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Booming Bronzeville: QCDC Helped Create a “Good Problem” and Works on Even Better Solutions.

There is a point in the rebuilding of ailing neighborhoods when the challenge facing community-based developers shifts from begging to choosing. That is, from chasing any kind of investment to cultivating those that best meet the needs and aspirations of those who live there.

Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, QCDC's executive director, has been adept at engaging local government in Bronzeville's revitalization. Here she dscusses neighborhood issues with Mayor Rahm Emanuel.

Gordon  Walek

Bronzeville on Chicago’s Mid-South Side has reached that point.

Many agree it’s a “good problem” to have … especially if the alternative would have been continued dis-investment or, at best, stagnation. But it’s a problem that greatly complicates the work of Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, executive director of the Quad Communities Development Corporation (QCDC).

“The challenge we’re having,” she says “is making sure what we’re bringing in is what the community wants… not just development to have development.”

Then again, “making sure” doesn’t happen unless the community has a seat at the tables where development decisions are made. Or at least a solid relationship with someone who does – someone like Ald. Will Burns (4th), who keeps QCDC in the loop. In this role Burns is channeling his predecessor Toni Preckwinkle, now Cook County Board President. She helped create QCDC 12 years ago as part of LISC Chicago’s New Communities Program and the organization remains an active member of today’s New Communities Network.

“We’ll continue to look for development opportunities to stimulate growth and create jobs for residents in the 4th Ward,” Burns recently pledged.

Boom times

The pace of redevelopment in and around Bronzeville rivals that of any neighborhood in the city and – if certain large pieces fall into place – soon will surpass all.

“We’ll continue to look for development opportunities to stimulate growth and create jobs for residents in the 4th Ward,” Ald. Will Burns said recently.

Gordon Walek

By now most have heard about the Shops & Lofts at 47th Street. The $46 million apartments-over-Walmart project now anchors a reviving Cottage Grove Avenue commercial corridor. It was chosen recently as 2014’s “Outstanding For-Profit Neighborhood Real Estate Project” by the Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards (CNDA).

Another 2014 CNDA winner, with a Driehaus Award for Architectural Excellence, is the Bronzeville Artist Lofts on 47th Street. Credit Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd) with sheparding to completion this conversion of a 1906 Borden’s dairy, turning a 47th Street eyesore into an apartments-over-gallery masterpiece where local artisans can live, work and even sell their creations at the owners’ Gallery Guichard.  

And much more is on the way, much of it pump-primed by QCDC, Ald. Burns and a development-minded Mayor Rahm Emanuel. Later this year a new Mariano’s supermarket will open at 39th Street and Martin Luther King Drive, bringing 400 living-wage jobs to a neighborhood not long ago deemed a “food desert” for lack of healthful groceries. Also under constructions is the new Arts & Recreation Center at Ellis Park at 35th and Cottage, complete with full-sized pool, basketball court, fitness and meeting rooms. There’s a renewed focus on youth activities and two other non-profits are developing indoor athletic facilities where local kids are about to get after-school help with tennis, squash . . . and homework.

Other projects under construction include restoration of the historic but long-vacant Rosenwald Apartments at 47th and Michigan Avenue, providing affordable units for more than 200 seniors and working families. A few blocks to the south, at the southwest corner of Lake Park Avenue and Hyde Park Boulevard, the University of Chicago has pushed redevelopment of Harper Court retailing along with residential-over-retail towers such as City Hyde Park designed by star architect Jeanne Gang.

Local players

And that’s just some of the bigger stuff. Almost everywhere one looks east of the Dan Ryan Expressway between 31st and 55th streets, someone is investing. And not just mega-dollar outsiders, but local entrepreneurs like Bernard Loyd. His Urban Juncture, Inc. is out to restore the old 43rd Street nightclub district beginning with The Forum – a long-vacant dancehall where talents like Nat King Cole and Louis Armstrong once trumpeted the area’s reputation as America’s Black Metropolis.

Shops & Lofts at 47th Street, a $46 million apartments-over-Walmart project, now anchors a reviving Cottage Grove Avenue commercial corridor.

But first Loyd’s team has been redeveloping what used to be one of the biggest liquor stores on the South Side, at 51st and Prairie Avenue, into a “dining destination and culinary incubator” called Bronzeville Cookin’. Its Jamaican-themed Jerk Shack opened this fall – the first of four venues featuring Afro-centric cuisines, all topped by a rooftop garden to provide fresh-picked veggies.

“There’s been nothing like this in Chicago,” said Loyd, “even though the African-American culinary tradition here is second to none.”      

Much of this revival was set in motion during the 2000’s following demolition of the wall of public housing high-rises that lined the South State Street corridor from 31st to 51st Streets. Gone also are the Chicago Housing Authority’s (CHA) Ida B. Wells, Madden Park and Clarence Darrow low-rise complexes closer to the lake. These CHA projects are being replaced – albeit at a much slower pace than many would like – by stylish mixed-income developments with names like Oakwood Shores, Park Boulevard, Legends South, Lake Park Crescent and Jazz on the Boulevard.

Demolition of so much public housing explains a big decrease in population. Only 127,307 residents still call Bronzeville home, barely half the number counted here by the 1980 Census. The neighborhood’s poverty rate is falling but remains well above city averages at 28 percent.

That’s likely to change as young professionals discover they can live closer to downtown at a fraction of the cost by heading south. New public amenities also will be a draw. Bronzeville, for instance, is being re-connected to its long-neglected south lakefront by new pedestrian bridges at 35th, 41st and 43rd Streets spanning Lake Shore Drive and the Metra electric tracks. That means easy access to beaches and bike paths, including gems like the new Margaret Burroughs Park and harbor at 31st Street.

Bigger stuff coming?

Yet the area’s two biggest booster shots – potentially at least – may be yet to come. One will be the Obama Presidential Library, whose planners have narrowed site selection to two South Side locations – one nearer the lake in Jackson Park, the other on the western edge of Washington Park along King Drive at 55th Street. That’s a half block from a CTA Green Line el station … with all the local redevelopment possibilities that might bring.

Johnson-Gabriel prefers the latter location seeing the possibility of development along Garfield Boulevard, figuring it would super-charge both public and private investment and spur much needed development.

The second potential booster is less certain, though no less intriguing: a municipal casino complex possibly to be located just south of McCormick Place on the site of the old Michael Reese Hospital. State authorization for a city gambling palace may well become part of budgetary negotiations between Gov. Bruce Rauner and the state legislature. Besides being adjacent to the convention center with its new hotels and soon, a DePaul basketball arena, the Reese site is at the Lake Shore Drive terminus of the Stevenson (I-55) Expressway.

“It’s the logical place because of the proximity to McCormick Place,” said Johnson-Gabriel. “And, it would create living-wage jobs for residents in the communities we serve.”

Done correctly, she predicts, the casino and the presidential library would make ideal bookends for a neighborhood that seeks to re-establish itself as one of America’s preeminent centers of African-American life and culture.

CHA projects have been replaced with stylish mixed-income developments with names like Oakwood Shores, Park Boulevard, Legends South, Lake Park Crescent and Jazz on the Boulevard.

Displacement issues

Then again, not everyone is as welcoming of change and redevelopment.

“Low and moderate income blacks are being systematically displaced,” argues Harold Lucas, whose Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council has been pushing back at outsiders bearing redevelopment plans. He and his allies favor a more indigenous process, sans gentrification, even though the changing face of Bronzeville has the look of middle-class African-Americans.

One recent flare-up of this tension has been the sit-ins and hunger strike staged by parents hoping to keep open the under-performing Dyett High School on east 55th Street. Even though the school board recently agreed not to close the school, the two sides remain split over curriculum – the strikers favoring a “green technology” focus, the school board an emphasis on the arts.

A more subtle problem of late is what Johnson-Gabriel calls the “gold mine” mentality. As longtime owners, mostly absentees, see nearby development such as Shops & Lofts, she explained, they figure their property has suddenly tripled in value. Unreasonable expectations tend to slow the redevelopment process.    

On balance, though, she hails the neighborhood’s quickened pace as a blessing. “It’s much better to be the pursued than the pursuer,” said Johnson-Gabriel, whose successful courting of developers at a retail industry convention in Las Vegas several years ago is now part of local lore.

Reversing a reputation

But old perceptions die hard, she cautions. Private-sector developers in Chicago, she argues, still harbor negative preconceptions about the South Side. These perceptions are regularly reinforced, she complains, by intense media coverage of shootings and murders … including the Monday newspaper roundups of weekend violence. Much of QCDC’s programming – from partnering this year with the Bronzeville Art District (who have been doing trolley tours of local art galleries for years) to host Bronzeville Summer Nights, a collaboration to highlight local businesses and art galleries – to After School Teen Talk Theater which is designed to dispel that image while making sure at-risk youngsters have positive things to do.

“What we’re always going to struggle with, especially with Chicago-based developers, are those North Side versus South Side prejudices. Maybe that’s why it took an Ohio developer (Skilken Development Co. and Troy Enterprises) to do Shops & Lofts. They had no preconceptions. They saw only opportunity.”

Bronzeville Artists Lofts, on 47th Street, won a 2014 Driehaus Award for Architectural Excellence at the Chicago Neighborhood Development Awards Ceremony. A 1906 Borden's dairy was converted into an apartments-over-gallery masterpiece where local artisans can live, work and even sell their creations at the owners’ Gallery Guichard.

“I’ve always told people we’re not gentrifying, we’re revitalizing. This has to be a community where everyone can live,” Johnson-Gabriel said. “What we are trying to do is diversify amenities and increase options. There has to be a mix.”

More information: Bernita Johnson-Gabriel, executive director, Quad Communities Development Corporation (QCDC),

A detailed and annotated overview of Bronzeville was completed recently –Chicago Neighborhoods 2015, a research project by The Chicago Community Trust that focuses on Chicago’s built environment. LISC Chicago was a member of the steering committee for this project. Read more here.



Posted in Economic Development, Quad Communities


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