“Buzzing! This place was buzzing!” Mr. Young, the tour guide, shouted as our bus plowed north on Cottage Grove from 43rd Street. “And I mean buzzing, like people everywhere, twenty-four-seven.” Within the first few minutes of this tour sponsored by the Quad Communities Development Corporation, our tiny group learned about Mr. Young’s first kiss, the sunrise walks he took with his family along the lakefront, and his grandfather’s yellow Cadillac. When a woman mentioned that she, too, was born and raised in the neighborhood, he immediately responded, “Tell us about it!” On this tour, entitled “From Civil War to Civil Rights and Beyond,” nothing was irrelevant. Together, we reconfigured the story of the neighborhood not as a straight timeline of historical events, but as an overlapping narrative of the people who have made Bronzeville their home.
As one of these residents, Mr. Young’s personal history couldn’t be separated from the famous historical institutions of the Black Metropolis. He hopped back and forth across the front seats of the bus as he delivered a running narration on cultural landmarks large and small, from the headquarters of the Chicago Defender to the basement watermelon restaurant that he remembers near Giles Avenue and 37th Street. Barely catching his breath, he reminisced about dressing up to visit the Sutherland Hotel, where Miles Davis, Dizzy Gillespie, and John Coltrane all once played. When we stopped to admire the stain glass windows in Ebenezer Missionary Baptist Church, Young even picked a fight with some congregants about the “true” home of gospel music, arguing in favor of Pilgrim Baptist.
“Brooonzeville” rolled smoothly off Mr. Young’s tongue with a round and ringing “O,” betraying the distinctive pride of a local. He paused afterwards, as if to emphasize that even the very name of his community was beautiful. But a sigh and a sobering qualifier soon followed the pronouncement. “It was an incredible place to live,” he said, choosing his tense carefully. He openly shared his worries, mentioning the pervasive presence of drugs and the Chicago Housing Authority’s liberal use of eminent domain to “reclaim” the homes of residents for larger projects like lakefront condominium towers. But if Mr. Young can do anything about it, the great Black Metropolis will remain the “buzzing” place that he remembers. As the bus slowed to a halt he explained, “My whole mission is to keep Bronzeville alive, and that’s what I’m trying to do today.”