Garden Fresh

courtesy of Zol87/flickr

The Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments in Bronzeville are a sorry sight. At one time, this building was among the city’s largest housing projects. It was built in 1929 by Julius Rosenwald, owner of Sears, Roebuck and Company, at the request of Rosenwald’s friend, Booker T. Washington. Stretching west from Michigan to Wabash and north from 47th to 46th Street, the affordable housing was created to relieve overcrowding after the Great Migration.  Rosenwald–who also funded and served on the board of the Tuskegee Institute, an institution dedicated to improving the education of African-Americans across the country–intended the building to serve as a new beginning for blacks in Chicago. Now, the massive building’s windows are all broken or boarded.

In addition to providing housing, the 400-unit complex originally included fourteen stores (four of which were black-owned) to encourage economic development. During the building’s history, a long list of Bronzeville’s most notable citizens lived in the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments, including musician Quincy Jones, the boxer Joe Louis, and the city’s first black librarian, Vivian Harshe. The massive and ornate building served as one of the cornerstones of Chicago’s Black Metropolis.

As time went on, however, the structure’s fortune changed for the worse. Mismanaged federal funds in the mid-1970s and a change of ownership marked the beginning of several decades of neglect. By the late 1980s, the complex was overrun by poverty and drugs. In the 1990s, problems arising from urban blight, the inability of the new building owner to pay off the structure’s mortgage, and the failure of its drug elimination programs finally forced the condemnation of the building, and by 2000 all tenants had been evicted. By 2003, the National Trust for Historic Places cited the building on its list of the eleven most endangered historic places. The Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments seemed at the end of its life.

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For 25 years, Bobbie Johnson has led the fight to preserve the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments. In the early ’90s, Johnson moved into the housing project as a drug elimination coordinator under a Housing and Urban Development program. “It was like New Jack City,” she said, referring to living conditions in the apartments at the time. “It was a big drug business in a small habitat.”  Living in the complex until the building was condemned, Johnson became strongly established in the Garden Apartments community as a voice for change through her efforts as a drug elimination coordinator.  Having previously worked as a nurse, her motivation stemmed from a passion for caring for people in need. “I came to preserve the humans,” she says. Since the evictions, former residents have rallied around her to fight for the building’s preservation.

Her relentless pursuit to save the building led her from organization to organization over the past decade, in search of support.  “After a while I came to understand how politics work and how the community works,” she explained.  Beginning with the support of the Chicago Urban League, Johnson leaned on an array of grassroots methods and community groups to spread the word in the community about the value of the building, while at the same time attempting to sell the economic value to private companies.

After over a decade of struggle, a deal potentially worth $170 million has been reached to preserve the building. The potential for commercial development coupled with the activism of those like Johnson attracted the attention of Landwhite Developers LLC, who have purchased the building with the intention of renovating it. The deal will draw on funding from as many as fourteen sources–including the City of Chicago, which has already approved $58.6 million in revenue bonds for the new project.

The new plan for the building is similar to the original, in design and spirit. The renovation will include new community spaces, including a daycare and community service offices, and commercial properties, echoing the original goals of the project. “I didn’t spend 25 years fighting to save a building,” says Johnson. “I did it to leave something for those who come after me.”

Walking around the area immediately surrounding the apartment complex today, one can see empty lots and boarded-up buildings–reminders of the stark reality of recent strife. But when ground is broken this coming spring, the dream of Julius Rosenwald, Bobbie Johnson, and others will be reborn. Johnson plans to invite community musicians to perform alongside Quincy Jones and Wynton Marsalis when the building finally reopens It would be a fitting tribute to the building’s legacy, or perhaps more so to the hope for its future.


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