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Historic Bronzeville building poised for makeover

African-American history and culture have helped define Bronzeville. It’s a selling point for a Chicago neighborhood that’s been hoping for an economic turning point, but foreclosures and a tough economy have stymied a resurgence. Now there’s word a vacant, landmark apartment building on 47th Street is on the brink of redevelopment. Some neighbors hope the development can keep history in place and jumpstart some economic vitality — all in one fell swoop.

The Rosenwald building’s the size of a city block and it’s been empty for 12 years. The faded brown structure and the vacant apartments have an unflattering nickname in the neighborhood: "The Carter." 

Don’t get the reference? It’s the name of an ugly, sprawling apartment complex pictured in the movie “New Jack City.” Wesley Snipes’ ruthless drug lord character invades The Carter and converts it into a crack den.

FILM DIALOGUE: I’ve seen the future…and its name is The Carter. Hold up, Hold up, Nino. The Carter Apartments are big, what’s up? Yo, we talking about combinating and consolidating. That’s what’s up! You not thinking about taking over The Carter, are you? Yeah, we taking over The Carter.

There’re people in Chicago who want to break that kind of association, and they hope the old Rosenwald gets a makeover.

DOWELL: It’s a big, hulking, disgusting-looking piece of real estate as you enter into the 47th Street corridor.

This is 3rd Ward Ald. Pat Dowell. She says Tuesday the city's Community Development Commission is expected to vote on authorizing tax increment financing dollars to redo the eyesore at 47th and Michigan.

Dowell might get her wish for change at Rosenwald. Landwhite Developers is overhauling Rosenwald to the tune of $110 million. The affordable housing project will comprise senior and family housing. That includes a total of 331 units and retail on the first level. Construction for Rosenwald’s new incarnation is targeted for the end of this year with the first units becoming available in October 2013.

DOWELL: It’s going to be a huge game changer for 47th Street. By redesigning the building, rehabbing it, making it active, it will then serve as a welcoming invitation into 47th Street and have people look at the entire strip and not just drive through it.

Rosenwald is not just an apartment building — it’s a slice of Bronzeville’s history. The building is on the National Register of Historic Places. Julius Rosenwald, the president of Sears, Roebuck and Company, developed the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments in 1929. The courtyard building attracted many black families who came to Chicago during the Great Migration. Eventually, the building took on the namesake of its developer. Several African-American icons called it home, including musician Quincy Jones, singer Nat King Cole, poet Gwendolyn Brooks and boxer Joe Louis.

History isn’t the only thing at stake, though.

Urban planning and business groups are following the development’s future closely, the Metropolitan Planning Council and the Bronzeville Retail Initiative among them. They hope to attract more retail to Bronzeville on the same 47th Street corridor, from Lake Michigan to the Dan Ryan Expressway.

Leanna Flowers is part of the retail initiative.

FLOWERS: This is the time.

But Flowers says economic improvement isn’t as easy as clicking one’s heels three times.

FLOWERS: There are a lot of new people continuing to move in. A lot of young professionals moving in. It takes a community effort though. It’s not going to be you wake up one day and it’s turned around. It just doesn’t happen that way. A lot of the work we do we try to bring in the community because our vision is that it’s owned and controlled.

And continuing the legacy of Bronzeville.

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