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From Redlined To Recognized: The Revival Of Chicago’s ‘Black Metropolis’


Chicago's Bronzeville is the birthplace of Black History Month and one of America's most culturally significant black neighborhoods. During the Great Migration of the early 20th century, intrepid entrepreneurs, faced with restrictive real estate covenants and a lack of resources, created scores of groundbreaking businesses and entertainment options, earning Bronzeville the nickname "Black Metropolis."

Men line up outside the Chicago Urban League at 3032 South Wabash Ave. in Bronzeville in 1922.

Today, the boundaries that prevented blacks from moving outside the neighborhood are the foundation to expose Bronzeville to a global audience, and spur economic and real estate development.

“I call Bronzeville ‘the community of the future’ because we have everything we need in place to make it happen,” Bronzeville Community Development Partnership President Paula Robinson said.

Restrictions Breed A Cultural Boom

The Supreme Life Building, 3501 South Martin Luther King Drive

In the first few decades of the 20th century, restrictive real estate covenants and redlining imposed by lenders effectively penned blacks to within Bronzeville. The area earned the “Black Metropolis” moniker for its high concentration of black-owned businesses and because it was an endpoint for blacks fleeing the Deep South for better job opportunities. 

The ingenuity of Bronzeville business owners was trailblazing and historic. Bronzeville was home to Supreme Life Insurance, the first black-owned insurance company in the northern U.S., and the influential black-owned newspapers The Chicago Bee and Chicago Defender. The Wabash Avenue YMCA was the social and educational center for blacks arriving in Chicago from the South, and where historian Carter G. Woodson created "Negro History Week," the precursor to Black History Month.

These boundaries — from the Dan Ryan expressway east to the lakefront, and 18th Street south to 67th Street — are being used by a new wave of entrepreneurs, flipping the script of disenfranchisement and leveraging their history to bring about new developments. The most notable is a proposed Bronzeville Metropolis National Heritage Area that would attract local and international tourism to the neighborhood. 

This area is also home to a proposed tech hub, is a potential Amazon HQ2 site and qualifies for federal empowerment zone funds. Robinson said this area incorporates the four resources she identified for an economic rebound: an abundance of historical landmarks, transportation infrastructure, population density, and buildings and land that can be repurposed for modern use. 

From Restrictions To Relevance Via National Heritage Designation

Bronzeville Community Development Partnership President Paula Robinson

Robinson's goals for Bronzeville are sweeping. She aims to boost tourism and black-owned businesses, provide new business opportunities and turn the south lakefront into a vital amenity for the community. The tool: getting Bronzeville designated a national heritage area. A national heritage area is a federal designation recognizing that the history of an area is of historic and cultural importance to the nation. The designation opens the area up to federal funding, can generate economic development and can attract tourists. Bronzeville's application, which would come with $10M earmarked for preservation projects, is stalled in Congress, but Robinson is still pushing hard for it. She envisions the Bronzeville Metropolis National Heritage Area as having the same effect the Pullman National Monument is already bringing to Pullman, increasing traffic and interest. 

The first small steps have begun. The Supreme Life Insurance building was purchased by the Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council in 1996. The group rehabbed the building and opened the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center in 2005.

Robinson was instrumental in helping the group obtain federal empowerment zone funds for the project. It was her first taste of real estate development, something that has become a focus for her.  

“I wear a lot of hats. I’m a booster, a marketer, a historian and a preservationist,” Robinson said.

She is working on big developments in Bronzeville. BCDP is part of the development team for Burnham Lakefront, the redevelopment of the Michael Reese Hospital site led by Farpoint Development. The Reese site, a historic teaching hospital and nursing school, was bought by the city as part of its effort to land the 2016 Summer Olympics, and sat vacant for the next decade while the loan the city took out to buy the site became an anchor in annual budgets.

When the Obama Foundation announced the search for the Obama Presidential Center, BDCP put together a team including architecture firm HOK to draft a proposal to bring the Obama Presidential Center to the Michael Reese site. The site would have anchored a "necklace" of South Side lakefront museums and brought high connectivity fiber to Bronzeville.

"We envisioned Obama, as the nation's first tech-focused president, needed a high level of connectivity for his center. Through him, we were gonna get the South Lakefront wired," Robinson said.

The Obama Center chose another Chicago location, but Robinson is still pushing Bronzeville into the spotlight for big opportunities, including pitching the Reese site for Amazon HQ2.

Draper and Kramer Vice President Gordon Ziegenhagen, whose firm is part of the Burnham Lakefront team, said Robinson is a serial entrepreneur.

"She's a wealth of knowledge about Bronzeville because she's so good at making herself a part of it. When she finds a need, she wants to find the right party to fill the void or fill it herself, especially with regard to the Bronzeville Metropolis National Heritage Area," Ziegenhagen said.

"No one has really picked up the mantle like she has."

Draper and Kramer President/CEO Forrest Bailey, Powers & Sons Construction Director of Business Development Kelly Powers Baria, Culver's President and CEO Joe Koss, Alderman Sophia King (4th), Culver's franchise owner Baron Waller with his wife, Janeen, brother Byron and nephew and business partner Bryon Waller; Urban Partnership Bank Senior Business Banker Marcia Nicholson, Draper and Kramer Vice President Gordon Ziegenhagen and Culver's co-founder Craig Culver

Draper and Kramer is another pioneer in Bronzeville's revitalization. It started developing in Bronzeville in the 1950s, spurred by a wave of urban redevelopment in Chicago and across the country, and driven by a strong desire to invest in a community that was not seeing private investment.

"Being in Bronzeville is not solely profit-driven," Ziegenhagen said.

Draper and Kramer's Lake Meadows encompasses over 100 acres on the east side of King Drive, from 31st to 35th streets, and falls within the national heritage area's proposed boundaries. Lake Meadows is home to a 193K SF grocery-anchored shopping center and 2,000 apartments. In late 2015, the firm filed plans with the city to add 162K SF of retail, 230 new apartments, hotel and commercial space. LA Fitness opened a 40K SF location at Lake Meadows in March 2015, and Chicago's first Culver's opened at Lake Meadows last month.

Culver's franchise owner Barron Waller said his new store is the next step for Bronzeville retail development. It provides Bronzeville residents with jobs and, more important for Waller, a community gathering space. The store's walls are decorated with artwork by local artists and historic photos from Bronzeville's golden age.

"I grew up in the neighborhood and I know that what residents need here is a sense of ownership in what is happening here," Waller said.

Ziegenhagen said Draper and Kramer's relationship with Bronzeville residents has been generally positive. Most of his career has been spent in the neighborhood, and he has found residents and community groups willing to work with developers because they know firsthand what is missing.

A Future Smart Hub

CTA's Bronzeville/Illinois Institute of Technology Green Line 'L' station.

Robinson said Bronzeville also holds the necessary tech and transportation infrastructure assets to transform the neighborhood into a smart community. Bronzeville is home to the Illinois Institute of Technology. CTA's Red and Green Lines intersect the neighborhood and King Drive is home to several CTA bus routes. The Dan Ryan expressway and Lake Shore Drive provide direct access to downtown. Bronzeville's northern edge, and the Burnham Lakefront site, connect directly to McCormick Place.

The Antero Group worked with BCDP on mapping these assets and lay the foundation for an "Innovation Metropolis" within the heritage area's boundaries. Antero Group Senior Project Manager Andrew Johansson said residents understood they had these assets in place; they just needed the assets mapped.

Arguably the biggest asset Bronzeville has in its favor is an abundance of open lakefront space. Johansson said it is an underused amenity that, developed smartly, can improve the quality of life for Bronzeville residents.

The Burnham Lakefront plan has the potential to bring lasting change to Bronzeville's infrastructure. Early reports indicate the redevelopment will include housing, a tech hub, parkland, a pedestrian walkway to the lake and a new Metra station at 31st Street. All of these details are things Robinson spent years lobbying for. Robinson also wants stronger ties connecting Bronzeville to McCormick Place, which would help encourage tourism and new development while building on the area's cultural past and breaking down barriers. 

"We came here during the Great Migration to find work. Now we need to create our own jobs," Robinson said.