Bronzeville

Maggie Sivit

At the intersection of King and 26th, a fifteen-foot statue waves commuters through the “Gateway to Bronzeville,” a suitcase dangling in his spare hand. The figure is a monument to the early 20th-century Great Migration, a massive resettling that sparked a black cultural renaissance rivaled only by Harlem. Out of the upswing emerged such luminaries as Ida B. Wells, Bessie Coleman, Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, and Louis Armstrong. While the cultural and intellectual products of the era spread around the world, segregationist zoning regulations strictly defined the boundaries of African-American settlement, and Bronzeville became the heart of Chicago’s “Black Belt.” In 1962, the Chicago Housing Authority constructed the sprawling Robert Taylor Homes along Bronzeville’s western edge, at the time the nation’s largest public housing complex with a peak population of 27,000. Poor design and services contributed to high unemployment and crime rates, which inevitably spilled into the community as a whole. Since the project was demolished (the last home fell in 2007) and the city implemented its controversial plan for mixed-income redevelopment, residents have stepped in to preserve their heritage. New boutiques, restaurants, and hangouts have gradually begun to emerge out of the buildings that once held the thriving Black Metropolis. While the golden days of poets and jazz are gone, today a bold community is committed to keeping its history, independence, and ingenuity alive. These days, there is a renewed sheen to the streets of Bronzeville.

Best Hidden Nightclub
Meyer’s Ace Hardware
Unless you’re in sore need of a garden hoe, hardware stores don’t usually inspire a lot of excitement. Nevertheless, any jazz aficionado setting foot in this Ace should find their heartbeat quickening in tempo. The building opened as the Sunset Café in 1921, drawing headliners such as Carroll Dickerson and a young Louis Armstrong. As the club grew in popularity, Sarah Vaughan, Nat “King” Cole, and Charlie Parker all took the stage. Dale and David Meyers, current owners, are the second generation to manage the hardware store–their father bought the old club from Louis Armstrong’s manager in the ’70s. The Meyers brothers are always happy to show customers their office, a portion of the stage whose accordion-shaped wall still holds its art deco backdrop. If you’re lucky, they’ll pull out a drawer of yellowed photos, menus, and sheet music before showing you around the second floor, which holds more artifacts from the old venue. Walking back through the store, you can faintly hear the syncopated clops of feet jitterbugging to Cab Calloway or faded echoes of Earl “Fatha” Hines working the ivories. 315 E. 35th St. Monday-Saturday, 9am-6pm; Sunday, 11am-2pm. (312)225-5687 (Bonnie Fan)

Best Biscuits
Ms. Biscuits
Former Chicago Mayor Eugene Sawyer was once a regular at Ms. Biscuits’ small storefront along South Chicago Avenue. But after thirty years in business, those doors shut for good in 2002. Six years later, Ms. Biscuits’ nephew Dylan Reeves reopened the diner across from an early 20th-century baked-goods factory near Washington Park. These days, customers get seated on small round tables in a warm interior decorated by still lifes on exposed brick. The wait can be long, attributed to growing popularity (rumor has it that they’re extending their hours while adding Johnny Cakes and fried green tomatoes to their menu), but the wait staff couldn’t be more hardworking. The menu features classic breakfast food, including steaks, turkey, salmon croquette, and pancakes with a greater circumference than that of a fat baby’s waistline. Of course, the buttered griddle biscuits still follow the original and well-guarded Ms. Biscuits recipe. 5431 S. Wabash Ave. Daily, 5am-2pm. (773)268-8088 (Bonnie Fan)

Best Comedian-In-Chief
Brian Babylon
Brian Babylon knows how to please a crowd. In one set, he’ll get the house laughing at his ability to exploit white guilt in order to secure more paid vacation time. In the next, they’ll be reeling from his impersonation of that Jamaican singer on the Green Line. His “Obama” is so dead-on you may have heard his voice on BBC America talking about the South Side in the President’s characteristically clipped baritone. For Babylon, it all started when comedy club Jokes and Notes opened in 2006 on 47th and King. Since his first sets there as the “Prince of Bronzeville,” he has stood onstage everywhere from the Laugh Factory in LA to London’s Jongleurs. Still active at Jokes and Notes, which he considers the best open mic in Chicago, Babylon helps to bring in comics from all over the city. You can hear him on the air during his Morning AMP show with WEBZ-affiliated Vocalo 89.5 FM or as a guest on NPR’s “Wait Wait…Don’t Tell Me.” Of course, it’s best to catch him off-air at one of his “5th Thursdays” shows at Jokes and Notes. Find the Prince online at vocalo.org/blogs/user/brian (Bonnie Fan)

Best Pre-Game Popcorn
Mother Butter’s Popcorn
Step into Mother Butter’s storefront and your nostrils will fill with the warm scent of Tim and Jennifer Donnelly’s little popcorn kitchen, where a bit of New Orleans punctuates both the décor and the corn. Butter blends such as Louisiana Hot or Jerk Seasoning and gourmet popcorn flavors like Bayou and Cajun are available to sample. The store also offers a few Southern-style sweets like “gophers”–caramel pecans covered in chocolate. Taking an old-school “culinary” approach, Mother Butter’s dashes each batch of popcorn–kept small for taste quality control–with a blend of spices that accentuates the different textures of the various corn varieties. For those unable to choose between the sweet homemade caramel and the salty cheddar, score both with the Chicago mix.” Located a stone’s throw away from U.S. Cellular Field, Mother Butter’s can elevate your Sox game fare from tasty to decadent. Plus, bags of the good stuff start at only one buck. 17 W. 35th St. Monday-Friday, 10:30am-8pm; Saturday, 11am-7pm; only open on Sundays when the White Sox play. (773)548-7677 (Bonnie Fan)

Most Heritage on the Walls
South Side Community Arts Center 
One of the few remaining WPA-commissioned art centers, this brownstone building stands as a testimony to the cultural influence of the Bronzeville community. The late Margaret Burroughs, co-founder and renowned artist, described the “mile of dimes” it took to buy the former manor and open the center in 1941. Both artisans and community members–from churchgoers to bootleggers–walked that mile until the doors opened. The center has both catalyzed and weathered social change throughout the civil rights era, remaining a haven for African American culture. Over the years, the center has hosted important showings of work by Charles White, William Carter, Eldzier Cortor, and George Neal. Inside, the original New Bauhaus-style interior maintains the holes that once held the artwork of these legends, now ready to support the neighborhood’s next generation of artists. 3831 S. Michigan Ave. Wednesday-Friday, 12-5pm; Saturday, 9am-5pm; Sunday, 1pm-5pm. (773)373-1026 (Bonnie Fan)

1 comment for “Bronzeville

  1. stacey lowe
    December 4, 2012 at 12:40 pm

    I need alot of information on the history of Bronzeville community, please contact me via email or cell phone 773.931.6981

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