‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Bronzeville Receives Historic Designation


If the walls inside the Rosenwald Courts Apartments could talk, they could tell the stories of some of Bronzeville’s greatest former residents: Gwendolyn Brooks, Quincy Jones and John H. Johnson, to name a few.

The massive block-long building opened in 1929 to provide modern housing for African Americans moving to Chicago during the Great Migration.

“Lorraine Hansberry — she’s said to have written ‘A Raisin in the Sun’ here,” said lifelong Bronzeville resident Wateka Kleinpeter.

But another part of the building’s history is its ruin and eventual abandonment in 2000.

“At one time,” Kleinpeter said, “the building had a bad reputation and ended up being closed. But they didn’t want to tear it down.”

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Kleinpeter has lived in the new and refurbished Rosenwald Courts for the past seven years. It reopened in 2016 after a massive redevelopment and conservation effort.

The building is just one of at least 20 that tell the story of Bronzeville, a shelter for blacks fleeing racism in the South and a mecca for black business and the arts.

It is a story that, according to some, is finally being recognized and preserved.

“When we started this journey, they told us it was going to be a marathon and not a sprint, and that’s exactly what it was,” said Paula Robinson, president of the Bronzeville-Black Metropolis National Heritage Area.

Now, he said, long-standing efforts to preserve the community have finally come to fruition.

In late December, President Joe Biden signed the National Heritage Act into law, establishing the Bronzeville-Black Metropolis National Heritage Area. The designation means up to $1 million annually for the next 15 years.

Now, local conservationists are tasked with developing a management plan to properly preserve the sites and prepare them for tourists.

“I’m talking about international tourism,” said Bernard Turner, executive director of the Bronzeville-Black Metropolis National Heritage Area. “People come here for the gospel music; people come here for the blues, jazz. They come here to see the architecture. They come here for the stories.

Future visitors will have plenty to explore, with over 20 sites included in the plan, ranging from the Muddy Waters Home to the Ida B. Wells Monument and the Bee Branch of the Chicago Public Library.

The designated area is also of significant size, extending from 18th Street down to 71st Street.

Robinson hopes that reflecting on this past can provide lessons for innovation.

“We have people here who were innovators — who did the first open-heart surgery, who created franchises like the Negro League,” Robinson said. “So necessity forced them to innovate. We’re excited to build on the same sense of need and innovation because we’ve found we need it again now.

Among today’s Bronzeville innovators is artist Frances Guichard, working under the name Marlene Campbell, to tell the stories of history. An example is a piece entitled “The Great Migration: The Ancestors”.

“Usually it’s all a matter of ancestors teaching us to be more socially, economically and environmentally responsible,” Guichard said, “so we’ll have something to leave for the next generation.”

She and her husband, Andre Guichard, run Gallery Guichard and reside at the Bronzeville Artist Lofts, one of the sites included in the heritage area, whose walls have their own stories to tell.

“Bronzeville Artist Lofts was actually Ben Franklin’s store—the first African-American department store in the country owned by the Jones brothers, who were the political kingpins in Bronzeville,” said Andre Guichard. “And their policy was so great that it became the Illinois lottery.”

That rich history goes beyond the lofts. It’s all throughout the community.

“You can’t walk anywhere in Bronzeville without picking up a little bit of history that has been amazing throughout our culture,” said Frances Guichard.

A group from Bronzeville is trying to get recognition for another local legend: cyclist Marshall “Mayor” Taylor.

John Adams, founder of the Bronzeville Trail Task Force, which is pushing for recognition, said Taylor was the first African American to win an international sports championship in any sport: Montreal in 1899. Taylor was born in Indiana, but lived in Bronzeville for part of his life.

In an ode to Taylor, the task force is looking to redevelop the abandoned Kenwood “L” Line into a walking, running and cycling route – and that line has a story of its own.

“The line is a remnant of the historic fence line and was elevated to an earthwork circa 1907,” Adams said.

Community Report Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re taking to the streets to talk to your neighbors, local businesses, agencies, and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education, and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned using the map below. Or select a community using the dropdown menu. Points inside red represent our COVID-19 Across Chicago series; blue marks our “Chicago Tonight” series in Your Neighborhood.


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Written by Natalia Chi

Chicago Popular; Chicago breaking news, weather and live video. Covering local politics, health, traffic and sports for Chicago, the suburbs and northwest Indiana.

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