital provided employment for black physicians and nurses. The Eighth Regiment Armory was built for the all black Eighth Illinois, deployed in the First World War. Wendell Phillips High School was an integrated school with a strong overall curriculum offering an excellent music program for future Stroll musicians and a basketball program that sent players to the Harlem Globetrotters. Unity Hall was the headquarters of politician Oscar De Priest, the first African American elected to the Chicago City Council and the first African American congressman from the North. De Priest made his fortune in the stock market and Bronzeville real estate. Institutions of the sacred sphere included Ebenezer Baptist Church and Pilgrim Baptist Church (both associated with the birth and promotion of Gospel music), and Olivet Baptist Church.

Russel Lee Real April 1941 Crowd coming out of Pilgrim Baptist Church. Southside of Chicago, Illinois.jpg 2

Crowd coming out of Pilgrim Baptist Church. Russell Lee 1941. Library of Congress

Notable commercial landmarks included Robert Abbot’s Chicago Defender at 34th and Indiana (with its own printing plant installed after the Defender was denied printing services in the wake of 1919 riot) and Jesse Binga’s Bank at 35th and State. While the Defender played a major role in encouraging black migration from the south to Chicago, Binga played a major role in providing credit and housing for the expanding black population.

Jesse Binga, a legendary figure in the Bronzeville community, entered the real estate business before the turn of the century. In 1905, he leased property in a previously all white area and rented to Negros, earning a reputation as a pioneer in opening new housing to black residents. He soon opened a private bank. After 1915, as population increased substantially with the Great Migration, his property values also increased and he was able to purchase and lease more land as well as purchase the Binga Block, a row of storefront apartments on State Street between 47th and 48th streets. Binga opened the Binga State Bank in 1921, the first African American owned state chartered bank. The bank symbolized a new era for the black community which had very limited access to credit and banking services at Loop banks. Binga prospered along with the growth of the Negro community and he became a symbol of Negro bid for power via respectability.


Binga Bank at 36th and State Street

As deposits at his bank grew exponentially, he built a new bank building. It was hailed by the Chicago Tribune for its rich Ionic architecture “as you would expect to be found in the Loop, but not in the Black Belt.” Bank ownership leveraged Binga’s ability to acquire additional rental property.  By 1926, he owned more frontages on State Street south of 12th Street than any other person. At one time he owned 1,200 leaseholds on flats and residences.

Banking and real estate were cutthroat businesses on the South Side, and a successful entrepreneur could not avoid questions regarding altruism and ethics. Binga, while philanthropic, was criticized for being proud, self-assertive and belligerent and for his possible association with South Side gambling syndicates. More damaging was criticism that he raised rents excessively and reaped substantial profits from a community beset by a housing shortage imposed by segregation. The Defender reported that he “leased homes which rented for $20 and $25 a month and re-rented them to his own people for $10 to $15 more than white renters had been paying.”

In 1929, Binga erected the Arcade Building on the corner of 35th and State, a richly decorated five story office building with a dance hall on the roof. It was his attempt to revive the original center of the Stroll, now losing commercial and entertainment business to the new growth area around 47th and South Park. The location was degenerating into a slum and some questioned whether the project could earn sufficient rents to make it profitable.


Arcade Building and top floor interior

Anthony Overton, a beauty culture mogul, also prospered in the 1920s as did beauty culturists Madam C. J. Walker and Marjorie Stewart Joyner (who held a patent for the first permanent wave machine). They provided beauty products and techniques to black women who otherwise were not served in the consumer market place. Building on his success in beauty culture, Overton expanded into a wide range of enterprises that were central to the development of the Bronzeville market.

The four-story Overton Hygienic Building, at 36th and State housed his Douglas National Bank (one of the first African American owned banks with a national charter), and the Victory Life Insurance Company. Victory, along with the black owned and operated Liberty Life Insurance Company, provided insurance to the under-served northern black population.

Other Overton Hygienic tenants included the Theater Owners Booking Association (T.O.B.A.), the major booking agent for black musicians and touring companies throughout the South and Midwest with more than 50 associated theaters by 1925. The Chicago Music Company was a music publisher owned by J. Mayo “Ink” Williams manager of Paramount record’s Race Artists Series and later a recruiter for the Vocalion race label. His company recorded prominent musicians of the period including Alberta Hunter, Ida Cox (whose “Wild Women Don’t Have the Blues” became an early feminist anthem), Ma Rainey, Charles (Cow Cow) Davenport, Blind Lemon Jefferson, William (Big Bill) Broonzy, Tampa Red (Hudson Whittaker), and Georgia Tom (Thomas Dorsey). Dorsey would win acclaim as one of the pioneers of the piano-guitar duo style blues and as the “Father of Gospel.”

overton hygenic wo caption

The Overton Hygienic Building at 36th and State Street. Anthony Overton planned a six-story building but could not raise an additional $200,000 in bond sales.

Overton built the Chicago Bee Building down the street from the Overton Hygienic to house his newspaper of the same name and moved into that building after the failure of his Douglas National Bank.

Commercial Bronzeville grew in the 1920’s and then suffered disproportionately during the Great Depression of the 1930s. Unemployment in Chicago among black professionals was five times as high as among white professionals, three times as high for black versus white skilled and clerical workers, and twice as high for black versus white unskilled workers and those in service trades. Some 30 to 50 percent of families in the Black Belt were on relief compared to 10 to 20 percent in the surrounding native and foreign born white areas.

As Chicago entered the Lean Years, black banks suffered before white banks just as black employees were fired before white employees. Binga State Bank and Douglas National Bank held one-third of all deposits in Negro banks in the United States during the Fat Years of the 1920s. Both were wiped out in 1930 along with other white owned Black Belt and greater Chicago banks.

The loans and investments of Binga State Bank soured with collapse of the Black Metropolis economy and real estate market. There was a run on the Binga State Bank as banks closed throughout the country. Under Jesse Binga’s aggressive management, the bank held too large a portfolio of first mortgages that contributed to its insolvency. More damaging was evidence of personal loans to Binga and allegations of his embezzlement from the bank. While some including, W.E.B. DeBois, claimed that the House of Binga was allowed to fail due to racism, others pointed to Binga’s refusal to give up control in exchange for an infusion of capital that could save the bank.

Binga was tried and found guilty of embezzlement and sentenced to serve time in Joliet State Penitentiary. Jesse Binga was not the first Chicago entrepreneur to make risky real estate investments which might have succeeded absent market trauma.  He was not alone among pillars of their communities brought down by the market collapse. Chicago utility magnet Samuel Insull was accused of selling worthless stock to unsuspecting investors and wiped out the life savings of 600,000 shareholders. He was tried for wire fraud and antitrust violations and eventually acquitted.

The failure of the Binga and Douglas Banks was a double blow to Bronzeville. The community suffered a loss of their life savings and a loss of the prestige and Race pride stemming from community ownership of its own banks.

Depression Blues

“Sweet Home Chicago” lauds the Black Metropolis as a migratory “northern Shangri-La.” During the Depression, other blues commented on the Lean Years with pathos and humor. Bessie Smith’s “No Body Knows You When You’re Down and Out” (which was written in the early 1920s and recorded in 1929 before the crash) applied to those on Wall Street as well as those at 47th and South Parkway with its graphic and desperate line “if I ever get my hands on a dollar again I’m gonna hold on to it ’till them eagles grin.”

Tampa Red expressed his anguish in “Depression Blues”:

If I could tell my troubles, it may would give my poor heart ease
If I could tell my troubles, it may would give my poor heart ease
But depression’s got me, somebody help me please.

Blues about the Works Progress Administration (WPA) were an opportunity to share the misery and laugh at government program’s that didn’t do enough to help Bronzeville. In Casey Bill Weldon’s “WPA Blues,” the singer lives in a home about to be torn down as a part of slum clearance:

Well well went to the relief station and I didn’t have a cent
If that’s the only way you stand you don’t have to pay no rent
So when I got back home, they was tacking a notice on the door
This house is condemned and you can’t live there no more

In a follow up “New WPA Blues,” Weldon laments the fate of a gambler whose luck has turned and has to get a job with the WPA. In “That Man of the WPA” Billie McKenzie sings about losing her man when he gets a job working for the WPA.

Before then I gave him my money, even bought his shoes and clothes
I said I gave him my money, even bought his shoes and clothes
Got a job on the WPA and put poor me outdoors.

Peetie Wheatstraw (born William Bunch and billed as the “High Sheriff from Hell” and the “Devils Son-in-Law”) recorded a series of songs on the WPA. In “New Working on the Project” he sings of his fear of being laid off (getting a 304 discharge notice) when the Roosevelt Administration was making cuts in some New Deal programs.

Working on the project, the rent man is knocking on my door
Working on the project, the rent man is knocking on my door
I am sorry Mr. Rent Man, I just got my 304.

Washboard Sam (Robert Brown) preferred the Civilian Conservation Core (CCC) to the WPA. In “CCC Blues” he sings about going down the CCC office:

I told her I needed a job and no relief
On my rent day, she sent me a can of beef
I’m going down, I’m going down, to the CCC
I know that the WPA won’t do a thing for me

Policy Wheels (4-11-44)

Policy gambling and the night time Stroll provided substantial economic support to the Black Metropolis. Better-paying industrial jobs provided disposable income for leisure activities but according to Baldwin, greater support came from the “nickels and dimes used to buy drinks in local dance halls and put on lucky numbers at policy wheels.” Black Metropolis authors Drake and Cayton counted some 500 “policy stations” in the community, almost as numerous as churches and more evenly distributed.

Bronzeville rosskam_edwin_58_2003_426868_displaysize

Policy slips in front of policy wheel location. Edwin Rosskam, 1941. Library of Congress.

Policy, a lottery game before the state shut it down and turned it into The Lottery, involved choosing usually three numbers (a gig) out of those from one to 78. Policy was ubiquitous in the Black Metropolis. John “Mushmouth” Johnson had opened a saloon in 1890 that featured policy. By the 1930’s there were multiple companies running policy pools (wheels) with three drawings a day, the last at midnight helping to sustain activity on the nighttime Stroll. Thousands of porters, runners, bookkeepers and others were employed. A policy station could keep 25 percent of business they wrote, providing supplemental income to hundreds of small businesses.

Policy had a strong hold on devotees, a hold stronger than winning would warrant. The possibility of winning $20 for a dime bet (with odds of 76,076 to 1) “could make a country boy just out of Georgia feel like a big time gambler.”  There was mystery, anticipation and an esoteric language. Dream books and spiritual advisers helped gamblers choose a winning number. Dream books placed numbers against words. Some long time devotees could write poetry with the number equivalents.

Policy was an ideal subject for the blues since it held out a hope of riches but generally left players with nothing. Chicago blues guitarist Blind Blake recorded his double entendre “Playing Policy Blues” with a verse that Aunt Sally’s Policy Players Dream Book suggests either refers to a sexual act or a desire to have his clothes washed. In Kokomo Arnold’s “Policy Wheel Blues” he laments “look what the policy wheel done to me/took all my money and it still won’t let me be.” In his “Policy Blues” Bo Carter sings that he’s “going to put my last dime on that 20, 30 and the little old 10/They tell me that’s my babies initials and will bring my money back home again.” Jim Jackson in his “Policy Blues” sings “I woke up in the mornin’, with one thin dime/The policy man gets that before the clock strikes nine.” Noted Chicago slide guitarist Bumble Bee Slim (Amos Easton) recorded “Policy Dream Blues” and early female blues vocalist Elzadie Robinson recorded her “Elzadie’s Policy Blues” with clarinet accompaniment.

Policy was syndicated in 1931. Drake and Cayton estimated that the syndicate had a gross turnover of a     least $18 million in 1938. To put that figure in perspective, while the Black Metropolis had about 8 percent of the city’s population, the gross from policy was close to one-third of Chicago’s 1939 $57 million city budget. An estimated $500,000 went downtown as protection/kickbacks making policy a lucrative activity for the party in power.

Drake and Cayton Fig 28 Policy Racket

The Policy Racket, from St. Clair Drake and Horace R. Cayton, The Black Metropolis: A Study of Negro Life in a Northern City.

The above Policy Racket schema from Drake and Cayton is informative on many levels. First, it must be noted that while it is racially insensitive by contemporary standards, it is not an atypical stereotyped rendering for the 1930s-1940s. Second, Drake and Cayton were clear about the fact that race was a prime determinant of economic and social opportunity in Chicago. In this regard, the schema clearly illustrates the distribution of roles and the division of the spoils from policy among participants by race with black and white as racial shorthand. The syndicate is dominated by Policy Kings in the Black Metropolis who get the biggest share of policy revenues, although there is one white face at the table. Policy buys protection from police (black patrolman, white police officials) and the white courts. Policy buys patronage and helps to bring in the vote. There is a cut to station owners and wages to employees. A share of the money thrown at policy by the many black players at the bottom eventually goes to the white political bosses at the top. One lucky player has a hit.

Drake and Cayton labeled policy an “unorthodox form of primitive accumulation.” Since most property and business in Bronzeville was white owned, those profits were likely to be reinvested outside of the community. In contrast, policy profits were often reinvested in Bronzeville. When “Mushmouth” Johnson died, part of his wealth went to his sister Eudora (future wife of Jesse Binga) and on to help underwrite Jesse Binga’s bank and real estate empire. Baldwin points out that policy gambling funneled savings back into the community and helped finance many of the clubs and theaters on the Stroll as well as some other prominent businesses. Drake and Cayton estimated that perhaps 20 percent of large Negro businesses were owned by policy people. Policy Kings vied with legitimate members of the Race for respectability within the community. When the Depression weakened legitimate business, policy still employed thousands.

Next: Part III. Jazz and Blues on the Stroll

Bronzeville 18 In front of the movie picture theater Russell Lee 1941

In front of the movie-picture theater, Russell Lee, 1941. Library of Congress.

Notes and Sources

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Sweet Home Chicago: Part I. From the Delta to Bronzeville

Chicagoans love telling, exploring, disputing and embellishing the city’s history.  The story line has been carried by icons of the built environment, milestones in the city’s development, plans for its future, cultural artifacts and Chicago personalities. Music also can carry history. As Irving Berlin said, a song can make history and history can make a song. Chicago’s unofficial anthem, Robert Johnson’s “Sweet Home Chicago” does just that; the song carries nearly a century of the city’s racial and cultural history.

Delta Artifact to Urban Legend

Johnson was born in 1911 just prior to the onset of the Great Migration from the South to Chicago. The city’s black population swelled from 14,271 in 1890 to 233,903 by 1930. While other immigrant groups moved up and out, the black population was confined to a growing but still too compact area mainly on the South Side. Cut off from employment opportunities, new housing, capital and effective equality before law, the black community needed to create itself through a numerical presence, race pride and self sufficiency.  Supported by home grown religious and social institutions, some banking, manufacturing and insurance, and significantly, Robert Abbot’s Chicago Defender, the Black Metropolis/Bronzeville emerged within the Black Belt. The locus of cultural and leisure nighttime activity, known as the “Stroll,” added an economic base to this “city within a city.” Black musicians were drawn to the Stroll’s upscale and down home venues, playing for black and white audiences and making Chicago a hub for jazz and blues.


Robert Johnson was born May 8, 1911 in Hazelhurst, Mississippi. Photo taken at Hooks Bros. Studio, Memphis, Tennessee, around 1935. Copyright Delta Haze Corporation.

By the time Robert Johnson recorded “Sweet Home Chicago” in 1936 the Black Metropolis was well established as an aspirational destination for those seeking an alternative to an increasingly repressive Mississippi Delta. Johnson had fused the blues styles of the Delta with the urban blues and jazz he heard on records and the radio. Many of his songs, including “Sweet Home Chicago,” were drawn on blues played and recorded in Chicago. An English blues writer said that Johnson’s music placed him at a crossroads in blues history, looking back at the country blues and forward to the Chicago blues of the forties and fifties. But Robert Johnson didn’t live to carry his music to Chicago. He died in 1938 at age 27.

Over the next two decades, in the second wave of the Great Migration, Muddy Waters, Howlin’ Wolf, Willie Dixon and their contemporaries brought an electrified Delta blues to Chicago creating a large black and then an international following. As told by The Third Coast author Thomas Dyja, the sound of the blues, magnified by Chess records, was a significant component of Chicago’s defining impact on mid-century American culture.

Robert Johnson’s complete recordings were released beginning in 1961 during the folk and blues revivals and allowed the Rolling Stones and Eric Clapton among others to record hits with his music. “Sweet Home Chicago” had been recorded and played on Chicago’s South Side by Delta musicians who traveled and played with Robert Johnson. In that original version Johnson cried that he was going “back to the land of California, to my sweet home Chicago.” By 1981 the Blues Brothers, seeking redemption, were singing a version that had become the Chicago standard with  Magic Sam’s lyrics “back to that same old place, sweet home Chicago.”

Somebody will tell me that you need my help someday

In 2014 Salon named “Sweet Home Chicago” one of most covered songs in history. The song carries with it the legend of Robert Johnson, an ever rambling and troubled soul who made a deal with the devil to secure his fame. Over the decades “Sweet Home Chicago,” layered with facts and promotional fictions has become part of Chicago’s cultural DNA.

“Sweet Home Chicago” is celebrated as an anthem of hope and opportunity.  It is uniquely rooted in both the Mississippi Delta, where Johnson lived and learned to play the blues, and in Chicago’s Bronzeville, the Black Metropolis mecca where the precursors of “Sweet Home Chicago” were recorded. The song is not about arriving but about yearning for a sweeter place than the Jim Crow south.

In the century since the start of the Great Migration, Bronzeville has gone through multiple incarnations and is again at a crossroads. It is challenged to promote what Black Metropolis authors St. Clair Drake and Horace Cayton called the Axis of Life around which individual and community life revolved: Staying Alive, Having a Good Time, Praising God, Getting Ahead, and Advancing the Race.

Bronzeville is now contested ground set between the forces of utopia and dystopia. There are many proposals to reinvigorate the community building on its arts and cultural heritage. “Sweet Home Chicago” is an artifact of that heritage, a marker in Bronzeville recalling African American contributions to local, national and international music culture. Retelling the story of “Sweet Home Chicago” and the Black Metropolis helps to illuminate a history worth preserving and celebrating in a redeveloped Bronzeville.

For Robert Johnson to compose “Sweet Home Chicago” and for the song to serve as a cultural marker, black migrants to Chicago first had to create the Black Metropolis.

Next: Part II. Building the Black Metropolis

MS Blues trail Marker at 11th street off by LSD Jyoti

Mississippi Blues Trail Marker off 11th Street on Lake Shore Drive, close to where the Illinois Central Station once stood, a way point from the Delta to Bronzeville. Photo courtesy of Jyoti Srivastava (www.publicartinchicago.com)

Notes and Sources

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Sweet Home Chicago: Part V. I’m a Steady Rollin’ Man

There are two interwoven stories surrounding Robert Johnson and “Sweet Home Chicago.” The first involves the power of his recorded music, discovered facts and repeated legends, the intersections of blues and rock ‘n’ roll and claims over ownership. The second story is about, “Sweet Home Chicago,” a blues standard and Black Metropolis/Bronzeville cultural marker. The Delta blues would go up to Chicago and travel the world. “Sweet Home Chicago” would remain close to its urban roots.

World War II helped initiate the second wave of the Great Migration. Robert Johnson’s contemporaries brought the Delta blues to Chicago to be played in clubs on the South and West Sides and recorded at Chess and other Chicago recording studios. The audience was primarily black until the folk and blues revivals of the 1950s and 1960s.

The Great Migration Monument stands at the entrance to historic Bronzeville. Designed by Alison Saar.

The Great Migration Monument stands at the entrance to historic Bronzeville. Designed by Alison Saar. Photo by Jyoti Srivastava.

The revivals sent researchers south in a competitive quest to uncover the lives of seminal blues musicians who had recorded in the 1920s and 1930s and, if still alive, to bring them north to folk festivals and to cut new records. Mississippi journalist and record collector Gayle Dean Wardlow found the death certificates of Delta blues legends Charlie Patton, Willie Brown and Tommy Johnson. Robert Johnson’s was more elusive due to confusion as to how and where he died. Finally, both Wardlow and Mack McCormick independently uncovered his death certificate and identified his parents. Subsequent interviews with various family members, widows, childhood friends and traveling companions allowed researchers to piece together the outlines of a biography.

Ramblin on my Mind

Robert L. Johnson was born in Hazlehurst, Mississippi on May 8, 1911. His mother was Julie Major Dodds and his father Noah Johnson, a farm worker. Julie’s husband Charles Dodds, a land owner and furniture maker, had fled to Memphis under threat of lynching and changed his name to Charles Spencer. Robert lived with Charles Spencer in Memphis as Robert Spencer and then with his mother and her new husband, Willie “Dusty” Willis. Robert didn’t get along with his hard working stepfather who wanted Robert to be a cotton farmer. He discovered his birth father’s identity and changed his name to Robert Johnson. Through his short life he used various names including Robert Dusty, Robert Dodds and RL (his middle name was Leroy). He would tell people that he was one of the “Johnson boys,” a relative of Delta bluesman Tommy Johnson and Chicago guitar virtuoso Lonnie Johnson. He would claim that his middle initial L stood for Lonnie.

In 1929, after the death of his first wife, Virginia Travis, and their child, Robert Johnson met Eddie “Son” House and Willie Brown who were living and playing in Robinsonville, Mississippi. Johnson was shooed away from their Saturday night gigs for making a racket with House and Brown’s guitars during breaks. He went back to Hazlehurst, perhaps to find his father. He married Callie Craft, and was said to have been mentored by blues slide guitarist, Ike Zinnerman. Robert returned to Robinsonville, some two years later, an accomplished guitarist, performer and a rambling musician.


Juke Joint, Saturday night, outside Clarksdale, Mississippi. Marion Post Walcott, 1939.

Over the next few years, Johnson traveled throughout the Delta and reportedly to New York, Canada, Detroit and Chicago. Sometimes he traveled with Johnny Shines and David “Honeyboy” Edwards.  He was said to have had a sister in Chicago. He played on the streets, in juke joints and anywhere workers had a payday and money to spend. He had siblings and cousins all over the Delta. In his travels, he preferred living with older women who could take care of him. When not traveling he stayed around Helena, Arkansas, a center for the blues. He lived there with Estella Coleman, the mother of Robert Lockwood. Johnson mentored Lockwood who was called Robert Jr. in acknowledgement of their close relationship.  Lockwood became one of the Delta’s first lead guitarists and a session musician at Chess records.

By 1936, Robert Johnson had established his reputation in the Delta. His mentors, Son House and Willie Brown had recorded, and Robert had built his own repertoire on recordings of Kokomo Arnold, Leroy Carr, Scrapper Blackwell, Skip James, Lonnie Johnson and others. He approached H.C. Speir, a furniture store owner in Jackson who had gotten most Mississippi blues singers their recording contracts. Johnson was sent to the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, Texas where he had three recording sessions in November, 1936 with ARC records. He recorded “I Believe I’ll Dust my Broom” and “Sweet Home Chicago” at the first session. His “Terraplane Blues,” a double entendre piece about a fashionable car (“I said I flash your lights, mama/this horn won’t even blow”) was his only big hit, selling several thousand records. Johnson was paid a few hundred dollars for 16 sides. He proudly brought copies of his record to family members throughout the Delta. ARC called him back for another session in Dallas in June, 1937, where he recorded another 13 sides.

Robert Johnson’s fame was short lived. Fourteen months later he was dead. His death on August 16, 1938, at age 27, was alleged to be the result of poisoning by a jealous husband.

Despite being one of the most researched early Delta musicians, relatively little is known about Robert Johnson. Robert Lockwood said Johnson played in a revolutionary style. He made his guitar sound “uncannily like a full band, furnishing a heavy beat with his feet, chording innovative shuffle rhythms, and picking out a high, treble lead with his slider, all at the same time.” His traveling companions describe him as handsome, personable, and always neat even after a night on the rails. He was a showman with personal magnetism who attracted people but was reserved in private, a loner and a drifter. Men liked him and women were attracted to him. He was small but would get in fights with bigger men when drinking; his friends would have to step in for him. Johnny Shines was impressed with his talent and sought opportunities to travel and play with him. Johnson was notable for his long guitarist’s fingers and skill with a slide. He was a man of his time, talked really hip said Shines, like “Yeah, man,” and “Look, Daddy So-and-So.”

His recorded repertoire provides some insight into his life. He sang of women and the impermanence of relationships; travel most often due to the disappointment he suffered in relationships with women; and mindless terrors that intruded on his days and nights. He also sang upbeat numbers with sexual innuendos that had memorable lines such as “she got a mortgage on my body, now, and a lien on my soul.” As noted earlier, his performance repertoire was much broader and included many popular songs of the day. He liked to play “Ain’t She Sweet,” “Tumbling Tumbleweeds” and “My Blue Heaven.” A different picture of Johnson could emerge when imagining him singing the lines “just Molly and me, and baby make three/we’re happy in my blue heaven.”

The Delta blues were brought up to Chicago during the second wave of the Great Migration by musicians born within a decade or so of Robert Johnson. The Delta blues innovators, the first to record the genre, were born in the last decades of the nineteenth century: Charlie Patton, Son House, Tommy Johnson, Willie Brown and Skip James. They were the children and grandchildren of the settlers who had cleared and planted the Delta around the turn of the twentieth century. Plantation owners had offered better wages and attracted a young and mobile population.  But, the Delta was a violent place with a disproportionate share of Mississippi lynching.  Some settlers were there preparing for a more dramatic move north to Chicago.  Either as a place or as an ideal, Chicago is the only city in the title of songs identified as favorites in an early 1940s survey of black Clarksdale residents: “Sweet Home Chicago” and Count Basie’s “Going to Chicago.”


Only known photograph of Charlie Patton, Paramount Records Archives

By the 1930s, mechanization was replacing manual farm labor and encouraging migration to the north. The WPA built roads and the Depression encouraged riding the rails, both helping a younger generation travel within and beyond the Delta. Electricity brought records players and the jukebox. Many people had radios. The blues musicians who came of age in the late 1920s to 1940 grew up in a community with considerable exposure to the urban life and culture of Memphis, St. Louis and Chicago. They were the generation who brought an electrified blues to Chicago. They grew up with the freedom to travel and the desire to seek a better life than that afforded by cotton farming.

Those of Robert Johnson’s generation who left the Delta for Chicago include Howlin’ Wolf (Chester Arthur Burnett) born in 1910, Muddy Waters (McKinley Morganfield) and Sonny Boy Williamson (Aleck Miller) in 1913, Roebuck “Pop” Staples (who formed the gospel Staple Singers and fathered Mavis) in 1914, Willie Dixon in 1915, Big Walter Horton in 1917, Elmore James (who had a big hit with Johnson’s “Dust my Broom”) in 1918, John Lee Hooker (featured in the Blues Brothers movie) in 1920, and later Albert King in 1923 and B.B. King in 1925.



Robert Jr. Lockwood and  Sonny Boy Williamson (Alex Rice Miller), circa 1942.

Me and the Devil Blues

Probably the best known story associated with Robert Johnson is his deal with the devil at the crossroads. The telling and embellishment of the story, combined with the power of his recordings and his covers by the Rolling Stones, Eric Clapton and other rock and blues stars, made Robert Johnson an urban legend. The legend was created more or less unintentionally by a series of blues writers who juxtaposed interview fragments, Western and African tradition, the lyrics of Johnson’s songs, and a heavy dose of descriptive terms like demonic, demon-driven, apocalyptic, evil spirits, and hellhounds. Once created, it was almost a requirement to reference it in any discussion of Robert Johnson and his music.

In a 1966 article, Pete Welding recounts the story of Robert Johnson and his mentors Eddie Son House and Willie Brown around 1930 at a Saturday night dance in Robinsonville. The young Johnson takes up a guitar during a music break.  His strumming is a racket and a distraction. House and Brown chase him away. He leaves the Robinsonville area for about two years and returns an accomplished musician. He shows up again at a party and plays for House and Brown who are amazed by the transformation. House says that in his time away from home he must have “sold his soul to the devil in exchange for learning to play like that.” Son House never repeats this observation.

Prior to the Welding article, bluesman turned Baptist minister Ledell Johnson told researcher David Evans a story about his deceased brother Tommy Johnson. Tommy was an established blues performer of Charlie Patton’s generation, who sang “Canned Heat Blues” and died from alcoholism. Tommy said the reason he knew so much was that he sold his soul to the devil. He said you go to a crossroads a little before midnight. You have your guitar and “be playing.” A big black man will walk up, take your guitar, tune it, play a piece and give it back to you. Tommy claimed “that’s the way I learned to play anything I want.” Neither Johnson was a relative of Robert.

The “black man” is recognizable as Legba, a Yoruba trickster, a messenger of the gods who interprets the will of the gods to man; who carries the desires of man to the gods. He is the guardian of the crossroads with one foot in the realm of the gods and the other in that of humans. He has the power to open the path to other supernatural powers. Legba is associated with the Devil of Christianity. “Slave lore,” writes Robert Palmer, “often depicted the Devil as a trickster figure, more like Legba with his mordant sense of humor and his delight in chaos and confusion than the more somber and threatening Devil portrayed in hell-fire and brimstone sermons.” Tommy Johnson’s story is merged with the Son House quote and Robert Johnson‘s reference to “standing at a crossroads.” A legend is established worthy of a trickster.


Tommy Johnson’s deal with the devil, illustrated by R. Crumb.

Greil Marcus, political theorist and a past editor of Rolling Stone magazine adds to the legend in his 1975 book Mystery Train. Marcus speculates, “let us say that (Robert) Johnson sought out the Mississippi Delta devil-men, or one of the devil-women, and tried to sell his soul in exchange for the music he heard but could not make.” Rather than linking the deal with the devil to African crossroads legends, Marcus links it to the Puritan revivals that spread across America in the early eighteenth century. In his words, it was an “explosion of dread and piety that Southern whites passed onto their slaves and that blacks ultimately refashioned into their own religion. The blues singers accepted the dread but refused the piety.”

The 1986 movie Crossroads brought the legend of Johnson’s deal with the devil to the big screen and a wider audience. The movie begins with imagery of a lone figure at a crossroads bargaining with a man in a car and then fades to the recording studio scene from the album cover of the 1970 Robert Johnson: King of the Delta Blues Singers. A young white Julliard trained blues loving guitarist travels to the Delta with an old bluesman, Willie Brown, to settle a contract with the devil. Young Lightning Boy beats a representative of the devil (Legba now known as Scratch) in a cutting contest and saves Willie Brown.  As the movie ends, the two walk off together from the crossroads on their way to Chicago. Willie Brown is played by Joe Seneca who had played Cutler, Ma Rainey’s band  leader in the 1984 opening performance of August Wilson’s Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom.


Robert Johnson King of the Delta Blues Singers, 1970

Alan Greenberg’s Love in Vain, an earlier screenplay fantasy about the last days of Robert Johnson, was published in 1983 but never produced.  Important bluesmen in Johnson’s life appear including Tampa Red and Georgia Tom who play at a juke joint the night that Robert Johnson dies.

In 2000, Ethan and Joel Coen tell their version of Homer’s Odyssey in O Brother, Where Art Thou. In the film, the protagonists pick up a young Tommy Johnson at a crossroads. He tells them that he had just sold his soul to the devil. In the liner notes to the accompanying CD and in a movie review in the New York Times, the writers state that the Tommy Johnson incident is based on the legend of Robert Johnson’s deal with devil. Such is the strength of the legend that it demands correcting a somewhat more accurate telling of the story.

There is demonic imagery in Robert Johnson’s lyrics and he sang about going to the crossroads; enough material to help storytellers flesh out a Faustian legend. In “Me and the Devil Blues,” Johnson and the devil are walking side by side.  He ends the song with a refrain more humorous than demonic: “you may bury my body down by the highway side/so my old evil spirit can catch a Greyhound bus and ride.” In “Hell Hounds on my Trail,” blues are falling down like hail and he’s got to keep moving, hell hound on his trail. Johnson was not alone in using such imagery and bad man posturing. He used lyrics from his contemporary Skip James’ “Devil Got My Women,”  who sang “I’d rather be the devil than be that women’s man.” And there was the devil’s son-in-law, Peetie Wheatstraw.

In “Cross Road Blues” Johnson says nothing about the devil or meeting him at a crossroads. He’s alone at night at a crossroads, trying to flag a ride. It was a dangerous place for a black man in the 1930s Delta. He falls down on his knees and “asked the Lord above, ‘have mercy, now save poor Bob, if you please.’” He has no sweet woman in his distress and he’s sinking down. It’s the blues. Gayle Dean Wardlow writes that as soon as Johnson called onto the Lord, he was “saved” and had an eternal home in heaven.


The intersection of Highways 61 and 49 in Clarksdale. It is a tourist destination identified as Robert Johnson’s legendary Delta crossroads. Painting by Michael Mabry.

If I had Possession

The 1961 LP release of 16 of Johnson’s recordings in King of the Delta Blues Singers was followed by Volume II a decade later. The Rolling Stones introduced a younger white audience to Robert Johnson with their 1969 version of his “Love in Vain.” “Sweet Home Chicago,” included in Volume II, reached the widest audience with release of the Blues Brothers movie in 1980.  The Blues Brothers perform the song, appropriately, at the greatest rent party ever filmed to raise money to pay off the Cook County tax debt on their orphanage home.

On release of the first album there were no known photos of Robert Johnson; he only existed as a powerfully emotional voice on vinyl. The album cover for Volume II is based on the reminiscence of producer Don Law. Johnson is sitting in the corner of a room at the Gunter Hotel in San Antonio, playing into the microphone. It was his first recording session in 1936.


Photograph of Robert Johnson. Hooks Brothers Studios, Memphis, around 1935. Copyright Delta Haze Corporation.

In 1974, Steve LaVere contracted with Johnson’s half-sister, Carrie Harris Thompson, to share royalties with Johnson’s heirs from use of photographic images of Johnson and from his music. The image of a nattily dressed Robert Johnson in pin-striped suit, striped tie and fedora was finally revealed when LaVere made public two photographs possessed by Thompson and put a face on the musician.

Of greater significance, LaVere, now with a stake in the Johnson estate, aggressively pursued alleged infringements of Johnson’s copyright. Through an “anomalous court decision,” he was able to win copyright protection for Johnson’s songs in the 2000 case of ABKCO versus LaVere. This allowed him to successfully sue ABKCO, the publisher of the Rolling Stones’ “Love in Vain.” He then asked for and received royalties from Eric Clapton who had recorded covers of many of Johnson’s songs.

Since the photographs were part of the estate, LaVere had demanded and received royalty payments, grudgingly delivered, from cartoonist and blues aficionado Robert Crumb. Crumb had published a drawing of Robert Johnson based on the second photograph received from Thompson, the so called “dime store photo.” LaVere also sued Mack McCormick, unsuccessfully, to retrieve other photos given to him by Carrie Thompson. Disputes among claimants and fear of lawsuits delayed release of a complete package of Robert Johnson recordings until 1990.

Determining the beneficiaries of Johnson’s estate also was contentious.  Claud Johnson, the out of wedlock son of Robert Johnson and Virgie Mae Smith Cain, came forward in 1984. Fourteen years of delay and legal wrangling later, patrimony was established by a birth certificate and the testimony of Virgie’s friend, Eula Mae Williams, who claimed to have witnessed the conception while the couple had sex in the woods. Claud inherited over a million dollars from the Johnson estate.


Claud Johnson and his son Michael Johnson

In 2008, an article in Vanity Fair told the story of Steven “Zeke” Schein’s purchase on eBay of a third picture purported to be of Robert Johnson and Johnny Shines. Zeke Schein noticed that the man holding the guitar in the picture had long fingers and a narrower left eye; Johnson was thought to have a bad left eye that shows as unevenness in photographic images. The resulting quest to determine authenticity then reprised elements of the decade’s long search for Johnson and the legal battles over ownership. Author Frank Digiacomo tried to contact Mack McCormick who’s Biography of a Phantom about his 1960s search for Robert Johnson was never published and surmised that McCormick was still scared of “notoriously litigious” Steve LaVere. He sought out Claud Johnson, even though Schein was aware that the Johnson estate could then claim publishing rights to the picture. At the time, Claud was still in court over the issue of who owned the other two photographs. Claud says “this look like before he was grown” but refused to say more.

The picture was than submitted to Lois Gibson, who had famously confirmed the identity of the sailor in the iconic Alfred Eisenstaedt Life magazine photo of a sailor kissing a nurse in Times Square on the day World War II ended.  She concluded that it “appears” to be Johnson and Shines and that all facial features between the three photos are “consistent if not identical.”


On left, cover of American  Songwriter with the photo purchased by Zeke Schein. On right, photo of left handed guitarist with narrow right eye and zoot suited companion (cropped and resized for comparison).

The Johnson estate accepted the picture’s legitimacy. It was subsequently purchased by Getty images and appeared on the May 2015 cover of American Songwriter magazine. Its authenticity has since been questioned in a thorough forensic analysis by Bruce Conforth, University of Michigan Professor of American Culture.  Conforth points out that there is no evidence or provenance to prove authenticity. Further, it is clear that the photo is reversed; the buttons on the white men’s jacket should be on the right side. Once reversed to show as photographed, the guitarist is left handed (Johnson was right handed) and the right eye is the one that could be bad. The photo was resized and Conforth demonstrated that the alignment of facial characteristics on the third photo do not match those on the two confirmed Johnson photos. He concludes that the photo is not of Johnson and Shines. A Who’s Who of blues authorities signed on to the Conforth argument agreeing with his conclusion that it was not in fact a photo of Johnson.


The center image is the second of two verified photos of Robert Johnson, the “dime store photo.” The R. Crumb image on the left is derived from this photo. The Blues Heritage Series stamp appropriately has 28 in the upper left corner, the number of Robert Johnson’s recordings. The cigarette in Johnson’s mouth was removed by the U.S. Postal Service. Robert Johnson image copyright Delta Haze Corporation.

Robert Johnson has become firmly embedded in popular culture. He is a unique, posthumously honored blues player ahead of his time; a King of the Delta Blues. While researchers and writers have revealed and analyzed what there is to uncover of his life and place in history, Johnson remains an enigmatic figure who exists in 29 recordings, two photographs, reminiscences of contemporaries, legal battles over his estate and an afterlife legend.

“Sweet Home Chicago” involves another Robert Johnson story.  In his Vanity Fair article about the alleged Johnson and Shines photo, Frank Digiamoco observes that “the story of Robert Johnson is usually presented as a Faustian bargain, but it is really a tale of possession.”  His music and image are valuable products while his artistic contributions to blues and rock go beyond what might be subject to claims of copyright.


Magic Sam (Samuel Gene Maghett) from 1967 album cover.

“Sweet Home Chicago” holds a unique place among Johnson’s recordings. It’s a Delta artifact with strong Chicago roots and subsequent prominence in Chicago’s blues culture. It was the third song Johnson recorded in his first session at the Gunter Hotel and he thought of it as an important and original piece. It was a creative instrumental and lyrical reworking of the Blackwell and Arnold precursors.

Those who traveled with and learned from Robert Johnson would sing and record his version of “Sweet Home Chicago” and in some instances would be threatened with legal action for copyright infringement. David “Honeyboy” Edwards covered Johnson’s version in the early 1990s for Chicago’s Earwig Records.  The label eventually agreed to pay royalties to LaVere under threat of a lawsuit.

At the same time, “Sweet Home Chicago” truly resonated as a city’s anthem when its refrain was recast by other musicians as “back to that same old place, sweet home Chicago.” Bruce Iglauer of Chicago’s Alligator Records summed up the case for “Sweet Home Chicago” as Chicago’s own when he refused to pay royalties to LaVere, noting that Johnson’s song is derivative of the versions by Blackwell and Arnold. Further, the version most associated with Chicago is the one reworked by Magic Sam, as acknowledged by the Blues Brothers.

Like the stories of Robert Johnson and of “Sweet Home Chicago,” Bronzeville is currently mired in its own dispute over ownership; the strength of claims to a community and its cultural heritage. “Sweet Home Chicago” with roots in the Delta and a history that tracks the Great Migration looms over that conflict as a cultural marker in Bronzeville.

Next: Part VI. Back to that Same Old Place


A copyright infringement notice appears when clicking the link in Salon’s article listing “Sweet Home Chicago” as one of the most covered songs in history.

Notes and Sources



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The Auditorium meets the NFL and the Wabash wins the Gold (Part II)

The Wabash Building

The Auditorium and Wabash Buildings with the CNA Building as a backdrop. Photo by Bob Johnson, posted on ArchitectureChicago Plus.

The Auditorium and Wabash Buildings with the CNA Building as a backdrop. Photo by Bob Johnson, posted on ArchitectureChicago Plus.

The Wabash Building architects and engineers overcame challenges reminiscent of those that confronted Ferdinand Peck and the Auditorium Association.  They designed and constructed a multipurpose building – in this instance a vertical campus – on a space restricted site. The Wabash Building along with the recently completed Goodman Center field house would advance Roosevelt University’s visibility and appeal as an urban residential campus. It would emphasize a core commitment to the transformative values of social justice and sustainability. Social justice and sustainability were already deeply integrated into the Roosevelt curriculum. Now they would be manifest in the new building’s design.

The Wabash Building would neither mimic nor overshadow its neighbor, the Auditorium, a Chicago architectural icon. In the words of Chicago Tribune architectural critic Blair Kamin, it achieved a “genuine, artful dialogue between past and present.”

The Wabash Building stands on site of the Giles Building, acquired by Roosevelt in 1951 soon after the college moved into the Auditorium Building.

The Giles, designed by architect Otis L. Wheelock and built in 1875, was among the first generation of post Great Chicago Fire commercial buildings and one of the few surviving examples with a mansard roof. The Giles owners signed a party wall agreement with the Chicago Auditorium Association in 1887 for construction of the Auditorium. Fine Arts Annex stands to the left.

The Giles, designed by architect Otis L. Wheelock and built in 1875, was among the first generation of post Great Chicago Fire commercial buildings. The Giles owners signed a party wall agreement with the Chicago Auditorium Association in 1887 for construction of the Auditorium Building. Library of Congress.

The post World War II era had witnessed a push for urban renewal and efforts to protect and enhance Chicago’s urban core. Construction of the Prudential Building in 1957 was a harbinger of Loop development. Growth in central city higher education was spurred by the opening of the University of Illinois at Chicago campus in 1965. The University had previously offered classes at Navy Pier known locally as “Harvard on the Rocks”.

In 1970, to allow expansion of its on-campus housing, Roosevelt demolished the Giles Building to construct a 19 story dormitory, the Herman Crown Center. Still primarily a commuter campus, the new dorm would provide housing for foreign students. After 2004, as the University become more residential, students found more attractive housing at the University Center on State Street, a joint venture with DePaul University, Columbia College and later, Robert Morris University.

The Herman Crown Building was designed by architects Mittlebusher and Tourtelot The façade presented a poured concrete echo of the Auditorium’s design. Photo

The Herman Crown Building was designed by architects Mittlebusher and Tourtelot. The façade presented a poured concrete echo of the Auditorium’s design. Photo by Bob Johnson, posted on ArchitectureChicago Plus.

A change in Chicago fire codes in 2004 required most pre-1975 buildings to adhere to more stringent standards including installation of sprinklers. Rather than undertaking a costly retrofit of the Herman Crown Center, Roosevelt worked with architect Christopher Groesbeck and his VOA Associates team including Jeffery Hrubec and Michael Siegel  to design a new vertical campus. To increase the buildable lot size, the University purchased the Fine Arts Annex that adjoined the Herman Crown Center to the north. The façade of the Fine Arts Annex would be incorporated into the Wabash Building.

Exposed north wall of Auditorium with colonnade.

After demolition of the Herman Crown Center. Exposed north wall of Auditorium with mini-loggia which mirrored that of the Auditorium tower. The loggia would have been visible above the roofline of the Giles Building. Photo by Bob Johnson, posted on ArchitectureChicago Plus. ,

Facade of the Landmarked Fine Arts Annex was incorporated into the Wabash Building as the entrance to the Book Store.

The Landmark facade of the Fine Arts Annex designed by Andrew Rebori in 1924. 

Roosevelt was not the only institution of higher learning to expand in the Loop around the turn of the 21th century. DePaul University and Robert Morris University grew by repurposing State Street department stores with their flexible open space floor plans. Columbia College expanded in the South Loop through construction (notably a 2010 Media Production Center designed by Studio Gang) and repurposing of many examples of Chicago School Architecture. The School of the Art Institute of Chicago acquired Loop properties for dorms, offices, classroom, and gallery space and leased floors in the venerable Sullivan Center. John Marshall Law School had long occupied a former Maurice Rothschild department store property. Befitting a national if not global urban hub, business, finance, real estate and law are prominent offerings at Loop Universities as are the arts and media.

The challenge facing VOA’s Wabash Building design team was to re-envision a traditional campus layout to fit 225,000 square feet of academic space and 600 plus residence beds onto a 17,500 square foot land locked parcel. The dimensions and configurations of campus buildings that are usually spread out horizontally were entered as quantities on spread sheets and then re-imagined as bubbles.  Adjacencies were formed and the requisite space was laid out along a metaphorical vertical street. Elevators would serve as public streets connecting programs and public space.

Microsoft PowerPoint - 20121029 RooseveltLecture-ShortForm-B&W.p

The vertical campus includes student services, a student union, a science building, a business school, classrooms and residence halls laid out around a metaphorical quadrangle. Slide by VOA.

Elevators, stairwells and passage ways provide connectivity among space to study, learn and live. Slide by VOA.

Elevators, stairwells and passage ways provide connectivity within and between neighborhoods and buildings. Slide by VOA.

The design of the Wabash Building had to accommodate the characteristics of the building site. The Auditorium had squeezed offices and hotel rooms between its theater and its lot lines, a solution that did not work as well as intended. The Wabash Building had a long and narrow site with potential viewscapes to the east, south and west. To the north the Wabash Building would abut a developable parcel, currently a parking lot. A central structural core would compress office, classroom and dorm space and also would pose engineering issues. Engineering also had to contend with the pyramid foundation of the Auditorium Building. The solution was an offset core on the north façade maximizing multipurpose space and taking advantage of the three remaining viewscapes that encompassed Lake Michigan, Grant Park and the Museum Campus.

Inspirations for an off set core. Slide by VOA

Inspirations for an off set core. Slide by VOA

Slide by VOA

Design challenges. Slide by VOA

The “Rebori Facade” of the Fine Arts Annex required a landmark setback on the Wabash Building north wall. The wedding cake foundation of the Auditorium Building required that a portion of the Wabash Building south wall be suspended from a truss.

Photo from ARES

Derrick suspended from building core to avoid footprint on neighboring parcel. Photo from Sophia Dermisi and Margot B. Weinstein







Microsoft PowerPoint - 20121029 RooseveltLecture-ShortForm-B&W.ppt [Compatibility Mode]

The core with set back and stairwells is on the south wall of the Wabash Building. Photo by VOA

wabash spine

The appearance of the core and the blue and green glass facade change with time and weather.











The Wabash Building presents a thin slab reaching skyward. Its inward and outward canting walls were inspired by the stacked rhomboids of sculptor Constantin Brancusi’s “Endless Column.” The idiosyncratic shape is said to express the idea that education transforms students and is never truly complete. It provides a visually pleasing silhouette against Chicago’s ever changing sky and stands out against the red façade of the CNA Building to the north.

inspirations for the facade. Slide by VOA

inspirations for the facade. Slide by VOA

Christopher Groesbeck’s inspiration for the blue and green glass of the tower’s façade was Sol Lewitt’s Wall Drawings. The VOA design team experimented with alternative patterns and color combinations in studio and in situ. Groesbeck has commented that the  multi-hued façade is reflective of Roosevelt’s diversity.

Alternative configurations for east-west and north-south exposures superimposed on the Auditorium Tower. Slide by VOA.

Alternative configurations for east-west and north-south exposures superimposed on the Auditorium Tower. Slide by VOA.

The Wabash Building interior space is contemporary and color coded by use. Like any campus, horizontal or vertical, students and faculty have their unique routes. As an adjunct Professor, I enjoy getting coffee in the second floor dining hall and, for entertainment, watching the L traverse a wall of glass. At night the elevators are active with students going to class, labs, the exercise rooms, to their rooms with food or out to the City. I teach on the 12th floor with state of the art equipment and a clear view into the Auditorium tower (former) offices of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan and their draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright. Walking to the west end of the building, I can admire Harry Weese’s Chicago Metropolitan Correctional Center. Student’s living in dorm rooms with the same exposure can watch those awaiting trial playing ball on the facilities roof. Shifting their view to the right they can see the Willis Tower and the statue of Ceres atop the Board of Trade. Those in rooms with a south exposure can see the Lake, Grant Park and the wall of glass high-rises in the South Loop. The building has ample private and public space. It’s designers thought of neighborhoods. It is a vertical community.

Wabash Building uses. Slide by Sophia Dermisi nd Margot B. Weinstein.

Uses of the Wabash Building. Slide by Sophia Dermisi and Margot B. Weinstein.

Beyond creating an urban campus in the urban core, Roosevelt and VOA believed that attaining Achievement of Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design (LEED) certification was an essential goal for the Wabash Building. A commitment to social justice is central to Roosevelt’s mission and a continuation of Ferdinand Peck’s vision for the Auditorium.  Sustainability in design and construction are essential to the conceptualization and promotion of social justice.

Sustainable design softens a buildings footprint on the planet, lowers energy consumption and appeals to those with a preference for and appreciation of green buildings. Over 20 percent of the materials used in the Wabash Building contains recycled content, carpets are 60 percent recycled plastic containers, wood products are Forest Stewardship Council certified, paint is non-toxic low VOC, there are 8,000 square feet of green roofs, and the building has an advanced tri-sorter waste recycling system. The added cost of the Wabash Building’s energy efficiency and renewable features will pay back in approximately 9 years.

Leed Gold Certification awarded

LEED Gold Certification awarded to the Wabash Building

The Wabash Building has received numerous awards for achievements in architecture and sustainability. In June 2015 Roosevelt University’s Wabash Building won the 2015 International Real Estate Federation’s World Gold Prix d’Excellence Award at its recent World Congress meeting held in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. One of the highest honors given annually to outstanding projects in a variety of categories, the international award recognizes the Wabash Building in the Purpose Built category, specifically for supporting Roosevelt’s mission of social justice as a “learning-living laboratory for sustainability.”

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The view from Grant Park. Photo by VOA.

Further reading

VOA invited my Building Chicago class to their offices in the Railway Exchange Building for a presentation on the Wabash Building (VOA) by architect Jeffery Hrubec, AIA, LEED AP (Senior Vice President, VOA Associates Incorporated) , a member of the Wabash Building design team. Ideas and slides from the presentation are used in this post.

A longer presentation “Roosevelt University Wabash Expansion” by Lesley Slavitt (Vice-President, Government Relations, Roosevelt University) and Christopher Groesbeck, AIA, NCARB, LEED AP (Principal, VOA Associates Incorporated) is available online at http://webfiles.architecture.org/lunchtalks/120222_Groesbeck.pdf.

For information on the Wabash Building and sustainability, Dr. Sophia Dermisi and Dr. Margot B. Weinstein have shared their conference presentation “Sustainability and Innovation in one university: Roosevelt University’s Vertical Campus in Chicago.”

I have liberally drawn observations and pictures from several excellent blog posts on the Wabash Building:

Blair Kamin, “Higher Learning: Roosevelt’s new tower adds sizzle to Chicago’s skyline, but can it build a campus in the sky?” Chicago Tribune, April 12, 2012

Lynn Becker, “A Brigadoon Moment at Adler and Sullivan’s Auditorium,” ArchitectureChicago Plus, March 11, 2011

Chicago.Designslinger, “Wabash Building – Roosevelt University,” February 24, 2015

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The Auditorium meets the NFL and the Wabash wins the Gold (Part I)

Chicago celebrated the Auditorium, an icon of the City’s architectural and engineering legacy, on December 9, 2014, 125 years after the first performance in 1889. A prized and flexible venue, the Auditorium hosted the National Football League (NFL) Draft 2015, April 30 to May 2.  Roosevelt University’s Wabash Building opened in 2012. It was awarded the U.S. Chapter Grand Prix d’Excellence Award as a best real estate project in the nation in December 2014. It traveled (virtually) to Malaysia in May 2015 to compete internationally and was awarded the World Gold Prix d’ Excellence in the Purpose Built Category.

Roosevelt University’s Wabash Building has won the 2015 International Real Estate Federation – US Chapter (FIABCI-USA) Grand Prix d’Excellence Award. One of the highest honors given annually to a single, outstanding project in America, the national award recognizes a property that embodies the best in U.S. real estate, The Auditorium and Wabash Buildings. Photo by Tom Rossiter, VOA Associates.

The Auditorium and Wabash Buildings. Roosevelt University’s Wabash Building has won the 2015 International Real Estate Federation – US Chapter (FIABCI-USA) Grand Prix d’Excellence Award. One of the highest honors given annually to a single, outstanding project in America, the national award recognizes a property that embodies the best in U.S. real estate. Photo by Tom Rossiter, VOA Associates.

A century and a quarter separate construction of the two buildings, a span that covers some two-thirds of the City of Chicago’s history. The Auditorium Building established the fame of Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan, stood as the tallest building in the city, and helped bring the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition to Chicago. While many Adler and Sullivan landmarks fell to the wrecking ball, the Auditorium survived due to superb design and fortuitous circumstances. It was purchased and repurposed by Roosevelt University in 1947. The following six decades witnessed a flight of population and commerce to the suburbs and the more recent revitalization of the central city. The south edge of the Loop became a multi-brand University campus with the Wabash Building as a new landmark.

Part I The Auditorium

Ferdinand Peck, a wealthy patron of the arts and a lover of opera, led a campaign to create a large and acoustically perfect theater. He believed a theater that would welcome both the city’s working class and the wealthy would help counter the social unrest of the 1880s, epitomized by the Haymarket riot/massacre/affair of 1886. It would provide all patrons with acoustic clarity and an unobstructed sight line for the grand spectacles popular at the end of the 19th century. Dankmar Adler had made his name as an innovative acoustic engineer with his 1879 design for the 1800 seat Central Music Hall on the southeast corner of State and Randolph. Adler and his new partner Louis Sullivan were commissioned by Peck to design the Auditorium, a multipurpose building with shops, restaurants, 136 offices, and a 400 room hotel. The income from these was expected to support the centerpiece of the project, the 4,200 seat Auditorium Theatre.

Adler and Sullivan succeeded in designing a complex and sophisticated structure at the cutting edge of contemporary architectural technology. It was the first entertainment venue in the world to have air conditioning, generated with 15 tons of ice daily. The theater was also the first with all electric lighting (3,500 bare light bulbs in all) and had 26 hydraulic lifts to raise and lower parts of the stage. They built one of the heaviest private buildings in the world on the mud and swampland of the Lake Michigan shore.

The theater, hotel and offices had to be made to fit together like a Chinese puzzle within a severely limited space. Hotel rooms and offices were squeezed between the theater and property lines. While the hotel and offices were to subsidize the theater, the latter was given priority in allocation of the available space. From the outset, the multipurpose project had to contend with economic and demographic change and the challenge of financial obligations.

The Auditorium viewed from the corner of Michigan Avenue and Congress Parkway.

The Auditorium viewed from the corner of Michigan Avenue and Congress Parkway.

The Auditorium Hotel wraps around the theater on Michigan Avenue and Congress. Offices and shops wrap around on Congress and Wabash. The Tower stand above the entrance to the theater n Congress. Atop the tower were large wood stave tanks to operate the hydraulic elevators and stage equipment. Adler and  Sullivan and their draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright had their offices in the top floors of the Tower.

The Auditorium hotel wraps around the theater on Michigan Avenue and Congress Parkway. Offices and shops wrap around on Congress and Wabash. The tower stands above the entrance to the theater on Congress. Atop the tower were large wood stave tanks to operate the hydraulic elevators and stage equipment. Adler and Sullivan and their draftsman Frank Lloyd Wright had their offices in the top floors of the tower. Historic American Building Survey, 1981.

Dinning room LOC photo 9386 nd

The dining room on the tenth floor of the Auditorium afforded sweeping views of Lake Michigan to the east and the city and prairie to the south and west. It was the highest vantage point in the city. Library of Congress.

The great central hall of the dining room is roofed by a barrel vault that springs from the mosaic floor. The vault is divided into six bays by wide paneled ribs that served as backgrounds for the incandescent bulbs that originally illuminated it. At the center of the ceiling was a row of six square stained glass skylights, one to each bay, that at night could be artificially illuminated

The great central hall of the dining room is roofed by a barrel vault that springs from the mosaic floor. The vault is divided into six bays by wide paneled ribs that served as backgrounds for the incandescent bulbs that originally illuminated it. At the center of the ceiling was a row of six square stained glass skylights, one to each bay, that at night could be artificially illuminated. Library of Congress.

Exuberant ornamentation enhances the experience of the Auditorium. The firm of Healy and Millet designed  the stencils and stained glass. Johannes Gelbert sculpted the medallion busts, Charles Halloway painted the proscenium mural, Albert Fleury painted the murals on each side of the theater and in the banquet hall, and Oliver Dennet Grover painted the dining hall murals. Photo by Jyoti Srivastava.

Exuberant ornamentation enhances the experience of the Auditorium. The firm of Healy and Millet designed the stencils and stained glass. Johannes Gelert sculpted the medallion busts, Charles Halloway painted the proscenium mural, Albert Fleury painted the murals on each side of the theater and in the banquet hall, and Oliver Dennett Grover painted the dining hall murals. Photo by Jyoti Srivastava.

While working on the design for the Central Music Hall, Adler realized that for the audience to hear a performance they must first be able to see the performance. The rise in seating within the Auditorium Theatre provides clear sight lines from the main floor to the galleries. The four staggered elliptical ceiling vaults keep the ceiling as low as possible, to avoid reverberations, without obstructing the view from the upper gallery.  Sullivan’s treatment of the ceiling makes it the theaters most striking feature. Exposed light bulbs provide a mild sunlight effect to Sullivan’s gold and white palette.

Tickets to the main floor were more expensive than those for the galleries, but those who could only afford the upper gallery would still be able to see, hear and enjoy the performance.

Tickets to the main floor were more expensive than those for the galleries, but those who could only afford the upper gallery would still be able to see, hear and enjoy the performance. Roosevelt University.

The Auditorium anchored a row of hotels established to its south along Michigan Avenue. Despite Ferdinand Peck’s expertise in real estate, the Auditorium Association was surprised when the newly engaged hotel management informed them that the return they could expect from the new hotel was half the amount they anticipated.

Ganz Hall lighting

The new managers insisted that a banquet hall be added to the hotel. The only space available was above the roof of the theater. Adler’s design solution was for the construction of the hall between two trusses resting on the north and south walls of the theater. In 2004 Roosevelt restored the renamed Ganz Hall to its former glory. The work was done under the direction of architect John Vinci. Photo by Greg Murphey, Gregory Murphey Studies, Inc.

By the mid 1890s, the lack of private baths in all but the best suites had become the hotel’s most serious deficiency. Revenue rose with the World’s Columbian Exposition and then declined with the Panic of 1893 and its aftermath. Construction of the Auditorium required substantial debt in addition to the capital invested by the owners. A dividend paid to the owners at the end of 1893 was the first and only one issued.

The departure of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra to Orchestra Hall in 1904 impacted earnings. Architect Benjamin Marshall had directed extensive redecorating and remodeling of the theater in 1910 to accommodate the Chicago Opera Company. Regardless, the Chicago Opera Company, a major tenant, departed to the Civic Opera Building in 1929 dealing a substantial blow to the Auditorium’s finances.  The Great Depression proved disastrous to the revenue of the aging hotel. The building suffered from deferred maintenance and debt for back taxes. Revenues had never kept up with the tax burden. The Auditorium’s tax bill was $22,707.78 in 1890 rising to $145,289.25 in 1922.

In the first decades of the 20th century the owners had considered various schemes to make the hotel more profitable. Dankmar Adler had retired in 1895 and died in 1900. The Association now relied on Louis Sullivan, a stockholder in the Auditorium, for architectural advice to enhance profitability. Sullivan presented a most radical proposal: to demolish the theater and replace it with a twenty or twenty-two story addition to increase the capacity of the hotel to 900 rooms. He needed a boost to his sagging fortunes, reports biographer Robert Twombly, who then observes that Sullivan’s “willingness to aid in the demise of his most famous creation was a revelation of financial desperation.” It is interesting to speculate on the appearance of that Sullivan envisioned edifice.

The Chicago Auditorium Association only leased the land and the landlords objected to subsequent pleas to allow demolition to address the Auditorium’s mounting debt. The Association sued the landlords in 1923 to force changes in the lease to allow demolition. The landlords represented a trust. They were advised to reject this speculative proposal lest it result in adverse consequences for as yet unborn beneficiaries. The attorney opined that unavoidable disaster could not adversely effect their liability, but avoidable disaster could lead to their ruin.

The case eventually reached the Supreme Court with a ruling in favor of the owners. The Association went bankrupt in 1929 when its bonded debt came due and the landlords took possession.  The Auditorium was saved from demolition when the landlords, its new owners, found that the $400,000 cost of demolition was greater than the value of the land.

The owners financed remodeling and renovation in 1932-33 in anticipation of business from the Century of Progress, but these improvements could not offset the loss in business due to the Great Depression. The Auditorium Building closed its doors in 1941 after its heat and electric power supply were cut due to long unpaid bills. In 1942 the City of Chicago took over the building as temporary housing and a service center for the military. The theater was turned into a bowling alley.

add text on changes to theatre during this period

During its life as a Service Men’s Center much of the elaborate plaster work and wood trim was painted over and the theater stage was turned into a bowling alley. Auditorium Theatre.

In 1947 Roosevelt University bought the land and the building. Before its rehabilitation, the Auditorium would suffer one more structural alteration. The widening of Congress Street in the 1950s to the edge of the Auditorium’s south facade required an arcade, a pedestrian sidewalk that cut through what had been the Louis Sullivan designed bar room. Payment for the associated easement allowed Roosevelt to settle its tax debt to the City.

The oak bar with its massive end columns had long been through of as on of Sullivan's finest creations. Library of Congress

The oak bar with its massive end columns had long been thought of as one of Sullivan’s finest creations. Library of Congress

The theater remained dark until an Auditorium Theatre Council capital campaign financed a restoration executed by Harry Weese and Associates. Weese knew and admired the work of Adler and Sullivan.  Contrary to earlier studies that indicated that the building was in grave danger of collapse, Weese advised that the building was actually in reasonably good condition and that much of what had to be done was of a “cosmetic” nature. The Auditorium Theatre reopened in 1967.

In 1980 Roosevelt undertook a restoration of the the massive 10th floor dinning room that had previously been converted to the University's library. Roosevelt University.

In 1980, Roosevelt undertook a restoration of the the massive tenth floor dinning room that had previously been converted to the University’s library. Roosevelt University.

Brett Batterson, the theater’s current executive director, believes that Auditorium programming translates Ferdinand Peck’s ideas into the 21st century – it is of the highest quality and represents all of the different communities of Chicago. The Auditorium is set apart as the only theater in the Loop that does a little bit of everything. For architecture critic Blair Kamin, the Auditorium is still vibrant; it “hosts an estimated 250 events a year from ballet to Broadway shows, from rock concerts to Sunday church services.” To celebrate its anniversary, the theater posted a YouTube memento “125 reasons why we love the Auditorium Theatre.”

If the Auditorium Theatre was filled to capacity from opera prima donna Adelina Patti’s performance in December 1889 to her great-grand niece Broadway actress Patti LuPone’s performance in December 2015, including days the theater was closed due to bankruptcy, renovation and bowling, the audience would total roughly 191,625,000.  It is estimated that over 55 million people world-wide will view the actual draft at the Auditorium. Not bad exposure for a three day event.

Blasting into the 21st century with the addition of Wi-Fi, the Auditorium will be the performance venue to an international audience for the NFL Draft 2015 festivities. A glowing Auditorium during Round 1 of Draft 2015. Auditorium Theatre.#‎NFLDraft‬ ‪#‎Round1‬!

Blasting into the 21st century with the addition of Wi-Fi, the Auditorium is the performance venue to an international audience for the NFL Draft 2015 festivities. A glowing Auditorium during Round 1 of Draft 2015. Auditorium Theatre.

Part II The Wabash Building

Further reading

There is an extensive literature on the Auditorium Building. Here are a few on-line resources:

Jim Nedza and Mitch Sutton’s Designslinger (http://chicagodesignslinger.blogspot.com/) has illuminated and photographed some 400 Chicago buildings. They provide a series on the Auditorium Building that includes Supreme ReprieveAuditorium TheatreAuditorium Building TowerAuditorium Dining RoomGanz HallArcaded Away and a 125th Anniversary Post.

The Historic American Building Survey of the National Park Service provides a detailed discussion of the Auditorium to 1980 with source materials available at http://lcweb2.loc.gov/master/pnp/habshaer/il/il0000/il0091/data/il0091data.pdf.

Sponsored by Landmark Illinois and the Auditorium Theatre, art and architectural historian Rolf Achilles spoke on why the Auditorium’s innovative opalescent glass, mosaic and metal work made it the greatest building in the world in its time. An illustrated overview of his talk, The Significance of the Auditorium Building, is posted on Jyoti Srivastava’s Public Art in Chicago blog. Achilles full speech is at the end of the post.

Stan Neuman’s film LAuditorium Building de Chicago is posted on YouTube with English narration at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SgoMXHkQjr4

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The Plan of Chicago

“Make no little plans, they have no magic to stir men’s blood……”

From the Plan of Chicago to Planning Chicago

The 1909 Plan of Chicago was the city’s first comprehensive plan. Authors Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett lauded Chicago for a phenomenal seven decades of growth. They also warned that growth had created serious problems that must be solved for Chicago to continue to maintain its competitive economic position as a commercial city.

Plan of Chicago Centennial Edition MMIX (Chicago: The Great Books Foundation, 2009)

Plan of Chicago Centennial Edition MMIX (Chicago: The Great Books Foundation, 2009)

(Click on images to enlarge and view in higher resolution)

Substantial coordinated change to the built environment was needed to improve the transportation networks that had made Chicago a key manufacturing and mercantile hub. Improvements to the Lake front and the city’s system of parks were needed to enhance the living conditions of a growing population of wage-earners and to encourage the wealthy to spend their money in Chicago. The development of centers of intellectual and civic life were necessary to foster a greater sense of coherence and unity among Chicago’s diverse population. Although Chicago’s subsequent growth followed only some of the pathways advocated in the Plan, the planners did succeed in making planning and Chicago synonymous.

Planning Chicago cover

B. Bradford Hunt and Jon B. DeVries, Planning Chicago (Chicago: American Planning Association, 2013)

In their 2013 Planning Chicago, Roosevelt University authors D. Bradford Hunt and Jon B. DeVries note that the city has not had a comprehensive plan since 1966. Pundits and politicians characterize Chicago as a tale of two cities beset by demographic, economic and political problems. Hunt and DeVries point out that this over simplification misses the interconnections between the central city and the neighborhoods. To set the city on a sustainable path, they argue that Chicago must move beyond planning as a project by project, available funding driven exercise and again develop and implement a visionary comprehensive plan.

The first Plan of Chicago provided a unifying vision of the future. It became a touchstone for discourse on the transformation of Chicago’s built environment, a discourse that began decades before the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition and continues into the present. The Plan emphasized basic principles that still apply when contemplating a vision for a next comprehensive plan: it must prepare the city for a distant future, be economically viable, and share its bounty equitably among the mass of the population.

The Planners

From a special penthouse built atop the Railway Exchange Building (now Motorola) the authors of the Plan of Chicago and their sponsors in the Commercial Club looked out over a city beset with serious problems and limitless opportunities. Manufacturing and mercantile expansion accompanied by rapid population growth was creating great wealth along with unacceptable congestion, pollution, and slums.

Lunch meeting of key planners in D. H. Burnham and Company offices, with illustrations from the Plan of Chicago on walls (1908). Chicago History Museum, ICHi-03560

Lunch meeting of key planners in D. H. Burnham and Company offices, with illustrations from the Plan of Chicago on walls (1908). Chicago History Museum.

Chicago had accomplished impressive public works in its short history, including raising its streets and buildings out of the mud to improve drainage, constructing a water works and building the Sanitary and Ship Canal to reverse the flow of the Chicago River to purify the city’s Lake Michigan drinking water. The recent World’s Columbian Exposition had presented a scaled down version of what Chicago could become. It was now time to execute substantial and comprehensive change to the city’s built environment to enhance the wealth and well-being of its people.

It would take several hundred formal meetings and 30 months to conceptualize and write the Plan of Chicago published on July 4, 1909. The Plan was approved by the city and Mayor Busse appointed 328 men to serve on the Chicago Plan Committee with Charles Wacker as chairman. Wacker hired Walter D. Moody to lead a public relations campaign to convince the community as a whole that the Plan would secure Chicago’s future. The campaign included lectures and slide shows in every available venue and active lobbying of public and private interests. Moody wrote Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago and arranged to have it included in the eighth grade curriculum of the public schools through the 1920s.

Wacker's Manual of the Plan of Chicago was especially prepared for study in the schools of Chicago under the auspices of the Chicago Plan Commission by Walter D. Moody, Managing Director

Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago was especially prepared for study in the schools of Chicago under the auspices of the Chicago Plan Commission by Walter D. Moody, Managing Director

Moody believed that educating our children to their responsibilities as the future owners of Chicago was central to solving the major problems the city faced. Although Daniel Burnham died in 1912, Edward Bennett remained involved in the planning within Chicago government through the 1930’s.

The Plan’s key recommendations were to improve the Lake front, relocate railway terminals to redirect the flow of freight and passenger traffic, develop a system of highways outside the city, create parkway circuits and systematically arrange streets and avenues within the city to facilitate movement to and from the business district, and develop centers of intellectual life and civic administration to give coherence and unity to the city.

Plate CXXXVII. View of the proposed development in the center of the city from Twenty-Second street to Chicago Avenue, looking towards the east over the Civic Center to Grant Park and Lake Michigan. Painted for the Commercial Club by Jules Guerin.

View of the proposed development in the center of the city from Twenty-Second street to Chicago Avenue, looking towards the east over the Civic Center to Grant Park and Lake Michigan. Painted for the Commercial Club by Jules Guerin.

Plan of the complete system of street circulation; railway stations; parks, boulevards circuits and radial arteries; public recreation piers, yacht harbor, and pleasure-boat  priers; treatment of Grant Park; the main axis and the Civic Center. Presenting the city as a complete organism in which all its functions are related one to another in such a manner that it will become a unit.

Plan of the complete system of street circulation; railway stations; parks, boulevards circuits and radial arteries; public recreation piers, yacht harbor, and pleasure-boat priers; treatment of Grant Park; the main axis and the Civic Center. Presenting the city as a complete organism in which all its functions are related one to another in such a manner that it will become a unit.

Bird's-eye view at night of Grant Park, the façade of the city, the proposed harbor, and the lagoons of the proposed park on the South Shore.

Bird’s-eye view at night of Grant Park, the façade of the city, the proposed harbor, and the lagoons of the proposed park on the South Shore.

Proposed Boulevard (Michicago Avenue) to connect north and south sides of the River; view looking north from Washington Street.

Proposed Boulevard (Michigan Avenue) to connect north and south sides of the River; view looking north from Washington Street.

Chicago at the turn of the century

Chicago in 1909 did not look like the city proposed and illustrated in the Plan of Chicago. The city had grown at the intersection of Lake Michigan, the Chicago River, and the railroads. It was the mercantile hub connecting eastern capital with the western hinterlands. Chicago’s population and wealth grew with commodity trade in cattle and hogs, lumber and grain. Population exploded from some 300,000 in 1870 to 1.7 million in 1900. There was sufficient land and potential markets for continued growth. By various estimates population could grow to 7 million or even 13.5 million by the 1950s.

The railroads and grain elevators still dominated the main branch of the Chicago River.

The mouth of the Chicago River in 1893. The Illinois Central serves the city's two largest grain elevators on the south bank of the river. The grain elevator further up on the north bank is served by the Chicago and Northwestern. The South Water Street Market is on the south bank. Bird's-eye Views and Guide to Chicago (Chicago: Rank, McNally & Co., 1893)

The mouth of the Chicago River in 1893. The Illinois Central serves the city’s two largest grain elevators on the south bank of the river. The grain elevator further up on the north bank is served by the Chicago and Northwestern. The South Water Street Market is on the south bank. Bird’s-eye Views and Guide to Chicago (Chicago: Rank, McNally & Co., 1893)

Wolf Point in 1893. The Chicago and Northwestern terminal is on the north bank at Wells and Kinzie. Grain elevators along the river include the St. Paul which stands as tall as a 10 story building. Bird's-eye Views and Guide to Chicago (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Co., 1893)

Wolf Point in 1893. The Chicago and Northwestern terminal is on the north bank at Wells and Kinzie. Grain elevators along the river include the St. Paul which stands as tall as a 10 story building. Bird’s-eye Views and Guide to Chicago (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Co., 1893)

The Illinois Central entered the city from the south and the Chicago and Northwestern from the west. South Water Street on the south bank of the river was the city’s grocery market. Potter Palmer had earlier moved the retail district from its east-west axis along Lake Street to a widened and now bustling State Street.

State and Madison looking north around 1911

State and Madison looking north around 1911. Chicago Historical Society.

Swivel bridges for railroad and public traffic spanned the river. The Rush Street Bridge was a major avenue for north-south traffic.

Chicago River with  Rush Street Bridge

Chicago River with Rush Street Bridge circa 1900. Chicago Historical Society.

Lumber yards had initially stretched for 12 miles along the South Branch. The Union Stock Yards, established in 1865 and spread out along Halsted Street southwest of the business district, was the center of the city’s slaughtering and meat packing industry.

Stockyards around 1910. Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969)

Stockyards around 1910. George Krambles Collection.

The Board of Trade, established in 1848 as canal and rail traffic brought a golden stream of grain into the city, anchored the downtown financial district. It was surrounded by banks, law offices and corporate headquarters, the last communicating with outlaying factories by telegraph and telephone. Corporate back office functions were located in the central business district.

Looking south on LaSalle Street to the 1885 Board of Trade. Bird's-eye Views and Guide to Chicago (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Co., 1893)

Looking south on LaSalle Street to the 1885 Board of Trade. Bird’s-eye Views and Guide to Chicago (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Co., 1893)

Montgomery Ward had moved its catalogue facility and warehouse from the “busy bee hive” located near the corner of Michigan Avenue and Madison Street to a new building on the North Branch of the river in 1906-1908.

Montgomery Ward & Co.

Montgomery Ward & Co.

Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue House

Montgomery Ward & Co. Catalogue House

Newer mail order competitor Sears, Roebuck and Co. located its catalog plant and offices west of downtown at Homan Square in 1905-06. Printing and publishing firms located near the downtown businesses they served.

Print House  Row from Van Buren Street 1893

Printing House Row from Van Buren Street. Bird’s-eye View and Guide to Chicago (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Co., 1893)

Railroad manufacturing and repair was among the city’s major employers along with machines shops and iron and steel forging. The latter enterprises were located along both branches of the river but were most concentrated southwest of the center. With limited opportunity for expansion in the city center, manufacturers expanded at the edges of the built up areas and in the Calumet region. The Central Manufacturing District, established in 1890 as the nation’s first such organized industrial district, was located north of the stock yards and was served by the same railroads. Electric machinery manufactures, a newer industry located outside the city center, provided light and power systems to serve offices, street railways and factories. The Columbian Exposition had introduced Chicago to the wonders of electric lighting. Street railways were in the process of switching from coal and cable to electric. The garment industry, drawing on local cheap labor, was concentrated along the South Branch of the river. Industry was variously dependent on the river for transport, water input and waste disposal and on the railroad for bringing in raw materials and sending out finished products. Wards and Sears, the Amazon.coms of the early 20th century, used the post office which in turn shipped by rail.

The economic forces that led to the outward movement of industries also strongly influenced residential patterns. A Chicago Planning Commission map (1919) shows built up areas north, west and south of the city center.

This 1919 promotional slide from the Chicago Plan Commission highlights current industrial areas in yellow and future areas in red. Future population is estimated at 7,000,000 and the built up area at 400 square miles.

This 1919 promotional slide from the Chicago Plan Commission highlights current industrial areas in yellow and future areas in red. Future population is estimated at 7,000,000 and the built up area at 400 square miles.

Those living in the subdivisions beyond the high density neighborhoods surrounding the city center traveled on street and passenger railways to work and shop in the center.

Transit system expansion contributed to flux in the city’s real estate market. South Side growth had been fueled by the World’s Fair and new transit connections to the center. The South Side’s predominance began to diminish as the North and West Sides expanded along their newer elevated and electrified transit connections to downtown. The social elite had moved from Prairie Avenue to the Gold Coast in the 1880s. The old baronial estates on the Near South Side were divided into multifamily residences and often converted into tenements. Daniel Burnham no longer wishing to live on the South Side had moved to Evanston. The city’s population had its greatest density west of the South Branch of the river and declined along the north and south shores of Lake Michigan and within newer subdivisions to the west.

While Chicago grew with immigration it was predominately a city of middle class homes. As members of one immigrant cohort became more economically established it could move to the more pleasant outlying residential districts. Regardless, the living conditions of those yet to move up were appalling. Several Chicago city wards west of the river housed an immigrant population in tenements with densities up to 61,000 people per square mile (about the capacity of Soldier Field).

housing circa 1900

“Packingtown” housing circa 1900

At the turn of the century many of the new immigrants were from southern and eastern Europe. A Hull House map documents countries of origins for residents around Roosevelt Road and Halsted.

The Hull House Settlement conducted careful studies of the Near West Side neighborhood which housed many of Chicago's most recent immigrants, most of whom came from central, southern, and eastern Europe. This color coded map depicts nationalities of residents in the area bordered by Polk, Twelfth (now Roosevelt Road), Halsted, and Jefferson Streets. The map appeared in the volume Hull-House Maps and Papers,

The Hull House Settlement conducted careful studies of the Near West Side neighborhood which housed many of Chicago’s most recent immigrants, most of whom came from central, southern, and eastern Europe. This color coded map depicts nationalities of residents in the area bordered by Polk, Twelfth (now Roosevelt Road), Halsted, and Jefferson Streets. The map appeared in the volume Hull-House Maps and Papers,

Although the Plan is predominantly positive in tone, it does describe living conditions along the edges of the central city where industry intermingled with high density residential areas. At the important intersection of Chicago Avenue and Halsted the Plan reports that smoke from railroad shops and yards and standing locomotives foul the air – nearly 400 trains come and go each day. River traffic adds their soot while tanneries and garbage wagons contribute their odor. Coal docks increase the din. Close by a “cosmopolitan district inhabited by a mixture of races, conditions a menace to the moral and physical health of the community.”

The Railroads

The railroads were central to Chicago’s past and future growth and a source of its most vexing land use problems. They limited expansion of the central business district to the south and west and claimed much of the Lake front south of the river. Chicago was a major freight hub and its railroads were a major source of congestion and pollution. Speed of delivery and cost of freight per ton were the keys to the competitive advantage of Chicago’s railroads. If the city could not address line congestion and control costs, it would lose its competitive position. The railroads with their substantial investment in fixed facilities would suffer.

Illinois Central depot circa 1890 Lost Chicago p 54

Illinois Central depot circa 1890. Chicago Historical Society

The Plan stated that railroads in particular and transportation networks in general had to be viewed from the perspective of Chicago as a commercial city. The planners offered a set of proposals that would promote the convenience of the people, enhance the commerce of the city, and improve railroad profits. As elsewhere, the planners hoped their solutions would appeal to all constituencies.

The essential problem was how to handle railroad traffic with dispatch and at lowest costs. There were twenty two trunk lines entering the city. The Plan asserted the need to study the fine art of traffic management to achieve an efficient placement of tracks and terminals. Consolidation among lines would reduce both their enormous terminal costs and the city’s congestion. The Plan offered a detailed discussion of common freight depositing and reloading stations with warehousing nearby, common tracks and central depots for passenger traffic, and the use of exiting underground tunnels to move freight from depots to central city retailers. A complete system would connect shipping facilities on the Chicago and Calumet rivers to freight handling centers. These changes would yield convenience and reduce cost. The railroads would need to cooperate in this endeavor but would collectively profit. To rationalize space and reduce cost, the railroads would only carry goods into the city that were needed there.

Plate LXXV. Diagram of the City showing complete system of inner circuits including general traction subway circuit and general railroad freight circuit.

Diagram of the City showing complete system of inner circuits including general traction subway circuit and general railroad freight circuit.

As many as 1,300 trains a day in 1910 carried a total of 175,000 passengers to and from six principal downtown stations. They moved workers and travelers. Travelers would enter the central business district to change trains and continue their journeys. As a growing metropolis, having travelers traverse downtown was good for business. Now it just added to congestion. The Plan proposed that passenger traffic be rationalized and centralized in two terminals, one on Roosevelt Road (then Twelfth Street) and one on Canal. The welter of tracks crisscrossing the city at grade level was also a serious source of traffic delay and deadly accidents. Below is the Plan’s “modern and perfect system for passengers and freight in a great city’s heart.”

Plate LXXX. Diagram of the City center, showing the proposed arrangement of railroad passenger stations, the complete traction system, including rapid transit subways, and elevated roads, and the circuit subway line. Railway stations are located on Twelfth Street (Roosevelt) and Canal Street. Railroads are denoted by solid red lines. Dashed red lines are subway connections to passenger stations, additional circuits and rapid transit lines. Dashed blue lines are proposed subway system.

Diagram of the City center, showing the proposed arrangement of railroad passenger stations, the complete traction system, including rapid transit subways, and elevated roads, and the circuit subway line. Railway stations are located on Roosevelt Road and Canal Street. Railroads are denoted by solid red lines. Dashed red lines are subway connections to passenger stations, additional circuits and rapid transit lines. Dashed blue lines are proposed subway system.

Better circulation of people, while essential, was not the principal gain. Rationalizing lines, terminals, and warehousing would free up land almost as large as the central business district (from State Street to the South Branch of the river and Van Buren to Roosevelt Road) and would “end the crowding out of enterprising men and vast capital.” It would allow more of the commercial activities that must take place in the city center.

Twelfth Street Station. Bird's-eye View and Guide to Chicago (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Co., 1893)

Twelfth Street Station. Bird’s-eye View and Guide to Chicago (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Co., 1893)

Proposed Twelfth Street Boulevard at intersection with Michigan Avenue. The proposed railway terminals are shown facing the Boulevard. Painted for the Commercial Club by Jules Guerin.

Proposed Twelfth Street Boulevard at intersection with Michigan Avenue. The proposed railway terminals are shown facing the Boulevard. Painted for the Commercial Club by Jules Guerin.

The proposal was ambitious. It would impact numerous competing railroad companies and would require substantial change to the urban infrastructure. Railroad executives met with the planners. Charles D. Norton, chair of the Plan’s General Committee reports that at the end of the meeting the executives stated that “we intend to co-operate with you as far as we can—at least up to the point of a full discussion of what may or can be done and when we can do it.”

Union Station in the mid 1920s

Union Station in the mid 1920s. The Penn-Central Railroad.

While the planner’s greater visions did not come to fruition, the railroads did build Union Station to serve multiple lines. Photographs from the 1930s show little change in railroad presence in the central business district in the decades after publication and promotion of the Plan.

Southwest view of central Chicago in 1936. The complex of railroad lines and industry still constrains the movement of business southward. Chicago Historical Society.

Southwest view of central Chicago in 1936. The complex of railroad lines and industry still constrains the movement of business southward. Chicago Historical Society.

The decline of long-distance travel by rail and changes in the location of manufacturing did eventually diminish the impact of the railroads as a source of congestion in the city center. To better utilize the available land, new developments, including the Merchandise Mart in the late 1920s, were built over the Chicago and Northwestern tracks. Marina Towers would be built to the east in the 1950s. The Dearborn Street station was repurposed as commercial space after the Dearborn Park development replaced railroad tracks in the early 1970s.

Dearborn Street Station. Bird's-eye View and Guide to Chicago (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Co., 1893)

Dearborn Street Station. Bird’s-eye View and Guide to Chicago (Chicago: Rand, McNally & Co., 1893)

City policy and planning encouraged other development. By the late 20th century multiple commercial structures were built on air rights west of the South branch of the river with 100 N Riverside (at one time the Boeing Building) cantilevered to accommodate the rails. The Illinois Center planned development was built on air rights to the Illinois Central’s terminus south of the main branch of the Chicago River. the Dock and Canal project (now Cityfront Center) was built over the tracks north of the main Branch. The south loop’s Central Station development, also built on Illinois Central rail yards and air rights, led to a redesign of the Museum Campus and opened that portion of the Lake front to the central business district.

Parks and the Lake front

After the 1893 Columbian Exposition Daniel Burnham worked on plans to redesign the Lake front. The Illinois Central had built its tracks on a trestle off shore in Lake Michigan in the 1850s, the tracks fanning out to connect with shipping on the lake and river.

Illinois Central heading south over trestle off Michigan Avenue, circa 1860.

Illinois Central heading south over trestle off Michigan Avenue, circa 1860.

Over the decades the shore line moved east with fill leaving the tracks as a barrier to the Lake front. The State of Illinois had granted the right to connect Jackson Park to Grant Park and Grant Park to Lincoln Park and also granted submerged land along the Lake shore for that purpose. Jules Guerin’s illustration of the Plan of Chicago’s proposed shoreline from Jackson Park to north of Chicago Avenue offers a vision of Chicago’s Lake front transformed.

Lake shore from Chicago Avenue on the north to Jackson Park on the south.

Lake shore from Chicago Avenue on the north to Jackson Park on the south.

The Plan proclaimed that the “Lake front by right belongs to the people. It affords their one great unobstructed view, stretching away to the horizon…” The Plan proposed construction of a Lake front park complete with beaches, lagoons and harbors. The shore line would be extended east of the tracks. Cost always a factor, the Plan argued that building parks along the shore can be easily accomplished since “probably 1,000,000 cubic yards of waste are annually conveyed to the Lake front from Evanston to South Chicago.” The whole project could be accomplished in 30 years. The Plan’s lyrical description of the parks impact on the senses accompanies Jules Guerin’s illustration of the Lake front park.

The proposal that the Lake front should be for the people was challenged by the argument that Chicago’s commercial future would remain dependent on transport by ship on the lake and river. This would require that the downtown Lake front be used for railroad tracks, warehouses and piers. Continued movement of freight in the city center would do nothing to alleviate the congestion the Plan hoped to diminish through its proposals regarding the railroads. The planners successfully argued that the future of freight movement would be with rail rather than boats and that Calumet Harbor would be a preferable locus of access to the waterways. Illustrations in the Plan include facilities for lake shipping at the mouths of the Chicago and Calumet Rivers.

The Lake front park was one piece of a system of parks and forest preserves that would encircle the city and be accessible to all of the people. Public commissions had secured land for an outer belt of parks and neighborhood centers that would be located near Chicago’s existing boulevards. Proposed boulevards would provide additional ease of access.

Plate XLIV Complete Park enhanced

General map showing topography, waterways and complete system of streets, boulevards, parkways, and parks. The parks and parkways encircle the city; they are placed in relation to the radiating arteries, and increase in area in proportion to their distance from the center.

The Plan proposed interior parks that would be distributed about the city as evenly as possible as well as the acquisition and improvement of forest parks. Together this would create an encircling system of forest parks and urban parks with connections along the lake that would run a hundred miles.

The planner’s vision was part of a national movement that prized recreational space for physical exercise and appreciation of nature. Chicago, once a leader in park development, had fallen far behind. The Plan aimed for a standard of one acre of park per 100 people and noted that the average for Chicago was 590 people per acre of park and in some areas of the city 5,000 people per acre. There were social and economic gains to be had from expansion of the park and shoreline system. The Plan acknowledged that many wage earners lived and worked in crowded and unhealthy environments. Ready access to parks and field houses (“clubhouses for the people”) had value in preventing crime, promoting cleanliness and diminishing disease. Parks would reduce population density which, when too great, resulted in disorder, vice and disease; a menace to the well-being of the city. If the city was to be a good labor market, it needed to provide for the health and pleasure of the great body of the workers.

As with other elements of the Plan, the park proposals would bolster the economic life of the city. The forest preserve would attract residences and large estates and increase adjoining property values. The proposed expansion in greenway lined boulevards would have the same positive economic impact. The city would be able to recoup in taxation many times the cost of the land needed for park expansion.

The proposed Lake front would also have a huge economic impact. With its lagoons, restaurants, pleasure pavilions, public bath houses and beaches, it would rival those in Paris, Vienna and on the Riviera. “What will it do for us in health and happiness,” queried the planners. “After it is finished will the people of means be so ready to run away and spend their money in other cities? Where else can they find such delightful conditions as at home?”

Streets in the City

Chicago was the fastest growing city in the world. The flat prairie spread out west from the Lake front and allowed indefinite expansion. While the city was growing outward its essential commercial functions remained concentrated in the central business district. The dispersion of population and industry from the city center was causing congestion that was bound to become more severe. The planners stated that it was essential that Chicago develop a more adequate means of circulation within the city for ease of access to work, to shop, and to benefit from the parks and the Lake front.

The Plan proposed a region wide system of thoroughfares and transit facilities to provide ease of circulation. The city was already laid out in a grid. Streets carried local residential traffic while avenues, often along section lines, carried heavier traffic. Avenues would have separation to allow for both vehicles and streetcars. Boulevards, broader still, combined parks and driveways. Their greenbelts of grass, shrubs and trees could afford continuous playgrounds for children and attract commodious and fine dwellings. Diagonals, an essential element of good city planning, would provide savings in time and expense, and complete the system.

Plan of the streets and boulevard system present and proposed. Proposed additional arteries and street widening are in red. The diagonal arteries are extensions of those already existing, and around the center of the city they serve to create. in conjunction with rectangular streets, the proposed circuit boulevards.

Plan of the streets and boulevard system present and proposed. Proposed additional arteries and street widening are in red. The diagonal arteries are extensions of those already existing, and around the center of the city they serve to create, in conjunction with rectangular streets, the proposed circuit boulevards.

Main roads led through the city center. The proposed redesign would allow traffic to reach the center expeditiously, divert traffic not needing to reach the center, and afford direct passage through the center when necessary. The proposal included a grand circular roadway that would connect with avenues and diagonals. The Plan also included a system of highway connections outside the city proper.

From experience, the planners anticipated that population would follow the development of the new transit corridors. They expected property values to increase along avenues and boulevards where parks and shopping amenities were close by and where there was ease of access to the central business district and the Lake front. The planners hoped that buildings along the new thoroughfares would achieve a uniform architectural vision and even frontage that was consistent with enhanced property values. The planners envisioned Chicago as a Middle West incarnation of Paris with its broad boulevards and uniform rows of fine multistory buildings laid out around parks and squares. They hoped that middle and upper class city dwellers shared their vision and that developers would build to that preference.

At the same time, the planners recognized that the legal powers of the State needed to be applied to promote the Plan’s vision for development. An appendix on legal aspects of the Plan of Chicago states that the “municipal authorities which establish parks, boulevards, and other public places need some power to regulate the use of premises within immediate view of the public grounds, so as to prevent offensive advertising, restrict the kind of business…and make appropriate regulation of the height, manner of construction, and location of surrounding buildings.” Within limits, these ends could be achieved either through police powers or the power of eminent domain.

Billboards were a nuisance and increasingly so near population centers. Police powers were limited as a means to promote aesthetic values. The City council could control building height, but only on a city wide basis, not just within specific areas, such as around parks and boulevards. Chicago would not have its first zoning ordinance until 1923. Alternatively, the city and other agencies could resort to the use of eminent domain to control the environs of a public place. Property or the relevant interest in a property (for example, a facade allowing signage) could be acquired for public use with just compensation.

Police powers were limited for addressing the problem of congested areas. Single buildings could be demolished without compensation if unsanitary or unsafe. However, congested or unwholesome areas could not be taken through eminent domain even for renovation. At the same time, there was no obstacle to opening wide thoroughfares and avenues through congested areas, or taking the heart of the district as a public park. The planners argued that the remedy for slums is the same as resorted to the world over; first, cut broad thoroughfares through the unwholesome districts; and second, establish remorseless enforcement of sanitary regulation which will insure adequate air-space for the dwellers and absolute cleanliness on the street, the sidewalks, and within the buildings. The Plan states that “it is no attack on private property to argue that society has the inherent right to protect itself against abuses. It is a failure of the city to have allowed these conditions .”

Heart of the City

The center of Chicago commerce, the Heart of Chicago, was the area between Halsted and the Lake and between the main branch of the river and Roosevelt Road. With limited ground devoted to business, the planners expected land values to continue to rise and buildings to grow up to the limits allowed by law. The Plan’s railroad proposal would provide additional buildable ground and allow expansion of the central business district. The Plan advocated a diversion of the multiple streams of freight and passenger traffic that flowed into the city center. Proposed changes to Michigan Avenue, Grant Park and the banks of the Chicago River, combined with the creation of a Civic Center at Congress and Halsted would then make the Heart of Chicago an accessible center of commercial, intellectual and civic life.

Michigan Avenue was the baseline of the city and was proposed to become the main connection between the North and South Sides as well as an opening of the center to the West Side. It was a major bottleneck and destined to carry the heaviest movement of traffic of any street in the world. Michigan Avenue was being widened at Grant Park while structures of “the first order of size and architecture” lined its west side.

Plate CXVIIL Michigan Ave looking south p 106

Proposed double roadway on Michigan Avenue looking towards the south

The Plan proposed that Michigan Avenue be widened between Randolph and the river. The avenue would rise in grade and cross the river on a new double deck bascule bridge and continue north to the Lake. The proposed Michigan Avenue Bridge would allow passenger traffic to cross on the upper boulevard level and freight traffic to cross on a lower level. The new bridge would divert traffic from the Rush Street Bridge which was carrying most of the traffic coming into the city from the North Side.

The proposal required condemnation of buildings on the east side of the existing Michigan Avenue south of the river, a stretch of road that Walter Moody characterized as presenting the appearance of a poor, tenth rate city. It would also require condemnation of buildings on the west side of the current Pine Street to the north of the river, thus allowing for an alignment of a wider road on both sides of the bridge.

schematic Mich Ave widening

North and South boulevard connection showing plazas (A and AA). Shaded areas indicate buildings that must give way to boulevard widening. (Chicago: Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago, 1915)

There was considerable east-west traffic along both banks of the main branch as well as along several blocks on the east and west sides of the river to access railway terminals, docks and warehouses. The elevation of Michigan Avenue would allow freight traffic to pass on a lower grade. An upper and lower level configuration was also proposed along the main branch of the river which would divert freight traffic to warehouses on the lower levels and allow passenger traffic to use the more scenic upper level. Guerin’s illustration, drawing on a European aesthetic, rather accurately predicts the appearance of the current South Wacker Drive.

Plate CVIL plan-of-chicago_Wacker Drive

View looking north on the South Branch of the Chicago River, showing the suggested arrangement of streets and ways for teaming and reception of freight by boat at different levels.

The proposed Boulevards along the river would reduce congestion downtown and also follow the lead of European cities where rivers once devoted to commerce would later combine drives and promenades for traffic and pleasure. The Chicago River had become “a dumping spot and cesspool” where owners had used their riparian rights to encroach on the river. The Sanitary District had a widening proposal that would promote both the commercial and aesthetic character of the river.

Proposed Riverfront improvement along S Water  Street ca 1920 M&W p310

Proposed Riverfront improvement along South Water Street circa 1920. The architectural firm of Bennett and Parsons retouched a photograph to illustrate the way the new South Water Street (now Wacker Drive) would look once remodeled consistent with the Plan of Chicago. Chicago Historical Society.

The proposed widening of Michigan Avenue and construction of the Michigan Avenue Bridge were major points of contention. The project had been proposed in 1904, the State legislature authorized it in 1907, and the Chicago Plan Commission approved a design in 1911. Owners of properties proposed for condemnation strenuously protested and more than two hundred lawyers were hired to protect owner interests. New drawings of the proposed Bridge were produced to assuage opposition by some of Chicago’s newspapers. Northwest side business interests saw the bridge as a plot by State Street interests to capture trade north of the river.

Are your foolish enough

Northwest side businessmen here depict those most in favor of the boulevard and bridge as bloated, bejeweled, and beady-eyed “State Street Interests,” who want to steal more business by opening a bridge between the downtown and the North Side. They wield the favorable editorial policy of the daily newspapers like an enormous cudgel. The pennant flying from the building on the right reads, “M.F. & Co.,” fingering the Marshall Field State Street store as a chief culprit. Commentary from Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago. Image from Art Institute of Chicago.

The City ultimately purchased fifty-one properties to create the widened and aligned Michigan Avenue. The bridge opened on May 14, 1920. Construction of the Wrigley Building and the Tribune Tower followed the opening of the bridge and construction of the Drake Hotel anchored development along the “magnificent mile” to the north. By 1925 the Chicago Plan Commission claimed that the $16 million spent on Michigan Avenue had already paid for itself six times over through increased property values.

Streeterville about 1926

Streeterville looking southeast, circa 1926. North of the river, Michigan Avenue is anchored by the Wrigley Building and Tribune Tower at its south end and the Drake Hotel at the north end. The Furniture Mart (now 680 Lake Shore Drive) is to the east. The Illinois Central tracks can be seen south of the river. Chicago Historical Society.

The widening of Michigan Avenue addressed the problem of north-south traffic. An easing of East-west traffic would be addressed through a widening of Roosevelt Road and Chicago Avenue. This was part of the greater program of avenues, boulevards and diagonals that would promote circulation outside of the central business district.

Plate CXL Plan of the Center of the City p 102

Plan of the center of the city, showing present streets and boulevard system. The proposed arteries and streets widening are in red.

The Plan’s proposal to create a center of intellectual and civic life involved placing three cultural institutions in Grant Park, widening Congress Street, and building a civic center with combined city, county and federal representation at the intersection of Congress and Halsted.

Grant Park would be the intellectual center of Chicago. The promotion of art, as everywhere, would be a source of wealth and moral influence. The Plan proposed that the Field Museum be build at Congress with a new Art Institute to the north and the Crerar Library to the south. The construction of buildings on the Lake front had long been a matter of dispute. Aaron Montgomery Ward, mail order magnate, had waged a twenty year battle against plans to build public and private structures in Grant Park. His opposition was based in part on the guarantee that the Park would “remain public ground forever open, clear and free of any buildings, or other obstructions whatever” as stated on the 1836 map drawn by the Illinois Canal Commissioners.

Created by the Illinois and Michigan Canal commissioners and recorded on July 2, 1836 this map mandates that a portion of the lakeshore be dedicated as "Public Ground. A Common to remain forever Open, Clear, & Free of any  buildings, or other Obstructions Whatever." Chicago Historical Society.

Created by the Illinois and Michigan Canal commissioners and recorded on July 2, 1836 this map mandates that a portion of the lakeshore be dedicated as “Public Ground. A Common to remain forever Open, Clear, & Free of any buildings, or other Obstructions Whatever.” Chicago Historical Society.

Ward had agreed to construction of the current Art Institute in 1892. With his strong opposition and an $8 million 1906 Marshal Field’s bequest to be spent for a museum by a date certain, the Field Museum site was moved south to its current location. The Art Institute was able to sidestep legal limits and subsequently expand to the east over air rights and then on land fill. The Crerar Library is now located at the University of Chicago.

Grant Park did not develop as proposed but, as the planners envisioned, it did become a spacious and attractive public garden that serves Chicago’s heterogeneous population. It provides sweeping vistas of the lake and yacht harbors and a vantage point to view the buildings that played a part in Chicago’s architectural destiny. With the addition of Millennium Park, also built on air rights, it has become a major tourist destination and a magnet for central business district development.

Daniel Burnham was a central figure in the City Beautiful movement. The movement advocated transforming the urban environment into a beautiful, unified and efficient organic whole. The addition of great and noble architecture, preferably in the neoclassical style that graced the World’s Columbian Exposition, would inspire civic order and unity among a diverse population. The proposed Civic Center, the keystone of the arch of the transformed Heart of Chicago, would serve that function. It would be placed at the center of gravity of all radial arteries entering Chicago.

Civic center plate

View looking west, of the proposed Civic Center Plaza, and buildings, showing it as the center of the system of arteries of circulation and of the surrounding country. Painted for the Commercial Club by Jules Guerin.

The Civic Center would be the Administrative axis on a widened Congress Street connecting to the center of art, literature and science located at its base in Grant Park. The Dome rising above the Civic Center, a larger version of the Columbian Exposition’s Administration Building would be the symbol of civic order and unity.

Civic center sepia

The proposed Civic Center Square showing the group of surrounding buildings, crowned by the central dome.

Traffic would pour into the space characterized by a harmonious grouping of government buildings. For the planners, it would be Chicago’s version of the Acropolis in Athens, the Forum in Rome or St. Marks in Venice – the very embodiment of civic life.

For better or worse, the Civic Center was not built. Chicago had already entered the auto age. As predicted, the intersection proposed would become a center of gravity for major roads entering Chicago in the guise of the Circle Interchange.

Circle_Interchange_Chicago wiki

The Circle Interchange. The Plan of Chicago envisioned the intersection of a widened Congress Street and the twenty mile long Halsted Street as the Axis of Chicago. Congress would connect the city center with the western suburbs.

Looking Back on the Plan

The Plan of Chicago builds on basic principles that are as essential today as they were a hundred years ago: a comprehensive plan must prepare the city for a distant future, be economically viable, and share its cost and bounty equitably among the population.

The exhortation “make no little plans…” attributed to Daniel H. Burnham, captures the visionary and multidimensional scope of the Plan. The Plan encompasses a region while maintaining a focus on Chicago’s commercial center. It concentrates on the built environment as a major determinant of how city dwellers live, work and play. It proposes change that would create a more livable and economically sustainable urban environment.

The Plan is designed to solve the city’s existing problems as well as those anticipated with future growth. The planners state that it will take many decades to carry out this transformation. They assume that Chicago’s population will continue to grow over the next decades and that manufacturing will continue as a dominant source of employment. Both held true through the first half of the 20th century.

Within this broad context, the planners argue that their proposals would yield benefits to current and future generations more than sufficient to justify the cost imposed. The Plan states that Paris, when its population was 500,000, adopted a street improvement scheme at a cost of $265 million and carried it out to completion in thirty-five years. For Paris planner Baron Haussmann, money thus spent made a better city and a better city was a greater producer of wealth. The Plan notes that the value of Chicago real estate had increased over the prior ten years in excess of the projected cost of the Chicago plan. Chicagoans did approve some eighty-six Plan related bond issues between 1912 and 1931 that covered seventeen different projects with a combined cost of $234 million. Bond issues funded street widening projects including the reconstruction of Roosevelt Road, Michigan Avenue and Wacker Drive. Bonds also funded expansion of the Lake front, Lake Shore Drive, Grant Park and the forest preserves. These were sound public investments ultimately paid for through economic growth that resulted in improvements to the quality of life in the city.

To win broad support for the necessary public investment, the planners argued that private capital would contribute to the Plan’s success and funding and that all Chicagoans would benefit regardless of their current standing in the economic hierarchy. Public investment in infrastructure improvements would create new opportunities and induce private investment which would stimulate further economic growth. Economic growth would raise property values and provide the funds to service the public debt undertaken to pay for public investment. The appendix on legal aspects notes that Chicago already was loaned up and advocated a change in the city’s assessed property valuation formula to generate more tax revenue in support of increased bonded indebtedness.

While proposals for streets, parks and the Lake front were designed to benefit all of Chicago, the Plan has been criticized as having a preference for the wealthy and a callus attitude toward the poor. As regards the first, there is no question that the success of the Plan assumed active private investment. The planners clearly hoped that the wealthy would remain and spend their money in Chicago. They highlighted some improvements with this end in mind (for example, the Lake front development) while also asserting that the proposals for circulation would make these improvements accessible to all Chicagoans.

As regards the second, the planner referred to slums as rookeries, a 19th century term for an overcrowded city district occupied by the poor and criminals. They expressed their contempt for speculators who created these conditions and their empathy for children living in tenements cut off from light and fresh air. The proposal to eliminate slums through road building projects tends to be conflated with the federally funded “blight” removal projects of the 1950s. The Plan notes that “Chicago has not yet reached the point when it will be necessary for the municipality to provide at its own expense, as does the city of London, for the rehousing of persons forced out of congested quarters…” Residents of turn of the century slums generally were not subject to racial discrimination and many did move to better residential neighborhoods as Chicago prospered. That said, disagreement remains as to whether the Plan was designed to benefit all segments of society and whether it satisfied that goal in its implementation.

Some elements of the Plan were viewed by contemporaries as designed to yield benefits to private interests at the expense of the public purse. The proposed improvements to Michigan Avenue are a prime example. There was serious conflict between the planners and some entrenched political interests who wanted their share of the gains. The public stopped funding new bond issues after 1931 due to scandals, corruption and the onset of the Great Depression in 1929.

In concluding its case for change, The Plan of Chicago asserts that the city must continuously improve civic conditions. “Every one knows that the civic conditions which prevailed fifty years ago would not now be tolerated anywhere; and every one believes that conditions of to-day will not be tolerated by the men who follow us.”

Planning Chicago

In Planning Chicago, Hunt and DeVries examine the interaction and impact of planning, politics and market forces on Chicago since the 1950s. They explore the “negotiations, plans, policies and choices that shape the outcomes we see today.” A power point summary of their book is included. The following draws from and builds on the book.

Chicago has undergone significant change since the Plan of Chicago. After 1966 the city moved away from comprehensive planning as a strategy to attract broad-based investment. Projects tended to follow the paths defined by federal and state funding sources. Chicago developed plans for the central area and for industrial corridors as well as for specific needs such as protecting the Chicago River and the Lake front. Planning efforts could not always resolve conflict between competing private and public interests. Planning was too often perceived as challenging mayoral choice, aldermanic prerogative, and agency turf.

City of Chicago Industrial Corridors, 2011. Planning Chicago.

City of Chicago Industrial Corridors, 2011. Planning Chicago.

After substantial growth through the 1920s, the city experienced a hiatus of commercial and residential construction during the Great Depression and World War II. A plan for the central area in 1958 envisioned a compact downtown with commercial and middle class residential development expanding to the north, south and west over the still encircling railroad tracks and yards. This vision was substantially realized by the first decade of the 21st century.

Map of Railroads and Chicago's Loop circa 1930. Planning Chicago/Newberry Library

Map of Railroads and Chicago’s Loop circa 1930. Planning Chicago/Newberry Library


Central Area. Google Earth 2014

Central Area. Google Earth 2014

The movement of railroads out from the center did not diminish Chicago’s importance as a transportation hub. Growing demand and efficiency gains from globalization, containerization, and double-stacked trains more than compensated for a decline in passenger traffic and competition from trucking. Chicago still captures 25 percent of all U.S. rail traffic and processes 46 percent of intermodal units, primarily containers.

Transformation to a global, post-industrial, information economy impacted manufacturing employment while creating central city demand for finance and technology related office space. The demise of steel manufacturing and its allied industries had a devastating impact on South Side employment. Industrial corridors were created to support industrial employment while residential and commercial development vied with older industries for location near the center. When Chicago drafted its last comprehensive plan, the best predictor of a community’s economic success was physical capital. With the shift from traditional manufacturing to innovation and knowledge, the best predictor of a community’s economic success is now human capital.

While the market is increasingly global, face-to-face contact remains essential for innovation, dissemination of information and networking. The result is ongoing competition for space in and around the central business district. The Chicago Plan Commission recently approved the Fulton Market Innovation District in the West Loop, the city’s first innovation district in its last market district. The area home to meatpacking and food wholesalers for 150 years has become a center for culture, nightlife and dining. Due to location and amenities it has attracted firms like Google and Uber . The Innovation District provides a framework to evaluate development proposals for property in the district as an overlay to the existing zoning map. The plan is expected to encourage the entry of information and technology firms, preserve existing jobs and buildings, and limit new residential construction. Establishment of the district can constrain the impact of market driven property values on determination of land use. The Landmarks Commission will hold hearings on a controversial recommendation to designate a portion of the Fulton Market as an historic district.

The plan is intended to coordinate development patterns that balance the area's historic role as a center for food production and distribution, along with its more recent evolution as a home to innovative industries, culture, nightlife, and housing.

The plan is intended to coordinate development patterns that balance the area’s historic role as a center for food production and distribution, along with its more recent evolution as a home to innovative industries, culture, nightlife, and housing.

The geography of race and class has changed. The pattern throughout most of the 20th century was one of lower-income housing in decaying buildings circling the urban core with rings of working-class and then middle class housing further out. This gave way to inversion by the 2010 census. Hunt and DeVries observe that affluent families – generally white and Asian – now dominate the central area, while working-class Latinos and African Americans have been pushed outward to previously middle-class areas. Chicago’s population peaked at 3.6 million people in the 1950s and has since declined to 2.7 million people in 2010. The city lost 200,000 people, predominately African Americans, between 2000 and 2010 in part as a consequence of Chicago Housing Authority housing policy and the mortgage/housing crisis. Chicago neighborhood demographics likely will continue to shift with migration and differential employment opportunities.

Population change by race and ethnicity, 2000-2011.  Planning Chicago

Population change by race and ethnicity, 2000-2011. Planning Chicago

Growth in jobs and growth in population generally move together. To continue to grow, Chicago needs to expand its employment base, enhance the human capital of its future work force, and rebuild neighborhoods that will attract and retain population. This is a challenge for industrial policy and neighborhood revival.

A film titled A Tale of One City was produced in support of the Plan of Chicago. Today Chicago is often characterized as a tale of two cities. An expanding central area benefited economically as people and jobs followed investment in new residential and commercial construction. Chicago’s vernacular buildings were repurposed, Grant Park development was capped with Millennium Park, an entertainment district flourished, and a growing university presence helped to create a 24 hour downtown. The city center is recovering from the Great Recession as young professionals and empty nesters move downtown and the urban core attracts employment from the suburbs. At the same time, predominately minority neighborhoods on the South and West Sides have lost population and face foreclosure, vacant and abandoned properties, and violent crime.

Residential development in the central area, 2001-2007 color coded by years. Planning Chicago.

Residential development in the central area, 2001-2007 color coded by years. Planning Chicago.

Hunt and DeVries point out that the central business district and the neighborhoods are interconnected. “The neighborhoods need a vibrant downtown to generate employment and tax revenue to fund neighborhood services, while the downtown needs healthy, affordable communities to attract workforce.” With tax-increment financing a downtown recovery can be economically self-sustaining. Middle class and working class neighborhood income and employment may improve with growth in the urban core. However, public investment to revive hard hit neighborhoods on the South and West Sides is challenged by high and growing public debt, concentration of tax revenue in TIFs and a drying up of federal and state funding sources.

Chicago has come a long way from the Plan of Chicago and the 1950s solution for eliminating a distressed neighborhood by cutting a road through its heart or leveling it for urban renewal. Hunt and DeVries point out that the city has invested in new schools, police stations and libraries in disadvantaged neighborhoods. It has initiated bottom up planning efforts to empower neighborhoods to articulate their visions of the future. While equity demands investment to alter the quality of life in distressed neighborhoods, the question remains how to invest to yield sustainable economic improvement.

Marshall Brown, a Professor of Architecture at the Illinois Institute of Technology, argues that we should view the landscapes of distressed neighborhoods dotted with abandoned properties and empty lots as an opportunity. Brown estimates that there are 150 acres of vacant land in the Washington Park neighborhood, almost half the acreage of the park itself. He proposes bundling buildings into more cohesive units and opening up all the space which is now chopped up and deemed vacant lots. He would overlay the neighborhood’s grid with winding roads and open space and a collective management of the land; in his words “a soft system of land stewardship and land formation.”

Model of Washington Park looking southwest. The rigid urban grid is overlaid with a softer system of land stewardship and land formation. Marshall Brown Projects.

Model of Washington Park looking southwest. The rigid urban grid is overlaid with a softer system of land stewardship and land formation. Marshall Brown Projects.

It may take twenty or thirty years to bring this vision to fruition. There is a similarity between Brown’s proposal and the case made for boulevards and the Lake front in the Plan of Chicago, although in this instance need and opportunity derive from population decline as opposed to population growth. Over time these improvements can eliminate vacant buildings that are a magnet for crime, raise property values, and attract additional private investment and population. In the spirit of Daniel Burnham one might add that Chicago should move on this opportunity while land is still cheap.

Hunt and DeVries conclude their book with a case for the restoration of planning to address the crucial challenges facing Chicago. They argue that the city needs investment to increase transit capacity, especially in the central area, that will help to retain regional job growth in the city and expand the tax base. The need to ease access to and through the central business district is as old as Daniel Burnham’s Plan. So is the argument for the gains that will be realized. Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago informed its elementary school readers “we must realize that lifetimes are made up of minutes, and that to save minutes means to lengthen life. Thus we can justify spending millions of dollars today if it means saving time for millions of people in years and centuries to come.”

Map of proposed transitway system, the Chicago Central Area Plan, 2003. The Carroll Avenue transitway would connect the Metra stations with Michigan Avenue and Navy Pier using an abandoned railroad right-of-way. A second east-west transitway would run under Monroe Street. A third would connect McCormick Place with Streeterville. Planning Chicago.

Map of proposed transitway system, the Chicago Central Area Plan, 2003. The Carroll Avenue transitway would connect the Metra stations with Michigan Avenue and Navy Pier using an abandoned railroad right-of-way. A second east-west transitway would run under Monroe Street. A third would connect McCormick Place with Streeterville. Planning Chicago.

Chicago needs to bring coherent and comprehensive planning to its struggling neighborhoods by expanding existing and proven initiatives that build “capacity, empower local actors and balance vision with readily attainable goals.” Neighborhoods need to implement policies that not only retain existing population but attract new population.

Community sketch from the Little Village Quality of Life Plan, 2005. Planning Chicago

Community sketch from the Englewood Quality of Life Plan, 2005. Planning Chicago

The city’s industrial policy needs to adapt to a rapidly changing employment base. Heavy manufacturing may offer the best wages, but nonmanufacturing industries may be a more likely source of future employment growth. The city has invested in industrial corridors and needs flexibility to attract and accommodate a range of enterprises that can bring good jobs to Chicago.

Chicago has dozens of timely plans on the shelf that could be implemented rather than ignored. Carefully crafted plans address widely acknowledged problems and pose solutions for the betterment of the city and its central area as well as for industrial and economic development. Passing an appropriate set of these plans into law would help organize priorities and “could reverse a decade of scattershot capital budgeting, TIF-based inefficiencies, and project-by-project thinking.” If city-wide and central city area plans are adopted, zoning application would need be consistent with a more broadly articulated vision. The authors argue that this would help to restrain “the current structure where aldermanic privilege and mindless NIMBYism distorts and paralyzes debate over development.”

Finally, Hunt and DeVries challenge planners to assert themselves. Chicago once prided itself on visionary planning. Will the city now do the hard work of “laying out a vision, creating policy to set direction, and prioritizing its resources?”

The Plan of Chicago identified constraints on the city’s growth and commercial standing and proposed solutions. The solutions focused on the city as an organic whole with specific consideration given to the railroads, the streets of the city, parks and the Lake front, and the heart of the city. Each component could be evaluated in terms of cost and outcome relative to the over-arching goal: the improvement of Chicago as a place to work, to live and to play. With all components contributing to a common goal, the impact of the whole would be greater than the sum of the parts. The Plan of Chicago was comprehensive. Many of its proposals were implemented with benefits that more than justified the public’s investments. Benefits and costs were often broadly distributed over the city’s population. The Plan has had a lasting impact on the vision and development of Chicago’s built environment.

These same criteria can be applied to evaluate a new comprehensive plan that would address broadly recognized problems and set goals for improvement. The parts would be evaluated relative to their specific goals as well as for their contribution to an over-arching vision. Not all outcomes can be quantified, but measures of cost and gain would provide a framework for debate and refinement. This process would allow evaluation of public investments in terms of economic viability and distributive equity. It would facilitate rejection of plans guided by private versus pubic interest goals. Such plans sacrifice economic viability and equity to private gain, raise the city’s debt and impose a drag on growth. Chicago cannot afford to risk such outcomes. What the city achieved with the Plan of Chicago and could again achieve is a visionary and viable plan that will produce broad based growth sufficient to pay for public investment and become self sustaining.

Building a New Chicago sign edited


The primary source for discussion of the 1909 Plan is Daniel H. Burnham and Edward H. Bennett, Plan of Chicago, Centennial Edition, (Chicago: The Great Books Foundation, 2009). A digital version of the 1909 edition is available on-line at http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/10537.html.

Walter D. Moody, Wacker’s Manual of the Plan of Chicago: Municipal Economy, (Chicago: The Henneberry Company, 1915) provides a good scaled down version and additional historical context on implementation. A digital version of the 1911 edition is available on-line at http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/10418.html.

I also benefited from Carl Smith’s interpretive essay in “The Plan of Chicago,” Electronic Encyclopedia of Chicago (http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/10537.html); Harold M. Mayer and Richard C. Wade, Chicago: Growth of a Metropolis, (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1969); David Lowe, Lost Chicago, (New York: American Legacy Press, 1985); and Alice Sinkevitch (editor), AIA Guide to Chicago, (Orlando: Harcourt, Inc., 2004).

Discussion of planning in Chicago after 1950 is based primarily on D. Branford Hunt and Jon B. DeVries, Planning Chicago, (Chicago: American Planning Association, 2013).

Rand McNally’s Bird’s-eye View and Guide to Chicago (Chicago: Rand McNally & Co., 1893) is available on line at https://archive.org/details/randmcnallycosbi00lawr.

When not otherwise credited, with the exception of the Montgomery Ward postcards, images are from the Burnham and Bennett, Plan of Chicago.

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