Bronzeville, the Black Metropolis, is a mecca of African-American History on Chicago's South Side, just miles south of downtown. Gwendolyn Brooks published poetry in the Chicago Defender, Andrew Rube Foster created Negro League Baseball, and Louis Armstrong kept his trumpet singing at the Sunset Cafe to keep Al Capone off his back. Long in disrepair, the neighborhood is coming back, with new residents refurbishing historic homes, and with new dining and nightlife scenes beginning to take root.
Bronzeville was the site of Chicago's version of the Harlem Renaissance, and was home to many famous African-Americans, including Gwendolyn Brooks, Richard Wright, Louis Armstrong, Bessie Coleman, Ida B Wells, Andrew Foster, and many more. The neighborhood was from the 1920s to the 1940s one of the premiere centers of African-American culture and was fairly affluent and middle class. The Great Depression hit the area hard, bankrupting black-owned businesses, but the neighborhood's worst enemy proved to be the neglectful and segregationist city government. Because black Chicagoans were restricted (unofficially) from renting and buying property outside of the "Black Belt," rents were actually higher in the district's run-down, ill-maintained buildings, owned by white absentee landlords, than in the adjacent, wealthy, white neighborhoods. In 1941, the city built the infamous and gigantic Ida B Wells housing projects in Bronzeville, which produced devastating and unintended results. Because of segregation, many low-income African-Americans were unable to find housing anywhere else and the projects quickly became overcrowded, while crime and urban blight expanded throughout the neighborhood.
Today, the neighborhood is seeing major community-driven revitalization efforts, mostly by wealthy and entrepreneurial African-Americans who value the neighborhood's historic importance. Historic clubs are reopening, and there are a handful of nice coffee shops and restaurants. More so than the present, however, the principal attraction remains the neighborhood's rich history. As a rule, the revitalization efforts have not extended below 47th Street or west of the Dan Ryan Expressway into the Washington Park and Fuller Park neighborhoods, which remain very blighted, with an extraordinary amount of vacant lots and the highest violent crime levels in the city. Unfortunately, this means that 47th Street, which has some major draws, can be a little edgy after dark. But don't worry about Washington Park the park (as opposed to the neighborhood) — it's perfectly safe during the day.
- Bronzeville Visitor Information Center (Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council), 3501 S Martin Luther King Jr Dr, Ste 1 (in the old Supreme Life Building), ☏ , [email protected]. M-F 10AM-5PM, Sa 10AM-2PM, and by appointment. The Bronzeville Visitor Information Center seeks to provide visitors with orientation and offers tours, exhibits, and a small gift shop.
The best way to reach Bronzeville by public transport is definitely the CTA Green Line, which runs along State and Indiana, with key stops at 35-Bronzeville-IIT, 43rd St, 47th St (Jackson), and Garfield (Jackson). The Red Line runs along Bronzeville's western border by the Dan Ryan Espressway — a bit further away from most Bronzeville attractions, but convenient nonetheless.
The Metra Main Line has a stop at 27th St, which is near the "Walk of Fame" and Michael Reese Hospital, but not near much else.
Many CTA bus lines travel throughout Bronzeville. A few key routes are the #4 and #3, which run north-south along Michigan Ave and Martin Luther King Jr Dr respectively and will take you to Bronzeville from the Loop. The #55 Garfield route is useful for travel between Bronzeville and Midway Airport, in the Southwest Side.
Bronzeville is one of the few neighborhoods close to the Chicago center that is actually best seen by car. Free on-street parking is in ample supply pretty much everywhere throughout the neighborhood — owing to the relatively low population density of the district. There are many exits leading into Bronzeville from the Dan Ryan Expressway, although you might enjoy the ride better if you take a more northerly exit (like 35th or 31st Streets) and then explore the area from Martin Luther King Drive — some of the areas further south around the expressway are a bit run down. If coming from the Loop, the best way is probably to just head south on Martin Luther King Drive, which serves as the main drag for most of the district.
Black Metropolis landmarks
The following buildings are the city-designated, remaining landmarks from Bronzeville's golden age, from the "Black Metropolis" city within a city where blacks could find employment serving their own community.
- 1 Chicago Bee Building, 3647-3655 S State St, ☏ . M-Th 9AM-8PM, F Sa 9AM-5PM. The home of the Chicago Bee newspaper, which was founded by Anthony Overton to promote black businesses and issues. The art deco building has an elegant terra cotta façade and today houses the Chicago Bee Branch Library. Free.
- 2 Chicago Defender Building, 3435 S Indiana Ave. Built in 1899 as a synagogue, this building housed the Chicago Defender (the nation's foremost African-American newspaper through World War I) from 1920-1960. The Chicago Defender published works by Langston Hughes and Gwendolyn Brooks, and is largely credited for starting the Great Migration in its exhortations to southern blacks to move to the North for greater economic opportunities and freedom. The building is oddly vacant and neglected and may be available for sale.
- 3 Eighth Regiment Armory (Bronzeville Military Academy), 3533 S Giles Ave, ☏ . This was the first armory for an African-American regiment, serving the "Fighting 8th," which fought in the Spanish-American War and served with distinction in World War I. After years of disuse, this grandiose building has been restored and now houses the nation's first public college-prep military school, which is unfortunately not open for visitors.
- 4 Overton Hygienic Building, 3619-27 S State St. Built by the wildly successful African-American entrepreneur Anthony Overton to house the headquarters of his nation-wide cosmetics franchise. The building housed several of his other businesses, including Victory Life Insurance Company and Douglass National Bank, America's first national African-American bank. The building is now owned by the Mid-South Planning and Development Commission. Just across the street from the now demolished, notorious Robert Taylor Homes, the formerly beautiful art-deco building is in a sad state of disrepair.
- 5 Sunset Cafe (Ace Meyers Hardware Store), 315 E 35th St, ☏ . M-Sa 9AM-6PM, Su 11AM-2PM. Countless jazz legends played at this legendary jazz club, including: Bix Beiderbecke, Jimmy Dorsey, Benny Goodman, Earl Hines, Fletcher Henderson, Count Basie, and of course, Louis Armstrong. The club was run by unsavory mafia types and the musicians often had no choice but to keep playing here! Disjointed as it may be, the legendary club no longer exists and the building houses a hardware store. Nonetheless, the Sunset Cafe is Chicago's number one jazz history site and should not be missed by anyone traveling along The Jazz Track. There has been talk of resurrecting the club, but plans remain embryonic. Feel free to stop in if you'd like — the owner is used to all sorts of foreign jazz aficionados wandering in.
- 6 Supreme Life Building, 3501 S Martin Luther King Jr Dr. Built to house the first African-American insurance company, which was one of the few Black Metropolis businesses to survive the Great Depression. The building houses the Bronzeville Visitor Information Center (see below) and is finally undergoing a proper restoration which will restore the 1920 classical façade.
- 7 Unity Hall, 3140 S Indiana Ave. Built in 1887 to house a Jewish social organization, this building became famous as the headquarters of the Peoples Movement Club, founded by Oscar Stanton De Priest (1871-1951), the first African-American on Chicago's City Council and the first northern black delegate to the U.S. House of Representatives.
- 8 Victory Monument, E 35th St and S Martin Luther King Jr Dr. This monument was built in 1928 to honor the service of the African-American Eighth Regiment of the Illinois National Guard in France during World War I.
- 9 Wabash Avenue YMCA, 3763 S Wabash Ave, ☏ . Bronzeville's YMCA, housed in a huge 1913 brown-pressed brick building, was a major social and cultural center for the neighborhood in its heyday, providing job training and housing for recent arrivals in addition to its more common functions. A painstaking restoration was completed in 2000 and the YMCA is again open to the community. Free.
- 10 DuSable Museum of African-American History, 740 E 56th Pl (in Washington Park, just across Cottage Grove Ave from the Univ of Chicago), ☏ . Tu-Sa 10AM-5PM, Su noon-5PM. Chicago's museum of African-American history is named after the first settler of Chicago, a Haitian named Jean Baptiste Point du Sable. The museum often has excellent and moving temporary exhibits. $10, $7 students/seniors, $3 children 6-11, free for children under 6; free for everyone on Su.
- 11 Ida B. Wells House, 3624 S Martin Luther King Jr Dr. The home of Ida B Wells, prominent African-American civil rights activist and suffragette, founder of the Black Women's movement, and founding member of the NAACP, lived here from 1919–1929. Today it is a private residence and is closed to the public.
- 12 Illinois Institute of Technology, 3300 S Federal St, ☏ .
- 13 S.R. Crown Hall, 3360 S State St, ☏ (IIT Public Relations). Locked on weekends, tours available by appointment. A major architectural landmark designed by Mies van der Rohe.
- 14 McCormick Tribune Campus Center, 3201 S State St. Another, newer, architectural landmark, distinguished by the wild L tunnel on top - the first building in the U.S. by Rem Koolhaas.
- 15 King Drive Gateway, S Martin Luther King Jr Dr between 24th St & 35th St. A 1½-mile stretch of Martin Luther King Jr Dr full of plaques and monuments to the neighborhood's culture and history. Highlights include Alison Saar's statue at 24th St, "Monument to the Great Northern Migration," and at the 35th St intersection, Gregg LeFevre's 14 ft bronze map of the neighborhood's history and the "Victory Monument" to the African-American 8th Regiment of the Illinois State Guard (which served in France during World War I). Also, look for Geraldine McCullough's "Walk of Fame," a public art installation spread throughout the median and sidewalks along the boulevard, decorated with plaques bearing the names of Bronzeville's numerous famous residents. Keep an eye out for the public benches, also designed by local artists, which range from the subtly interesting to the wildly fantastic. Since it's more than a mile long, taking a "King Drive Gateway walk" isn't really practical—it's not meant to be seen in one visit, so just check out the main sites and appreciate what you do catch.
- 16 South Side Community Art Center (SSCAC), 3831 S Michigan Ave, ☏ . W-F noon-5PM, Sa 9AM-5PM, Su 1-5PM. A community arts center open since 1940, which was for long the only place around where minority artists could exhibit there work. Today, the center's gallery (free and open to the public) focuses primarily on African-American art, especially art related to the South Side. The arts center also features occasional poetry readings.
- 17 Stephen A Douglas Tomb and Memorial, 636 E 35th St, ☏ . 9AM-5PM daily. A 46-ft-tall column marks the mausoleum of one of the most prominent senators in US history (a prominent resident from whom the Douglas neighborhood gets its name), who ran and lost against Abraham Lincoln for the U.S. presidency in a race where debate over slavery dominated the discussion.
The one activity offering in which Bronzeville excels is anything involving a big open field — If you are in the center of Washington Park tossing a football around or just lying in the grass, the big city feels miles away.
- 1 31st St Beach (Margaret Burroughs Beach), 3100 S Lake Shore Dr. Summers: 9AM-9:30PM. While small, 31st St Beach is one of the nicest places for a swim on the South Side. It's family-friendly, never crowded, and always has stunning views of the Chicago skyline.
- 2 Fuller Park, 331 E 45th St, ☏ . Some very serious basketball players hit the pavement here on weekends and the courts are worth a visit to watch the local players, but keep in mind that the park is in one of Chicago's roughest areas.
- 3 Harold Washington Cultural Center, 4701 S Martin Luther King Jr Dr, ☏ . This major Bronzeville landmark is a performance venue showing movies, live jazz, blues, and more.
- 4 Washington Park. A very big park designed by Frederick Law Olmsted. The park has big open fields, which host numerous festivals, sporting events, and performances throughout the summer. Be sure to check out the DuSable Museum of African-American History and the "Fountain of Time" sculpture.
Bronzeville has been an excellent spot to shop for African-American-related books and art. There are other similar galleries and bookstores throughout the South Side, but the best are here. Most of them were lost in a fire at the 47th St Marketplace, but hopefully rebuilding will allow them to reopen.
- 1 Gallery Guichard, 436 E 47th St, ☏ . W 2-5PM, F 1-5PM, Sa noon-3PM. A Bronzeville art gallery dealing in fine art, especially related to Africa and the African diaspora as well as multicultural art from around the world. Contact Gallery Guichard to visit the gallery and experience fine art exhibitions held every 2 to 3 months.
For a long time, this area's restaurant selection has been poor, aside from a bunch of tasty fast-food take-out joints. This is changing, though.
- 1 Alice's Bar-B-Que, 65 E 43rd St, ☏ . M-Th 11:30AM-2:30AM, F Sa 11:30AM-5AM, Su 2PM-2AM. Open very late and offering some of the best cue in the city, Alice's would be a great take-out stop if there were fewer people inside bumming for money. Ignore them, though, and you'll be treated to a fantastic meal. $5-12.
- Harold's Chicken Shack. The great South Side fried chicken chain is cheap, usually a little dirty, and always delicious. Harold's was born right near here on 47th street, by the way, in north Kenwood, although the original location (at Greenwood) closed long ago. $2–5.
- #88, 124 E 35th St, ☏ . M-Sa 11AM-9PM, Su 11AM-7:30PM.
- 503 E 47th St, ☏ . Daily 11AM-10PM.
- 2 Chicago's Home of Chicken & Waffles (Rosscoe's), 3947 S Martin Luther King Jr Dr, ☏ . Su-Th 9AM-9PM, F Sa 9AM-11PM. A great little place serving all sorts of different combinations of, as you might expect, chicken and waffles, as well as your standard soul food menu, expertly executed. The neighborhood is underserved by such nice establishments, though, and given the small space that means there's a significant wait to be seated virtually any time of the week. Oh, and the extra "s" in Rosscoe's is to forestall lawsuits from the Los Angeles chain. The pretty building the place inhabits was a hotel back in the days when blacks could not stay at "white hotels" around the city, so this one played host to some big African-American celebrities, including local Muhammad Ali. $10-15.
- 3 Ms Biscuit, 5431 S Wabash Ave, ☏ . 5AM-2PM daily. A great soul food breakfast spot, where the biscuits can't be missed and the pancakes are delicious. It's in a dicey area, but you should have no trouble parking right in front, and the place itself is friendly, bright, and cheery. And the food is really heads and shoulders above the competition throughout much of the South Side. $4-10.
- 4 Pearl's Place, 3901 S Michigan Ave, ☏ , [email protected]. M-F 7AM-8PM, Sa-Su 8AM-8PM. A nice sit-down soul food eatery in the heart of Bronzeville and adorned with pictures of famous historical Bronzeville residents (and adjacent to the Amber Inn). Brunch/breakfast is where they really shine, with famous sausage, Belgian waffles, and of course sweet potato pie. Very friendly staff. $6-15, brunch buffet: $12.
47th St was once the blues capital of the world. That was before the 1968 riots — now aside from the promotional statues and commemorative signs, the once legendary strip is now full of shuttered buildings and looks a bit like it got hit by a tornado. Nightlife offerings remain fairly limited, but the area around 47th St has a few gems as the neighborhood is making a comeback.
- 1 Room 43, 1043 E 43rd St, ☏ , . Su 7:30PM-11:30PM. The Hyde Park Jazz Society's Sunday Jazz has moved north out of Hyde Park to a little known bar/venue, which is a small, more intimate space. The performances are going strong, and the laid back Hyde Park crowd makes for great company. Drinks and food are served throughout the performances. Cover: $10, $5 w/ student ID.
If you are visiting Chicago and have a strong interest in Bronzeville, you may want to stay here, as the accommodations are far cheaper than those you would find downtown. The cheapest options are not the nicest, but bargains are there to be had. The downside, of course, is that you may find yourself taking a lot of taxis back and forth from the city center.
- 1 Amber Inn, 3901 S Michigan Ave, ☏ . 115-room hotel. One of the few nice places to stay in the area. Much cheaper and infinitely less pretentious than the big hotels downtown, with a fine, southern Sunday brunch. Just off I-90. $110.
- 2 South Loop Hotel, 11 W 26th St, ☏ . A really nice, mid-range hotel on the border of the Near South, quite close to downtown. It's most convenient to Chinatown, as well as the Cermak-Chinatown L station, two blocks away. Gym, business center, free parking (!), sports bar, and an on-site restaurant. $90–120.
The following libraries offer free public internet access:
- 1 Chicago Bee Library, 3647-3655 S State St, ☏ . M W noon-8PM, Tu Th 10AM-6PM, F Sa 9AM-5PM.
- 2 Hall Library, 4801 S Michigan Ave, ☏ . M W 10AM-6PM, Tu Th noon-8PM, F Sa 9AM-5PM.
- Chicago's Museum Campus in the Near South is a short ride by cab or on the Red and Green Lines from Bronzeville; just beyond is the downtown Loop district.
- Bronzeville's history is inextricably linked with the wealthier neighborhoods in and around Hyde Park to the east, which have a lot to see, including the University of Chicago, numerous mansions, great bookstores, and several great museums.
- Bronzeville is where Chicago's African-American history was made, Chatham-South Shore is where Chicago's African-American history comes to eat. Martin Luther King's favorite diner, Jesse Owens' gravestone, Harold Washington's old house, and the Obama's wedding reception hall are all here, as are some incredible blues clubs.
|Routes through Bronzeville|
|The Loop ← Near South ←||N S||→ Splits into Ashland and East 63rd Branches → Southwest Side/Hyde Park|
|The Loop ← Bridgeport-Chinatown ←||N S||→ Southwest Side → Far Southeast Side|