I still mourn Michael Reese Hospital. Yet in its place I’m seeing a rebirth.
The medical center closed in 2009, and decades have passed since I walked its halls as a staff nurse. But I haven’t quit grieving, because Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood did not lose just a hospital when Reese shuttered. It lost a crucial community anchor committed to social justice.
That said, the development that will occupy the former Michael Reese site — the Bronzeville Lakefront project — has the potential to carry forward the hospital’s mission.
To understand the magnitude of the medical center’s significance, you may need a quick historical refresher. After the Hebrew Relief Association’s hospital was destroyed in the Great Fire of 1871, real estate developer Michael Reese, who died in 1877, left funds in his will to build a new hospital, which was completed in 1880. Michael Reese Hospital was open to everyone, regardless of nationality or race, at the request of Reese’s heirs.
Beyond its role as a beacon for community health and accessible care, Michael Reese became one of the nation’s leading medical innovators. It produced the first incubator station for premature babies, a cardiovascular institute that helped confirm the link between diet and coronary artery disease, and pioneering research on metabolism, gastroenterology and pathology.
The demographics of the neighborhood around the hospital had changed by the 1940s and ’50s, and as a result, many urged Michael Reese to relocate. The hospital rejected those calls. Instead, it formed the South Side Planning Board with the Illinois Institute of Technology and other institutions in 1946 to develop a community plan to reverse Bronzeville’s economic and physical decline.
The hospital continued its practice of community outreach over the decades. (One example: In the 1970s, when new research linked childhood radiation treatment to diseases presenting in adulthood, Michael Reese tracked down former patients who had been subject to radiation treatment, prompting other hospitals to do the same.)
During my nine years working at Michael Reese, I bore witness to the shameful legacy of poverty and segregation on Chicago’s South Side, and the toll that took on Black residents’ health and wellbeing. I also saw the hospital’s emphasis on addressing both the medical and social needs of the community, patients and families.
Michael Reese integrated licensed clinical social workers who went beyond the institution’s walls. Say a patient didn’t have a stove; a social worker would try to set them up with a hot plate. Say a child had a chronic disease — a social worker would check in with the family to ensure they were following the treatment plan. Long before “social determinants of health” was part of common medical parlance, Michael Reese understood that the places where people live, learn, work and play affect a wide range of health risks and outcomes.
While Michael Reese is no longer with us, its aspirations to improve health equity are alive in the Bronzeville Lakefront development. The project is grounded in the concept of regenerating the health of people, community and planet — bringing transformational economic opportunities and investments that enable a healthy lifestyle.
The Bronzeville Lakefront megadevelopment will create more than 75,000 jobs that provide stability and wealth-building opportunities to South Siders. Bronzeville Lakefront will give residents nearly 10 acres of green space. Parks, bike paths and other natural landscapes encourage physical activity. Parkway trees are a shield from heat stroke and an invitation to get out and walk. The plan improves roadways, sidewalks and public transit, giving residents active transportation choices that other neighborhoods take for granted.
Importantly, the development will be anchored by the Chicago ARC Innovation Center, a life sciences hub that will turn scientific discoveries into scalable health innovations. The Chicago ARC promises to forge relationships in the life sciences community to bolster health equity across the globe. However, to be an engaged, productive member of the South Side, it must also harness its research to address the health issues of Bronzeville and under-resourced neighborhoods nearby.
The life expectancy of Chicagoans in areas experiencing economic hardship is five years lower overall; in the Douglas community area, which includes Bronzeville, life expectancy is about 72 years, compared to 82 years on the Near North Side. A healthy community must prevent disease, not just treat it. Ample employment opportunities, secure housing, nutritious food, public safety, accessible transportation, robust education and spaces for recreation all contribute to community wellness.
In my role as the CEO of Access Community Health Network, which has health centers throughout Chicago’s South and West sides, it is abundantly clear to me that public health encompasses so much more than genetic makeup or specific medical interventions. (Case in point: Many advocates recognize violent crime as a sign of inadequate public health.) To achieve healthcare equality, we must consider the totality of people’s lives, not just their medical charts.
Bronzeville Lakefront is an opportunity to pick up the gauntlet of Michael Reese, to show that public health, social justice and economic development go hand in hand to achieve structural change. Michael Reese made great strides in its efforts to create a healthy community. My hope is that Bronzeville Lakefront will continue to carry the torch forward, lighting the way toward a more equitable Chicago.
Donna Thompson is CEO of Access Community Health Network.
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