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Rebuilding Bronzeville: Black Chicago’s post-pandemic future starts on the south lakefront

Block-by-block redevelopment is the surest way to bring in people and businesses to strengthen Chicago’s black communities, which COVID-19 has hit especially hard.

Bronzeville has many strengths, including a committed middle-class base, but lacks a thriving commercial district.
Bronzeville has many strengths, including a committed middle-class base, but lacks a thriving commercial district.
Max Herman / Sun-Times

Developer Phil Beckham is on a mission to rebuild Bronzeville, the heart of Chicago’s African American communities.

“The pandemic has uncovered some ugly truths about the lack of access to good healthcare and affordable housing in the black community,” says Beckham, who’s lived in Bronzeville on and off for 55 years. “I’ve always focused on providing what’s needed in my neighborhood. A lot of people have moved away. My goal is to bring them back.”

That’s Leon Walker’s aim, too.

“We want to encourage others who grew up in these communities, like I did, to invest in the neighborhood,” says Walker, another South Side developer. “Now is the time to return home.”

A growing consensus among Chicago developers and planners seems to be that concentrated, block-by-block redevelopment is the surest way to bring in the people and businesses needed to strengthen the city’s black communities, which have disproportionately borne the brunt of COVID-19.

Beckham’s current project is 43 Green, a mixed-use development centered around the 43rd Street CTA Green Line stop being done as a joint venture with the Habitat Company. The first phase of the project, to be built on a city-owned lot, calls for an eight-story building with 91 apartments — half affordable housing, half market rate — built over ground-floor shops.

If that goes well, Beckham plans two other buildings nearby. A townhouse development by another builder recently was completed across the street.

“It’s all about density,” Beckham says. “That’s a major part of keeping retail strong.”

A good retail mix will attract new residents.

“A lot of young professionals live elsewhere in Chicago because they can’t find the amenities they want in Bronzeville,” Beckham says. “Our focus is to add some spark and bring in new faces and energy.”

City Hall seems to have come to the same realization. Mayor Lori Lightfoot has created the INVEST South/West program to catalyze redevelopment of commercial corridors in 10 neighborhoods on the South Side and West Side. Unlike previous, scattershot efforts, the idea is to focus economic development efforts in selected areas, signaling to private business interests that these are good places to invest.

“Revitalization strategies work best when you get synergy,” says Maurice Cox, the city’s commissioner of planning and development. “You have to create an ecosystem, with one investment next to another. That generates momentum and encourages others to join you.”

The most promising of the 10 targeted communities is greater Bronzeville, from Lake Michigan to the Dan Ryan Expressway and 26th Street to 51st Street. The area has many strengths, including a committed middle-class base. What it doesn’t have is a thriving commercial district.

It needs one to improve the quality of life for current residents and to help the neighborhood — and ultimately the whole South Side — attract newcomers.

Bringing in new people is essential. The 2020 census is likely to show that Chicago lost more than 135,000 black residents over the past decade, offsetting population gains by other groups. That’s on top of a decline of 181,000 black people in the 2010 census.

It’s not enough to just stop those losses. Lightfoot says she wants to boost Chicago’s population to 3 million — 300,000 more than now.

To do that, the city needs to draw people from elsewhere. Looking to the past as a guide, it will largely be college graduates who decide to make Chicago their new home. The percentage of Chicagoans with college degrees has grown from 17% in 1980 to almost 40% now. But most of those college grads weren’t born in Chicago. According to census data, 56% weren’t even born in Illinois.

Of the Illinois college grads, a reasonable assumption is that the number from Chicago reflects the city’s share of the state’s population. That means 90% of college grads now living in Chicago — the chief drivers of the city’s resurgence — were born elsewhere.

The challenge is to make the South Side as attractive as other parts of the city to college grads.

It can be done. At a time when Chicago’s African American communities are beset by violent crime and plunging population, the number of black Chicagoans with college degrees is going up, not down. Since 2010, the number of black college grads in the city has increased by about 15,000, or 15%, vs. 27% growth for the city overall. Still, this shows the potential is there.

Neighborhoods all over the South Side and West Side need commercial revitalization. Bronzeville — because of its lakefront location relatively near downtown — is the most important.

In 1980, Chicago’s college grads were mostly clustered in a narrow band along the lakefront. The revitalized area — a collection of neighborhoods with high education and middle income or better — pushed inland from there and now takes in much of the North Side and Northwest Side.

Ed Zotti / Sun-Times

On the south lakefront, progress has been more uneven. Still, with only a couple of gaps, neighborhoods with a high proportion of college grads now extend all the way down to Woodlawn.

If the North Side pattern repeats, once revitalization is firmly established in Bronzeville, it will gradually spread to other parts of the South Side.

A critical step is establishing a lively business district — the equivalent of the Clark Street/Broadway corridor on the North Side.

In the 1970s and 1980s, Broadway was the heart of what was then called New Town. It was — and is — busy and walkable, with lots of shops and people. College grads who moved to Chicago in that era — like me — typically spent at least a few years living in the vicinity. It was their port of entry into Chicago, their first taste of big-city life.

Bronzeville needs a bustling corridor like that if it’s to be a point of entry for college grads moving to the South Side. Now, it has a path to getting one.

Neighborhood redevelopment isn’t the only thing that needs to happen to rebuild the South Side. College grads don’t come to Chicago just because it’s fun. They’re also looking for jobs and opportunity.

Among U.S. metro areas with the most African American residents, the one having the highest percentage of black college grads is Washington, D.C., with 35% — higher than the national average. The reason is the federal government is based there, with its pick of the nation’s top talent.

Chicago doesn’t have that kind of hiring power, but it does have an expanding downtown economy, which could absorb a lot of black college grads.

“There’s a lot of things moving and growing here,” Beckham says. “I’m really happy to be a part of revitalizing my community.”