Years of Creation
Mrs. Faye Mitchell, the Vice-Principal of St. Elizabeth Elementary School in Bronzeville, a south side Chicago neighborhood, remembered the stories her mother told her about migrating to Chicago from the South. She spoke of the opportunities that her parents looked forward to in their move to the North. When her parent's arrived in Chicago, her father obtained an industrial job working for the steel mills, and her mother remained a housewife. In 1945, her mother saw an advertisement in the paper for new homes on the South Side of Chicago in a neighborhood known as Bronzeville. Ecstatic to see these houses offered to the African-American community, Mrs. Mitchell's family decided to move from their apartment on the West Side and purchase this home. Mrs. Mitchell was a baby when her family decided to make this move and she has remained in Bronzeville for her entire life.
When interviewing Mrs. Mitchell, she discussed how Bronzeville used to be when she was growing up. She delivered a description of a neighborhood in which people were concerned about their neighbors and their property. She spoke of a time when Bronzeville was the center for African-American culture in Chicago. She continued to speak of the times when she and her sister would not have to leave the community for live entertainment. They would just go to places like the historical Regal Theatre, on the corner of 47th and Grand Boulevard, and see such acts as Duke Ellington and Count Basie.1
When I asked what she has seen occur in this neighborhood in the past fifty-four years, she addressed the spread of poverty and the attitude of indifference that has become prevalent in the neighborhood. "[The current residents of Bronzeville] don't care," she said.2 She addressed the problems that she has experienced when people have walked, nonchalantly, in her lawn and the times when she has found empty wine bottles in her backyard. Mrs. Mitchell believes that even if you are experiencing rough times, you do not have to show it by disrespecting your neighborhood. She firmly declared, "People cared when I was growing up."3
Along with this attitude of indifference, Mrs. Mitchell attributes the decline of her neighborhood and community to the construction of the public housing projects that sit on State Street known as "Black Belt" Chicago. There are two very large adjacent public housing projects that sit in Bronzeville making this first congressional district the poorest in the nation. As Mrs. Mitchell stated:
When [the government] first built [the housing projects] the people
that lived there were working class people. Then they did not want the working class people living in them…When
they told them they had to leave, they started having these different people come in, the ones that did not work;
that lowered everything . . . You don't let a building destroy you.4
In observing the decline of this neighborhood, one question should come to mind: Who is to blame for this decline? With the emergence of the African-American ghetto, white America made a series of deliberate attempts to deny minority access to urban housing markets and to reinforce their spatial segregation. This series of well-defined institutional practices, private behaviors, and public policies constructed the black ghetto.5
Urban renewal forced African-Americans to one side of the city where segregation
was perpetuated and the overcrowded neighborhood contributed to the problems of substandard housing. Urban renewal's
proposal--to solve the problem of blight in Bronzeville--and its implementation was ostensibly for the betterment
of the focused area and its surroundings. On the contrary, by analyzing its outcomes, it seems that historically,
this project caused more harms than good to Bronzeville. Although the process of urban renewal was a government
program established to remedy the problems of housing associated with the post World War eras, the implementation
and outcome of this project could not encourage a positive change to Bronzeville because of racist intent of federal
and local policies.
The type of neighborhood change that Grand Boulevard experienced was not an unusual process in urban neighborhoods. According to Chicago Urban League's theory of residential succession, when one ethnic group moves into a neighborhood the previous ethnic residents moved away. Likewise, this also takes place when one racial category of the population replaces another as residents of an area.11 There are many factors that encourage residential succession including the "blackening" of schools or a feeling of threat to the members of a community.12 Grand Boulevard residents experienced the beginning of its residential succession with the Chicago race riots of 1919, which contributed to the Irish and Jewish families moving out of the neighborhood leaving it to the African-American residents. The riots helped establish a safe haven for African-American residents. It is argued that, "the large concentration of blacks in the inner city rendered exceedingly unlikely the stalking and killing of individual blacks."13 Therefore, the tension created by these riots made it unsafe as an interracial neighborhood and this also contributed to this residential succession of race establishing an entire new neighborhood. Thus, the creation of Bronzeville.
Before mid-1916, the black publication, The Chicago Defender, advised the African-American southerners to stay in the south to take advantage of the land opportunities. Once the Defender endorsed the migration Bronzeville's African-American population continued to increase considerably. The migrants found out about the opportunities in the north by reading this paper. The publication earned the title of "most widely read newspaper in the Black south." It provided "prospective migrants glimpses of an exciting city with a vibrant and assertive black community."16 The neighborhood's accessibility to the Illinois Central Railroad location contributed to Bronzeville's popularity. The neighborhoods southern end is located at the railroad's first stop, just east of Bronzeville.17
Many migrants settled in the slums that were located west near State Street in Bronzeville. These slums had been inhabited by African-Americans since 1910 where seventy-eight percent of Black Chicago resided.18 White Chicago referred to this region as the Black Belt. The housing in the Black Belt consisted mostly of run-down shacks. However, some migrants experienced economic prosperity once they got to Chicago and this allowed them to buy homes between thirty-ninth and forty-seventh streets, Cottage Grove and State streets. As more African-Americans moved into Bronzeville, whites moved farther south into the Kenwood and Hyde Park community areas, where restrictive covenants interdicted black home ownership.19
By 1919, Chicago experienced a serious housing shortage. Once the rural migrants arrived in Chicago, they realized that they had run into a land of false hopes. This realization seemed immediate. With their arrival in Chicago, these migrants faced "housing shortages and vacancy rates less than one [percent]."20 The severe housing shortage seriously plagued black Chicago because there was a "surplus of housing" in white neighborhoods in Chicago.21 The huge influx of African-Americans and their limited access to the urban housing market caused this housing shortage. Some of the migrants planned beforehand and networked with the community and their kin to ensure housing and even employment. Churches, previously settled family members, and African-American traveling associations made this network available. This networking system alleviated stress for those who were aware and helped them get a head start on settling into a new environment. Conversely, the African-Americans that did not utilize this network had a hard time finding housing in a neighborhood that did not have very many available housing opportunities.
Chicago's housing situation did not make the transition from south to north easy on the migrants. The newcomers, moving to Chicago, made finding housing their first priority. Some had even come to this new "Promised Land" penniless. They had to use their limited resources to get settled in their new location. The migrants utilized the Travelers Aid Society, which was one of the few resources available to them. This society helped the migrants by referring many to the Chicago Urban League, the black YMCA and other housing agencies in Bronzeville that could attempt to accommodate their urgent housing needs.22 The growing population made it very difficult to house all of the people who needed shelter. Therefore, many found themselves stranded at the train station, lodged in temporary housing facilities or overcrowded in apartment tenements with other African-American southern families.
However, many of the temporary housing agencies did not want to accommodate these migrants. They would often shift this burden to the Chicago Urban League. The deficiency of an open housing market to African-Americans limited the organization's help. The inadequate access that African-Americans had to the urban housing market placed a major strain on the migrants and the Chicago Urban League. Bronzeville was one of only a few neighborhoods in Chicago in which African-Americans had access to the housing. The League could only refer the migrants to certified lodgers. These lodgers included various churches, different hotels and Christian housing institutions.23 Sometimes they provided assistance, but other times they were a chancy risk. As Grossman wrote, "[Many temporary housing agencies] could avoid dealing with blacks by referring them to the Urban League, using that organization--which defined itself as a 'clearinghouse' for social service work among blacks--as a dumping ground for an undesirable clientele."24 The southerners did not complain because, in comparison to their housing in the south, the housing that was offered in the north was luxurious.25
The segregated real estate codes that forced African-Americans to only live in certain communities exacerbated the institutionalization of discrimination in the postwar era. With the help of banks and saving institutions, who often denied loans to African-American home seekers, this process intensified.26 All through the 1940s and 1950s, the relentless evidence of prejudice against African-Americans revealed how racial discrimination negatively impacted African-American communities in the urban housing market.27 Not only did this enforce restrictive living patterns for African-Americans, but it also created a segregated Chicago. This was a problem that the city would have to face years later.
The housing shortage contributed to an overcrowded and deteriorating Bronzeville. The number of people in the tenements placed unexpected strain on the buildings. The overpopulation caused the infrastructure in Bronzeville to decay faster than it would have under normal conditions. Now the migrants faced the formation of a blighted community what would later be identified as a slum. In the Chicago Urban League's report on "Urban renewal and The Negro in Chicago," they summed up the problem by stating, "With Negroes not being able to avail themselves of the normal selective process for housing, and the consequent doubling up, the development of the slum cycle is facilitated."28