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Economic Outlook Looks Bright in Bronzeville

Chicago Defender, News Report, Kathy Chaney Posted: Dec 18, 2008

For at least 60 years, it has been known as Bronzeville because being known as the Black Belt was not considered flattering. It is one of the places to be in Chicago for Blacks, partly because they were once prohibited, by law, from being anywhere else. Over the years, it has boasted famous residents like Bessie Coleman, Ida B. Wells, Richard Wright and Louis Armstrong.

According to Sherri Williams, of the Bronzeville Historical Society, the true boundaries of the South Side neighborhood known as Bronzeville are moving.

I've posed (the question of boundaries) to the elders myself, said Williams. Bronzeville, in heart, was a place where Blacks could be accepted, where they could live. We've leaned more towards the document surrounding Hansberry vs. Lee (to end the restrictive covenant for Black residence). Williams said up until 1942, the state statute prevented Blacks from living north of 18th, south of 51st, west to State St. and east to Cottage Grove.

It was a place of commerce, high living and great clubs, and it was the center of Chicago's Black community. It took its name, according to Williams, from Chicago Bee newspaper editor James J. Gentry, who started a beauty contest in the 1930s and called the event, Miss Bronzeville.

The years had not been kind to Bronzeville, and as some residents migrated out to the suburbs, businesses dried up.

But now, residents in Bronzeville are seeing an increased selection in restaurants and other retail optionswith more slatedthat area aldermen say will provide the economic uplift in the neighborhood that has long been plagued by shuttered businesses and vacant lots.

The boundaries expanded a bit to the Dan Ryan Expressway on the west end and King Drive to the east.
Earlier this year, Chicagos House of Chicken and Waffles opened on 39th Street and King Drive in a building that once housed the Ritz night club. It was rehabbed two years ago for condo and retail development.

The 80-seat eatery joined a small list of African American-owned sit-down restaurants in the Black Belt that includes Blu 47 on 46th Street and King Drive, the Negro League Cafe on East 43rd Street and Pearls Place on 39th Street and Michigan Avenue.

Next spring, Peaches Restaurant is expected to join the cadre.

The breakfast and lunch restaurant, owned by Cliff Rome, will set up shop across the street from Blu 47 and will accommodate seating for about 90 customers.

Rome, a chef and also the owner of Rome's Joy catering and the Parkway Ballroom a few blocks north, is dedicated to the redevelopment of Bronzeville.

The Parkway was one of the places to be in the neighborhood from the 1940s to the 1970s. It was used for birthday celebrations, fundraisers, graduations, reunions and weddings. Music legends, including Count Basie, Nat King Cole and Sarah Vaughn, also performed in the ballroom.

I want to help bring elegance back in a community that was so rich in history and culture, he said.
Rome reopened the Parkway Ballroom in 2002. Next year, he plans to open Blanc, a contemporary art gallery that will feature Black/White photography and contemporary furniture, among other items. The gallery will be adjacent to the Parkway.

The empty building his new eatery will occupy space in is owned by developer Elzie Higginbottom and his East Lake Management company. East Lake also owns the Parkway Ballroom building.

East Lake has owned and managed several residential developments in Bronzeville for at least the last 25 years. It was only fitting the company delve into the commercial and retail market in the area, said the company's Vice President of Development.

We asked the residents what they needed, and retail opportunities was the answer. You cant revitalize a community without an economic driver. Over the last few years, weve tried to encompass retail development in the area, said Eileen Rhodes, East Lakes vice president.

East Lake bought the building five years ago from the city for $700,000. The company's original plan for the building was to house Second City theater troupe, which already has a North Side branch.

Abundance Bakery, which currently operates at 105 E. 47th Street, is expected to take the remaining ground floor space of the building next year. East Lake also hopes to attract a posh sports lounge.
Believe me, getting these projects from start to completion takes time, but its well worth it. The community needs these businesses in the area. They need the increased job options, said Alderwoman Pat Dowell (3rd), whose ward includes a large portion of Bronzeville.

The four aforementioned sit-down restaurants employ 40 to 50 people. Another 25 jobs, full- and part-time, are expected to be available once Peaches opens, Dowell said.

Alderman Bob Fioretti (2nd), whose ward includes a portion of Bronzeville, communicates regularly with Dowell and has joined in the efforts to bring more eateries, resulting in more jobs, to the neighborhood.

The (southern portion of the) ward could always use another sit-down restaurant, instead of a walk-up-and-take-your-food place. Plus it would employ more local residents and attract customers from other areas, said Fioretti.

He is currently in talks with Leonas Restaurant to build on a vacant lot across from Dunbar Park on 31st Street and King Drive. The park is adjacent to Dunbar High School.

More job opportunities are also on the horizon once a retail complex on 39th and State Street, anchored by a Wisconsin-based supermarket, starts development next year.

I am in talks with a well-known grocery chain for the Metropolis, as well as other stores for that complex. I want to make sure that the ward is a place for the residents to live, eat, shop and just have fun. They should be able to have everything they need within their community, Dowell said.

Plans for the Metropolis development, led by Quintin Primo of Capri Capital Partners, LLC, was first announced in 2006 and was presented on a larger scale. As the economy began to slide into what the government now confirms is a recession, the retail project had to make adjustments, she said.

The development wont be as big as originally planned because of the economy, but were not certain right now how much it will (be) scaled down, Dowell said, adding that the development phase of the project should create up to 300 full- and part-time jobs.

Capri Capital is looking to break ground for the Metropolis in late 2009.

Once the project is completed, it will join a few more small retail operations along State Street in the area, including Starbucks Coffee on 35th and State Street.

Before the national coffee chain opened, the only coffee shop in that area was Global Grounds Cafe, 3201 S. State St., in the McCormick Tribune Campus Center on the Illinois Institute of Technology campus.

Starbucks sits on part of the Chicago Housing Authoritys former Stateway Gardens complex site, next to the new Park Boulevard homes and near IIT.

The public housing complex was torn down years ago to make way for the new development that is part of CHAs transformation of low-income housing to mixed-income developments.

From State Street to King Drive on 35th Street, the Bronzeville Merchants Association adopted the strip to change it back to a diverse commercial corridor.

We need more commercial things that people can shop in their own communities like we used to do decades ago. It was a good feeling to be able to walk in your neighborhood and shop and see your neighbors, said Esther Barnett of the Bronzeville Merchants Association.

Barnett agreed with Dowell that retail development projects dont happen overnight once the projects are approved.

Time must be taken to secure proper financing, the necessary building permits from the city and receive the continued support from the local government. And sometimes if changes occur within the local legislative body for a particular community, a developer may have to start from scratch getting an approval. It may take a few years, Barnett said.

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