Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood should be national heritage area

A heritage area can be a vibrant economic engine and serve as a living monument to the Great Migration and Chicago’s Black Metropolis that rose in its wake.

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A monument honoring Ida B. Wells is unveiled in June 2021 at East 37th Street and Langley Avenue in Bronzeville.

A monument honoring Ida B. Wells is unveiled in June 2021 at East 37th Street and Langley Avenue in Bronzeville.

Ashlee Rezin/Sun-Times

I remember, as a kid growing up in Bronzeville, the rumbling of the L trains going back and forth to the jobs provided by the stockyards, the sounds of jazz emanating from the bars and clubs just off the boulevard, the smells of soulful dishes and sweets from bakeries and cafes, the calls of the men hawking everything from socks to watermelons, and the spirituality of the gospel sound on Sundays.

Today, Bronzeville has new soulful cafés, coffee houses with fancy pastries, a brewery and wine culture, new assets in the form of the old Forum revisited, the Emmett Till House and Muddy Waters House museums, the elegant Ida B. Wells Monument, spectacular plans for open spaces on the lakefront, and so much more. 

Opinion bug


This year is an important time for our community, our city, our heritage, and the culture of all Chicago. A bill recently introduced in the House by U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, D-Illinois, (HR 670) and in the Senate by Sen. Dick Durbin, D-Illinois, (S 511) would establish the Bronzeville-Black Metropolis National Heritage Area as a living monument to the Great Migration and Chicago’s Black Metropolis that rose in its wake.

Through the Act, the Department of the Interior will provide financial assistance for 15 years to the Black Metropolis National Heritage Commission as we tell the story of the Great Migration, when some six million African Americans migrated from southern states, where they faced racism and oppression under Jim Crow segregation, to northern cities like Chicago in search of better jobs and more freedom. That story, which lasted for decades from about 1915 to 1970, will be told through tours, books and lectures, and work with young people, who will learn about their heritage, appreciate it, and carry on this important work. 

As a member of the team that has been promoting this community, conducting tours, and working to preserve the community’s cultural assets through renovation, upgrade and planning, I want to push the idea that a metropolitan National Heritage Area can be a vibrant economic engine.

The City of Chicago recognized the importance of the cultural heritage economy back in 1997, when it established The Black Metropolis-Bronzeville District as a city landmark consisting of eight historic buildings and one monument. Since then, the signage visible from the Dan Ryan and Stevenson expressways, as well as what is now Jean Baptiste Pointe DuSable Lake Shore Drive, denotes the historic district for visitors and locals. Some of those people know the history of the area, and some of them have yet to recognize it. We are ready to welcome you no matter whether you once lived in Bronzeville, pass through it, or if it’s a grand tourism destination for you. 

We receive all sorts of requests for walking tours, guide tours and cultural talks. When we are asked whether we can do a tour based on the literature of the Chicago Renaissance (not only Harlem had a renaissance) we say ‘Yes!’ Let’s visit the places where Richard Wright wrote and opined, where Gwendolyn Brooks lived and dazzled us with her poet laureate verses, where Lorraine Hansberry artfully dramatized life in the “promised land.” Let’s tour the places where the giants of jazz and blues attracted North Side residents curious about the music and the vibing people. Let’s trace Martin Luther King Jr.’s campaign for open housing and learn about who helped him and who opposed him. We have stories to tell, places to show you, and conversations to share about the present and the future of Bronzeville and Chicago. 

Let’s get this bill passed, Come see, hear and feel the story of the Great Migration and the transformation of a Black Belt into a Black Metropolis Community of the Future.

Bernard C. Turner is executive director, Black Metropolis National Heritage Area Commission.

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