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Recreation center part of Bronzeville ‘renaissance,’ mayor says

The new Bronzeville Arts and Recreation Center opens Saturday and is one of many recent and upcoming developments to the historic neighborhood. | Jacob Wittich/Sun-Times

The new Bronzeville Arts and Recreation Center that opens Saturday will not only provide the community with resources it never had, but also catalyze the “renaissance of Bronzeville,” Mayor Rahm Emanuel said Friday.

The Arts and Recreation Center in Ellis Park, at 35th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue, has been more than a decade in the making. But it wasn’t until 2014 that design and funding plans were developed and 2015 that construction began.

The $19 million Chicago Park District facility has a pool, gym and fitness center. There’s also arts and community spaces, offices and a rooftop terrace.

“This is symbolic of a whole host of things that are happening in this renaissance of Bronzeville,” Emanuel said. “That’s what the community aspired toward and it’s being realized right in front of us.”

Once known as the Black Metropolis or Chicago’s Black Belt for being the center of the city’s African-American culture, Bronzeville has suffered economically in recent decades, like many other South Side communities.

But that could be changing. The city has issued building permits to more than $1.9 billion worth of projects in the Bronzeville and South Lakefront areas since 2011, officials say.

Those projects include a series of new pedestrian bridges over Lake Shore Drive and Metra tracks, to improve access to Lake Michigan.

One, at 35th Street, will be finished this summer, officials say. After that, work will begin on a new bridge at 41st Street. The city is designing replacements for pedestrian bridges at 43rd, 31st and 39th streets, slated to be complete by the end of 2018.

A new Mariano’s grocery store will open on Martin Luther King Drive by the end of this summer, creating jobs and spurring other development.

Emanuel said he hopes the city’s investments in Bronzeville will influence other businesses to operate in the area as well.

“If the public sector makes some critical investments in key areas, the private sector will have confidence to go invest,” he said. “They’ll make key investments if we show them that’s a smart place to invest.”

The Chicago Department of Transportation has also begun a series of road resurfacing projects that should continue through the rest of the year.

Monique Scott, park supervisor of the Bronzeville Arts and Recreation Center. | Jacob Wittich/Sun-Times
Monique Scott, park supervisor of the Bronzeville Arts and Recreation Center. | Jacob Wittich/Sun-Times

Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, executive director of the Quad Communities Development Corporation, which helped plan the center, agreed with the mayor that city investment in Bronzeville is revitalizing the neighborhood.

“At one time [Bronzeville] was heavily populated by public housing, buildings were deteriorating and people were living in unspeakable conditions,” Johnson-Gabriel said. “We’ve turned the page on that and turned it into mixed-income and mixed-use housing. Now we’ve got all these new additions, so it’s definitely a renaissance in Bronzeville.”

Monique Scott, park supervisor at the Arts and Recreation Center, said the new facility gives Bronzeville access to services it always lacked.

“This is something that’s never been done here before,” she said. “There’s never been an indoor pool in this area. There’s never been an indoor rooftop that you could just overlook Bronzeville. It’s an urban oasis here.”

Shelly Samuels and her 8-year-old son, Jordan, who both live in Bronzeville. | Jacob Wittich/Sun-Times
Shelly Samuels and her 8-year-old son, Jordan, who both live in Bronzeville. | Jacob Wittich/Sun-Times

Shelly Samuels, 29, of Bronzeville, called the recent and upcoming developments in the Bronzeville neighborhood a “blessing” while picking her 8-year-old son, Jordan, up from his summer class at the Arts and Recreation Center. Kids in those classes have been in the building since earlier this week, but the building didn’t open to the rest of the public until Saturday.

“The recreation center, the Mariano’s opening up and other things like that show that we can grow everything around that,” Samuels said. “I know change is in the beginning stages around here, but this change is giving us better jobs, better things for young people to do, more opportunities overall and more attention.”