COVID-19 Across Chicago: Bronzeville

Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood is the historic heart of black Chicago, the capital of the “Black Metropolis” once home to many jazz and blues artists like Muddy Waters and the original Checkerboard Lounge. 

Like other neighborhoods on the South Side, it has slowly made gains after years of disinvestment with the help of community anchors that have been around for decades. 

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Interactive: More from our series, COVID-19 Across Chicago.

But a local development group says the looting and property damage of the last two weeks, compounded with COVID-19, has put that progress in jeopardy. 

“Some of these businesses have been around for a very long time, these businesses are now struggling to rebuild. As a result of that activity we are paying higher security costs. So we actually, even though we were not directly effected with any of our work by the uprising, we contributed to a security fund for 51st Street, so it effects all of us,” says Bernard Loyd, president of Urban Juncture. 

Shawn Michelle’s Homemade Ice Cream is an example of a newer business that has weathered both the shutdown and recent unrest. 

The store’s manager Aziza Lisa says they remained positive and were hopeful their business would be left alone because of what it means to Bronzeville. 

“We get up every day and we come into the shop, and we don’t let anything else deter us from that,” Lisa said. “With that goal in mind, we’ve been able to continue serve the community and put smiles on people’s faces, and during this time I think that’s very important.” 

Bronzeville is also home to dozens of historic grey and brownstone mansions and homes, many located along King Drive. 

Ald. Pat Dowell (3rd Ward) says the community has cleaned up well from the events of two weeks ago, but another storm could be coming — that of evictions and foreclosures. 

The City Council’s housing committee met Monday to approve new aid and a structure for tenants and landlords to work out back pay. 

“I believe Bronzeville will be hit hard, that’s why it was very important to support rental assistance funding,” she said. “If we pass this rental assistance bill in City Council this week, it’s only $20 million. We need much more support from the state and federal government.” 

One landmark in community is the Harold Washington Cultural Center, which has sat vacant for the shutdown, although it continues to provide socially distant arts programs for Chicago Public Schools students. 

Director Jimalita Tillman says waiting until phase five to reopen is too long, and that state and federal aid is needed to help theaters like hers upgrade to meet safety precautions.

And as the nation’s largest independently black-owned theater, Tillman says it should be a center for discussions happening around race right now. 

“We’re ready to go. We’re ready to open up our stages,” she said. “Racism has been here, and in order to undo where it is, it’s going to take the creatives to be able create the content, it’s going to take the venues to be able to say we here you and we’re ready to put to action, and working closely with our elected officials to do so. 

Another Bronzeville institution is the Chicago Urban League, which works for economic, educational and social progress for African Americans in Chicago.

Its president and CEO Karen Freeman-Wilson says she’s very concerned about the long-term impacts of COVID-19 and property destruction on black-owned businesses across Chicago. 

“We know that as a result of the civil unrest in the ‘60s, there were businesses and business corridors that did not come back on the West Side,” she said. “We’re concerned … it will be very difficult for those businesses [now] to come back. There is a trickle-down effect because … those businesses employ people who live in this community.”

Video: Watch our full interview with Karen Freeman-Wilson of the Chicago Urban League.

Amidst economic concerns are ongoing calls for police reform in Bronzeville and beyond. 

State Sen. Robert Peters (D-Chicago) is advocating for several measures at the state level to curb police powers and abuse, including the licensing of officers.

“Essentially, if you license a cop or you certificate a cop and then they commit something bad … they get pulled. And if you see enough people experience this, it creates a sense of accountability that can hold the rest of the department, the rest of the police force … to not be abusive, not be brutal,” he said. 

Peters says efforts to license police should be combined with city-level measures to divert some money used for policing to fund social services like mental health outreach. 

Video: Watch our full interview with state Sen. Robert Peters (D-Chicago).

Follow us on Twitter: @paschutz / @rquinnmyers

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with 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 by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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