The Bronze Age: Harold Lucas fights to preserve Bronzeville’s historic heritage

Harold Lucas; photo by Sam Bowman

Harold Lucas; photo by Sam Bowman

Of all Chicago’s neighborhoods, Bronzeville boasts some of the most hotly contested real estate in the city. Developers of the South Loop’s upscale condos threaten to build their way down State Street, gentrifying Bronzeville from the north. The University of Chicago campus extends in an ever-encompassing radius from the south. And now, with the possibility of a 2016 Olympics promising extensive redevelopment in the neighborhood, territory wars are set to escalate.

Standing in the crossfire of the land-use debate is Harold Lucas, one of the men who’s worked to put Bronzeville on the map–and he wants to keep it there. “In Europe they preserve buildings for 600 years, but here, we can’t get past the first 100 years before we want to tear them down,” Lucas says matter-of-factly, a hint of consternation marking his voice.

Lucas, a vigorous 66-year-old in wire-rimmed spectacles and a mod, multi-colored scarf, has been crusading to save the neighborhood’s African-American architectural history for more than thirty years. Considered variously a rabble-rouser, an activist, and an expert, he runs the non-profit Black Metropolis Convention & Tourism Council and the Bronzeville Online Visitor Information Center.

Granted, in an area where vacant lots perch next to antique mansions and dilapidated buildings surround million-dollar new construction, it seems as if this unruly patchwork would resist any imposition of order by city planners. But where one person sees urban decay, another sees opportunity in the form of cookie-cutter condos. The truth is, Bronzeville’s gentrification has been carried out quietly under the radar for more than a decade. Visible evidence is only just beginning to show. At 35th and State, for example, one can wash down a Jimmy John’s sandwich with a venti mocha from the Starbucks next door.

“Under the banner of worrying about women getting raped or buildings being drug houses, I’ve seen the wrecking ball of urban renewal crash through gorgeous terra cotta inlays,” says Lucas. “The stuff they’re replacing it with is garbage. Folks buy it and then they hear their neighbors making love next door ‘cause the walls are so thin.”

For some, the term “gentrification” leaves an acrid taste in the mouth; for others, the taste of caramel macchiatos, but revamping this district has undeniably come at the cost of the existing local culture. What’s not so obvious, however, is that when contractors knock down “old” buildings to make way for new development, Bronzeville loses precious pieces of its history brick by brick. What’s at stake? Preservationists regard this borough as the most historically significant black neighborhood in Chicago. It was the city’s first African-American enclave–home to musician Louis Armstrong–and its dense array of nightclubs and churches birthed strains of jazz, blues, and gospel.

Louis Armstrong’s sepia-toned photograph hangs in Harold Lucas’s airy upstairs office in an elegantly restored 1920s building that Lucas helped to preserve, It’s near the corner of 35th Street and King Drive, across from the White Castle hamburger restaurant. Next to Armstrong, a photo of a young black woman wearing aviator goggles bears the caption “Bessie Coleman, 1892-1926, manicurist at White Sox Barbershop, first African-American female pilot.”

With walls displaying antique photographs and yellowing books, their pages slowly decomposing, Lucas’s office serves as a museum and a gathering place. On any given night, impassioned black men–some of Chicago’s most famous activists–might meet to watch CNN footage and discuss Obama’s latest policy, and community members often convene here to discuss local issues.

Not only has Lucas worked to preserve and restore historic buildings located in the rectangle bounded by 18th and 51st Streets between Lake Shore Drive and the Dan Ryan Expressway, but he also campaigned tirelessly for national and local recognition of the area as a historic district. The National Trust for Historic Preservation now recognizes Bronzeville as the “Black Metropolis National Register Historic District” and after a thirteen-year struggle with city officials, according to Lucas, the city designated it as a “landmark historic district” in 1996. However, the city’s Commission on Chicago Landmarks legally protects only nine buildings in the area.

During the day Lucas conducts three-hour bus tours that begin downtown under the towering Ebony/JET Magazine building and end at Obama’s house, stopping at upwards of twenty historic sites along the way.

“See that sign?” asks Lucas on a recent tour, as we drive through McCormick Place. He’s pointing at an enormous surfboard-shaped sign emblazoned with the word “Bronzeville.” The sign welcomes visitors into the neighborhood. “We worked hard to get that up. For a long time, the city didn’t even see this as a legitimate neighborhood, and the South Loop tried to annex us,” he recalls.

An historic building in Bronzeville; photo by Sam Bowman

An historic building in Bronzeville; photo by Sam Bowman

To be clear, Lucas is not against gentrification. For him, it’s more about saving the history that already exists. “I’d like to see our commercial business strips completely revitalized, with upscale businesses selling authentic merchandise,” Lucas says. Instead of tearing historic buildings down, he thinks developers should restore old buildings and put them to new uses–“adaptive reuse,” in architect-speak. Case in point: the historic Michael Reese hospital, whose future may be imperiled if the Olympics come to town. Preservationists want officials to use the existing hospital buildings as dormitories for Olympic athletes instead of tearing them down.

Chicago ranks as the country’s most segregated major metropolis, according to a December 2008 Chicago Tribune article, and as it stands now, Bronzeville’s population hovers between 80 and 90 percent African-American based on census data. Whether impending gentrification will change the racial mix of the neighborhood is anyone’s guess.

“I’m not willing to give up the culture in my community for integration. At heart I’m a nationalist about my neighborhood,” remarks Lucas. “Not that I’m a racist, trying to say, ‘White folks stay out’ and progressive whites, let me assure you, have been here for ten or fifteen years,” Lucas says. “They say, ‘I see the house. I like it. It’s safe enough. I’m movin’ in,’ and on that basis you can’t block nobody out.”

Lucas’s intimate knowledge of the neighborhood stems from having spent most of his life on the South Side. He was born in Bronzeville in 1943 and lived at the Ida B. Wells public housing, in “the projects.” Today, coincidentally, loud bulldozers shove mounds of dirt across the site where the Ida B. Wells complex used to be, before it was demolished. “My mom was a welfare mother,” Lucas explains. “I’m not a proponent of welfare, because it disenfranchises you inherently. You’re sitting, waiting on an inadequate sum of money to try to survive on. I thought it was a dehumanizing reality for my mother.”

The Ida B. Wells complex was one of several housing projects built between 1940 and the early 1960s along a two-mile stretch of State Street in Bronzeville. This stretch generated “the largest and longest public housing tract in the world” according to Columbia College history professor Dominic A. Pacyga. The projects (which at one time housed the size of a small city–more than 20,000 people) eventually fell into neglect, concentrating poverty and crime in a relatively small swath. In 2000, the city embarked on a controversial plan to bulldoze and replace the housing with less dense mixed-use units. The new mixed-use housing includes one-third market-rate (read: “traditional” condo units), one-third affordable housing and one-third public housing. However, in the interim, as the buildings are being demolished, the original residents have been forced to relocate outside of Bronzeville. Some charge that there hasn’t been enough oversight in helping the residents relocate. And others worry that if the lower income residents leave, they might not come back, which would catapult the neighborhood on a trajectory to uncontrolled upscale gentrification.

As for Harold Lucas, he moved from the Ida B. projects and spent his adolescence in Hyde Park, and this is where his burgeoning interest in activism began. “I did Hy-Y [Hyde Park YMCA] things. I kept the gang boys off the little middle-class kids. I ran the roller-skating there. I had a very multicultural adolescence, which helps to frame my personality,” recalls Lucas.

By his 20s and 30s, Lucas recounts, “I worked on a long spree of nightclub operations on the South Side. Impresario-type stuff called Brothers Incorporated.” Chuckling, Lucas adds, “This was when we first started wearing the big naturals [afros]. We had a logo with a fist in it and two spears across it and it was really nice art direction.”

Lucas’s popularity grew as he organized music events and, eventually, he and his partners managed to score a lease on the old Historic Society Building downtown at Ontario and Dearborn. “We rented it out two nights a week and in the process got to be the number one club there,” says Lucas. “We had live performances: jazz, R&B, Herbie Hancock, Earth, Wind & Fire in its early stages. Folk like that.” The club shut down a year and a half later, when “the syndicate [the mafia] closed in.”
Lucas came back to the South Side looking for a place to open a large music venue and found the Eighth Regiment Armory Building. It was abandoned. “I started looking at the history of it and that’s when I got hooked–into community organizing, historic preservation… the whole nine yards. During that same period of time, I was homeless and living in the Wabash YMCA,” he says.

Lucas successfully saved the Armory from the wrecking ball, though he didn’t convert it into a music club. Today, the Eighth Regiment Armory is a public high school called the Chicago Military Academy at Bronzeville. History class stays in session all day long.

It’s hard to say whether Bronzeville or the man behind it has a more fabled history. But one thing is for sure: as the area rides out waves of gentrification, and the days count down to the likely acceptance of Chicago’s Olympics Bid, it’s heartening to know that one brave soul fights the good fight–saving history and his neighborhood, one block at a time.

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