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What To Do in Bronzeville, Chicago’s Forgotten Black Neighborhood

Here’s what to see, do, and eat in Chicago’s historic South Side neighborhood.

Part of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Bronzeville, Chicago.
Hi, I'm Alex!

Alex Miller has written for Esquire, Wired, NBC, and more. He is a Reporting Fellow for the Economic Hardship Reporting Project. Alex is working on a mid-grade memoir about attending school for the first time when he was 11 years old.

As a kid, I can only remember my little part of Bronzeville—a forgotten neighborhood on Chicago’s South Side—as “The Hole,” also known as the Robert Taylor Homes. The 16-story housing projects once competed with the equally-infamous Chicago North Side Cabrini–Green projects for the most dangerous place in America during the 90s. But it wasn’t always this way; Bronzeville was once known as the “Black Metropolis” and its cultural scene served as Chicago’s answer to New York City’s Harlem Renaissance. Here’s how Bronzeville went from thriving to rundown to what it is today—a Chicago neighborhood with a flourishing future.

The Black history of Bronzeville, Chicago

From the 1920s to the 1950s, Bronzeville was the center for business and African American culture in Chicago, home to places such as Binga Bank, a financial institution run by the city’s first Black banker, Jesse Binga; Wabash YMCA; and the George Cleveland Hall Library. Known as the “Black Metropolis,” this area was Chicago’s version of the Harlem Renaissance. At its peak, more than 300,000 people (mostly Black, many professional, including writers such as Gwendolyn Brooks; playwrights and actors; and jazz, blues, and gospel singers such as Louis Armstrong) lived in the 7-mile-long (11-kilometer-long) neighborhood. There is some debate about the original boundaries of the neighborhood; however, today, it is generally agreed the heart of the neighborhood, and therefore the bulk of the original, historic neighborhood, stretches from 31st St. South to Pershing, and east from today’s Dan Ryan Expressway to Lake Michigan.

Aviator Bessie Coleman and writer Gwendolyn Brooks on postage stamps.
Both Bessie Coleman and Gwendolyn Brooks called Bronzeville home.Foto: Boris15 / Shutterstock | spatuletail / Shutterstock

Bronzeville was also well-known for its nightclubs and businesses, dancehalls, and entertainment. In the 1920s, Avalon Theater—now Avalon Regal Theater (located at 1641 East 79th St.)—would ultimately become known for hosting such icons as Dizzy Gillespie, the aforementioned Armstong, and Duke Ellington. Jazz and blues truly altered music in general … and much of that influence was nurtured in Bronzeville. (Although jazz was born in the south, it’s widely believed that the syncopated rhythms arrived in Chicago at the start of the Great Migration, the 1910–1970 period during which Black southerners made their way north.)

While the mass exodus of Black people out of the south initially brought prosperity and culture to Bronzeville, Chicago, after many generations and both WWII and the Korean War, Bronzeville lost its luster. Black ownership fell in the neighborhood by the 50s, and when the 60s rolled around, crime rates were on the rise. But all was not lost. Since 2007, Bronzeville and its surrounding areas have changed a lot, and for the better. Many beautification projects have taken place, such as the Southbridge megadevelopment project, which is expected to erect around 900 new homes within the next few years, though no definite completion date has been announced. And you can also find the main campus of the Illinois Institute of Technology in Bronzeville.

A statue honoring the Great Northern Migration in Bronzeville, Chicago
A statue paying homage to the Great Migration in Bronzeville, Chicago.Foto: Thomas Barrat / Shutterstock

Explore Bronzeville’s historical buildings

Black author Lee Bey said, “Buildings are precious to Bronzeville’s revival,” so I recommend starting your visit to the neighborhood with a tour of some of the most notable.

Preservationists have been hard at work on keeping the Forum Assembly, a 19th-century meeting hall that might otherwise be lost to history. Designed by Samuel Atwater Treat, it’s not the most beautiful of buildings, but that’s part of its charm, in my opinion. The faded bricks and massive, painstakingly colorful angelic frescos of the large building (reminiscent of a Black church) is a priceless piece of local history. Now a member of the National Register of Historic Places, the institution, which has stood since 1897, has hosted performances by the likes of Milt Hinton and Muddy Waters. You can find it at 318–328 East 43rd St., and still catch live jazz, hip-hop, and poetry performances there today.

While several historical former residences still exist, many locations are approximations due to lack of records. Andrew “Rube” Foster, founder of the Negro National Baseball League lived around 39th and Wentworth Avenue. Ida B. Wells, famous civil rights activist and co-organizer of the NAACP, lived at 3624 South King Drive. The Ida B. Wells House, a national historic landmark named after the famed freedom fighter and social justice warrior who strove to bring an end to lynching and segregation, is not open to the public, but can be admired from the street. The first licensed Black and Native American aviatrix Bessie Coleman lived around 41st St. and King Drive. And acclaimed R&B legend Sam Cooke called 3527 South Cottage Grove his home. This location is currently a private residence, but can also be viewed from the street.

The exterior of The Forum Assembly in Bronzeville, Chicago
Bronzeville's The Forum is undergoing continued revitalization efforts.Foto: Urban Juncture

Where to eat and drink in Bronzeville, Chicago

The Bronzeville Winery is located at 4420 South Cottage Grove Avenue. Here, you can enjoy “a rotating wine list with selections from around the world highlighting women, minority, and African-American owned labels” along with Spanish cod fritters or rosemary potato flatbread pizzette, accompanied by live DJ sets hosted Wednesday–Sunday.

Still hungry? Don’t skip Harold’s Chicken. Their Bronzeville location, at 503 East 47th St., holds some of my earliest and most favorable memories; chicken as large as your hand, biscuits as soft as a feather, and greens so mouth-watering, you’ll beg for the recipe.

Round out your day with a visit to Bronzeville Soul, at 4655 South Martin Luther King Dr. Soul food is uniquely American, yet, by proxy, African, and holds a special place in the heart of many African Americans like myself. At Bronzeville Soul, each bite comes served with a helping of Black culture and it’s a must-eat if you’re in the area.

Fried chicken and honey butter biscuit.
Be sure to try fried chicken and biscuits in Bronzeville.Foto: Brent Hofacker / Shutterstock

Other things to do in and around Bronzeville, Chicago

One of my favorite haunts as a kid was the famous Harold Washington Library, named after the city’s first Black mayor, located at 400 South State St. in The Loop. The magnificent behemoth of a library is like an amusement park of words. An epic Lady Liberty–green roof covers a building the size of several city blocks. At one time, it even held one of my father’s paintings. While much of his work has been lost to time, you can still find a beautiful painting of Malcolm X that he did for the Malcolm X College on the Near West Side.

Speaking of art, if you’re looking to pick up a piece to take home, visit Faie Afrikan Art Gallery, located at 1005 East 43rd St. With dazzling pieces from Western, Eastern, and Southern Africa, you won’t want to leave empty handed. And, of course, you must go see the White Sox play at 33 West 35th St. Folks will also be glad to know that the team—briefly called the Black Sox after infamously throwing the 1919 World Series to lose to the Cincinnati Reds—has been totally reformed. They don’t even cheat anymore, I promise.

The Guaranteed Rate Field in Bronzeville, Chicago.
Don't skip a White Sox game in Bronzeville, Chicago.Foto: Grindstone Media Group / Shutterstock

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