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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