Feel Like Going Home

Photo by Taro Matsuno

photo by Taro Matsuno

“Hello, hello, hello!”

Chris Toepfer calls into the dusty dark from atop his ladder, but nothing stirs. Broken glass lies at the top of the stoop, before the painted wood panels that cover the front door. On them, in gray lettering, “Waters, 4339–Muddy” identifies the house’s former resident.

The Muddy Waters house used to have beautiful screen doors with wrought-iron flamingos, a decorative eccentricity noted by its many visitors. The wood panels are painted to imitate those screen doors, delicate vines creeping upward to frame the two flamingos that serve as the centerpiece. From above them, it appears that someone has pulled down the window above the door, frame and all, shattering it on the ground. The painted birds, boastful in their pink plumage, are defiant towards the broken glass at their feet.

Toepfer is the artist behind those painted flamingos, and the president of The Neighborhood Foundation, which decorates boarded up homes across the city. He is also currently the house’s steward, but his responsibilities are mostly limited to stopping by on a weekly basis to see if anyone has tried to break in. This time, it seems that no one has made it inside.

Above the entryway, a red X emblazoned on the façade of the house signals to firefighters and emergency responders that the structure is not secure. Toepfer explains that it’s a sign that does not bode well for the house’s future. “Sometimes they do that to speed up the process of getting the house torn down.”

Due to its disrepair, the house is already slated to appear before housing court. To be clear, the city has stated that they do not wish the house to be torn down. Instead, the housing court will focus on ways to bring the property into compliance with the building code. But the question needs to be asked: Why is the house in this state?

It’s the year 1954. Muddy Waters records “Hoochie Coochie Man,” and it’s his biggest hit to date. The song smolders with brawny sexuality, seethes with the masculine and the mystical. It peaks at #8 on the Billboard Black Singles chart, and the gigs that follow this new-found exposure lead to a modest windfall in cash for Waters. His stepson, Charles Williams, credits the song with the purchase of the house. Waters even quits his day job, no longer needing to make deliveries for the Westerngrade Venetian Blinds Company in the industrial South Loop.

Waters was among a growing number of African Americans buoyed by Chicago’s rapid industrial expansion. Back then, restrictive covenants and racial segregation meant that Bronzeville was a neighborhood of great economic diversity, with pockets of upper-class homeowners next to extensive city housing projects.

Waters’s house is somewhere in between. It’s not quite the same class as the Greystones down the block, but it’s still a solid brick dwelling constructed at the turn of the century. Regardless, it served more than capable of housing Waters, his wife Geneva, his stepsons Charles and Dennis Williams, and two or more tenants. In addition to these residents, the house often welcomed fellow blues musicians in the basement.

George E. Jones has lived in this part of Bronzeville since 1955, and he fondly remembers this slice of his world. “It’s always been a friendly neighborhood. Houses were nice, the rent was inexpensive and the houses were inexpensive. Everybody spoke to everybody. We always knew that it was a prime area that had been primarily overlooked by people of wealth.”

The constant presence of Muddy Waters’s fellow musicians and bandmates made the house a local musical hotspot. Music from the basement sounded into the street, and in nice weather the yard could accommodate a small crowd and a full band.

“We actually used to run through his yard, sit back there, watch him play,” says Roy Holloway, another man who grew up in the neighborhood.

“When I was a teenager in my drinking days we used to come down to find something to get into,” says Pete Wade, longtime Bronzeville resident. “We didn’t have to go much further than King Drive to find something going on.”

photo by Taro Matsuno

photo by Taro Matsuno

The idyllic days weren’t going to last. In the sixties, gang violence amplified in Bronzeville. The Blackstone Rangers and the Vice Lords battled on Oakenwald Avenue, and a courtway building in the 4500s was home to a zip-gun manufacturing operation. The early seventies saw house fires and demolitions, leading to an estimated sixty percent vacancy rate as people started emptying Bronzeville’s streets.

“Arson, arson for hire, buildings torn down by mistake. Happened a lot on Oakenwald, people forced to sell their homes,” said Jones. “You had to be financially knowledgeable and have connections in order to keep what you owned.”

During the seventies, Muddy Waters found himself as part of a great exodus out of the city to the predominantly white suburb of Westmont. His granddaughter, Amelia “Cookie” Cooper, recalls in Robert Gordon’s “Can’t Be Satisfied: The Life and Times of Muddy Waters,” that her grandfather looked upon his time in Bronzeville with a great deal of fondness. “The quiet time on 43rd, when it was his cooling down time, those were good nights, you saw McKinley Morganfield [Water’s birth name]. You didn’t see Muddy Waters. You saw him laying around resting and joking and eating ice cream–those were good times. When we moved to Westmont our life changed.”

Pete Wade remembers the 1996 Parade of Homes as a turning point in the neighborhood’s decades-long process of disinvestment. Then-alderwoman Toni Preckwinkle oversaw a redevelopment project allowing eight developers to build houses ranging from $140,000 to $240,000, which placed midrange family homes in some of the vacant lots that dotted the neighborhood. This coincided with a historic razing of Bronzeville’s high-rise public housing buildings. Many low-income residents were flushed out by the destruction of housing and rising property values, some of which have doubled or tripled in two decades. Some have been able to capitalize on the neighborhood boom, but others have been bought or priced out.

Right now, the Muddy Waters house is reportedly in foreclosure, even though it’s currently owned by Chandra Cooper, Waters’ great-granddaughter. No family member has resided in the house for several years, though it was rented to a family as recently as four years ago.

Meanwhile, hopes mount for the salvation of the property. The city is making a wider push towards increasing tourist arrivals. Meanwhile, the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership and the Urban Innovation Center see the house as a plausible centerpiece for a blues-oriented tourism master plan.

Efforts to brand Chicago as a blues destination are already underway from other organizations. Since last summer, plans for “The Blues Experience,” a performance venue, museum and classroom setting, have been set forth in the Loop’s Block 37 department store.

Harold Lucas, president of the Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council, understands the appeal that the Block 37 project intends to tap. “The authentic cultural experience of electrified blues, jazz, and gospel music is what Choose Chicago should be selling internationally.” However, Bronzeville itself already sees its fair share of international tourists looking for the true history of Chicago blues.

Paula Robinson, president of the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership and co-founder of the Urban Innovation Center, pushes back against the idea that the heritage of Chicago Blues could be celebrated downtown: “What we need is heritage tourism. Why build it in Block 37 when we can recreate it while the [Muddy Waters] house is still there?”

Any such plan would need to involve citizens, says Robinson. “We need to respect the community and the block.” Crowdfunding and community proposals for reuse of the building have been a large part of the discussions of the Urban Innovation Center’s plan. In my own conversations with concerned neighbors, suggestions included a stage in the adjacent vacant lot, housing for blues musicians, and practice spaces in the basement.

Even though a museum dedicated to celebrating Chicago Blues and Muddy Waters  has potential to bring jobs and tourism to Bronzeville, community worries still linger. The Bronzeville Community Development Partnership’s discussions of tourism initiatives, from an Olympic bid to a blues revival, have been wary of accelerating the gentrification process. While tourism may be the house’s best chance for survival, it would create a representation of an idealized past, absent those who played an integral part in Bronzeville’s heyday.

Despite the interest of several parties in the property, proposals are still in the planning stages. What is most likely to happen in the near future is what happens to most vacant houses in Chicago: Neighborhood Services of Chicago, a nonprofit delegate agency with close ties to the city, would be appointed receiver of the unit. They will act as a neutral third party, responsible for the rehabilitation of the house, a process secured by a small lien on the property. They will conduct feasibility studies and attempt to work out a remedy according to the direction of the homeowner.

“NHS has been appointed receivership of hundreds of units across the city that are at risk. It has been done with historic buildings and those that are not historic. The goal is to help homeowners to find solutions,” says Matt Cole, project coordinator with Neighborhood Housing Services. At this point Chandra Cooper and Muddy Waters’ family still has a say in what will happen to the house, so long as the city’s concerns are addressed.

Back at the Muddy Waters house, Chris Toepfer measures the yawning gap above the door. The opening is just the right size for another painted board from a different house. He takes the board up the ladder and begins setting the nails into the chunk of plywood.

The board depicts a red canoe lying on the grass. Houses and trees appear in the background, though it’s not clear which house or which family the canoe belongs to. Who knows how long the canoe has sat there–for months, years, or if it has merely been set aside to dry in the sun between trips down peaceful waters.

After driving the nails home, the house is secure for another day.