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Urban Renewal Redux in Bronzeville

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Urban Renewal Redux in Bronzeville

The final building in Bronzeville’s Stateway Gardens public housing complex being torn down in 2007. (Photo by Vincent Johnson)

As the city of Chicago continues its quest to land the 2016 Olympics, many who’ve worked hard to rejuvenate the Bronzeville community into a hub of African-American history and commerce now fear the city’s Olympics plans will push them out. And some say it’s an ugly déjà vu.

A half century ago, black doctors and janitors lived among each other in the thriving Douglas neighborhood, also known as part of the Bronzeville community. Then something happened that helped contribute to the break up of the South Side enclave.

BLACK: Negro removal.

That’s Chicago historian Timuel Black. “Negro Removal” was the mocking term African Americans used for urban renewal. Back then the city defined urban renewal as investing dollars to improve neighborhoods.

Here’s what Timuel Black recalls happening in the 1950s. Part of Douglas got uprooted because of government intervention. A developer built a new complex called Lake Meadows in its place. These were high-rise apartments close to the lake. Black says the buildings were meant for...

BLACK: Trying to attract young, middle-class income whites.

And for awhile it worked until various upheavals in the 1960s caused white flight. Fast forward to the present. Lake Meadows is now mostly black. The owners of the complex are saying they’ll tear down the units within the next five years. They want condos and other high-end housing.

Lake Meadows is just south of the soon-to-be-closed Michael Reese Hospital. And the hospital sits on the land the city wants to develop into an Olympic Village.

The Chicago City Council recently approved an $86 million deal for the city to buy the land. The plan after the Olympics is to build lakefront housing. But this time around urban renewal may be along class and racial lines.

BOYD: It is likely this neighborhood will become more and more attractive to African Americans with greater resources.

Michelle Boyd is a professor at the University of Illinois-Chicago.

BOYD: That the people who live in that neighborhood will be most at risk, most vulnerable, least likely to be able to enjoy the amenities that do come into the neighborhood, those are going to be poor, low-income African Americans.

Already affordable housing in the area is dwindling with condo conversions of old apartment buildings. And public housing has largely been removed.

BOYD: If we look at the present period to the extent we can see government or city policies enabling private organizations to buy land at a reduced rate and then to develop that land in ways that are amenable to people involved in development and not so much the neighborhood then we have a repeat of some of the patterns of urban renewal.

The Olympic bonanza could escalate these changes if Chicago emerges as the host city.

But around the corner from Michael Reese Hospital, some Bronzeville residents are taking a more proactive approach to make sure they aren’t left out.

ambi: elevator

That sound is a rickety elevator—the only one that works—at Bronzeville’s South Commons apartments on 27th and Indiana. It creeks and shakes like an outdated roller coaster.

Resident Frances Cook has lived here 17 years and says the building maintenance has started to go down.

COOK: I’m surprised you didn’t see no roaches when you came in; they meet you at the door like security.

Cook has been organizing tenants with the help of local housing groups to protect the building. She pays about $1,000 a month for a two-bedroom apartment. Her fears are intensified by what’s happening to Lake Meadows and the Michael Reese land. She thinks South Commons is vulnerable.

COOK: They want this building for a greater income, for middle class. They don’t have room, I don’t believe, for us. I think they’re really trying to push us away from this area probably to the suburbs somewhere.

In the meantime, grassroots groups are working on an ordinance to give to the city council. It calls for a guarantee of some affordable housing units in the Olympic Village.

Natalie Moore, WBEZ.

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