Environmental improvements include initiatives for outdoor beautification like the Bronzeville Community Garden, located on the southeast corner of 51st and Calumet, 51st Street Trees, garden and bike paths, and the Wall of Peace and Love. In addition, the creation of functional green space in Green Line Farms and Greenhouse Box are sources for fresh, healthy foods for community residents and restaurant goers.
The ingenuity and perseverance of Black Belt residents created the Black Metropolis, the “city within the city” that provided them with all the needs of urban life, and Chicago’s Black Renaissance, the flowering of arts and culture that made Bronzeville the soul of the city and a key center for artistic performance and innovation in the U.S.
Unfortunately, federally-mandated redlining, corporate disinvestment, and state and municipal neglect deeply undermined this vibrant community. When Civil Rights advances eliminated legalized segregation, Blacks left Bronzeville by the thousands to escape what had become crowded, rundown tenements along dirty and potholed streets and seek opportunity elsewhere. By the turn of the 21st century, Bronzeville had lost more than three quarters of its population and the vast majority of its retail and hospitality establishments, vacant, blighted lots and empty storefronts marked large sections of the community, most schools were failing, the income and wealth of remaining families was just a fraction of that of other Chicago households, and disconnected youth and crime dominated newspaper stories.
Build Bronzeville invests in beautification of neighborhood spaces and engagement of residents because this is of critical importance in the revitalization process. Blighted spaces contribute to feelings of despair and hopelessness among residents, encourage poor behavior by all, and act as a deterrent to visits from patrons from outside the neighborhood.
Likewise, the breakdown of community-level social capital and the disengagement of community members creates barriers to neighborhood revitalization. Retail and service enterprises require a local, accessible market of size. A market that is splintered due to internal divisions is difficult and expensive to serve. Moreover, the large wealth gap between Black and White households creates a substantial displacement threat. We must engage the predominantly African American residents of our neighborhood in order to retain the benefits of reinvestment, including access to leadership, job, ownership, and networking opportunities, and recirculation of dollars within our community.
These benefits are critical to allowing us to improve our economic standing and retain residency during the increase in real estate values and improvement in community “brand” that inevitably accompany reinvestment. If we bring investment to our neighborhood but fail to invest in our neighbors, we allow gentrification and displacement to replace revitalization as the primary mode of community transformation.
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We work to create attractive spaces that raise our spirits, bring us together, and facilitate further investment. We have focused our efforts on two sets of opportunities: establishing neighborhood gardens and facilitating creation of public art. In addition, we work hard to locate our gardens and art installations in clusters adjacent to our other initiatives in order to develop a critical mass of positive activity. Moreover, we try to integrate art, music, and green elements into all our physical developments and to support local “clean and green” initiatives.
Neighborhood gardens yield multiple benefits in communities such as ours: converting some of the many vacant, often blighted, parcels of land to attractive spaces; providing quality produce in food desert neighborhoods; engaging underutilized human resources; and providing a safe space for all to come together. We have established two major neighborhood gardens, Bronzeville Community Garden (2010) and Greenline Farm (2015) that, while very different, both play highly visible and important roles on 51st Street.
Bronzeville Community Garden is a highly accessible space at the southeast corner of 51st & Calumet. Containing more than a dozen oversized garden beds, a chef’s pavilion, multiple gaming stations, and several pieces of art, it is designed to facilitate engagement of diverse community members in a variety of activities including gardening, gaming, and socializing. It also is the most accessible physical “gateway” to our broader Build Bronzeville effort.
Greenline Farm is a 5000+ sq. ft. crop production facility that occupies the first floor roof of our culinary facility. It lies at the center of an integrated food production, stormwater management, and neighborhood beautification program, serving the culinary venues located in the spaces directly underneath with high quality, organic, hyper-local produce, absorbing up to 100,000 gallons of rainwater every year and thereby reducing basement flooding, and, inspiring the approximately 1000 daily Green Line commuters who exit at the 51st Street platform, just 20 feet east of the farm, with it’s unique vista.
Beautiful, publicly accessible art can transform the look and feel of otherwise challenged neighborhood spaces. Working with neighborhood artists we have developed several art installations in Bronzeville Community Garden, as well as a 2000 square foot mural, the Wall of Peace and Love, located across the street from the garden. We also have facilitated creation of 4 murals at Boxville, ranging from 100 to 320 square feet and applied directly to shipping containers. In addition, we have used the prominent south facing facade of The Forum at 43rd Street and the CTA Green Line to celebrate some of our community’s leading musical performers and key events in history.
Neighborhood engagement is a central Build Bronzeville objective. Our goal is to engage our neighbors in pivotal roles in the reinvestment process in order to ensure local ownership and maximize community revitalization. And, we use deeply-rooted community assets – including cuisine, culture, and history – as platforms for developing commerce not just because these assets are unique and valuable but also because they allow community members to leverage their familiarity for competitive advantage.
Engagement is a process. It starts with identifying key stakeholder segments, building awareness of engagement opportunities within each segment, encouraging patronage of events and enterprises, and facilitating deeper involvement through, for example, volunteerism, contracting or employment, investment and/or ownership, and leadership. We use a variety of tools to facilitate engagement at each phase of this process: social media as well as physical collateral to build awareness; different tailored events – from large block parties to small, targeted group dinners – to encourage participation; a focus on local networks to identify potential team members; and, an explicit bias towards providing opportunity to long-term residents and other individuals and enterprises with strong connections to Bronzeville.
It takes a commitment from and collaboration between community members, the business sector, government municipalities, and charitable foundations to bring each new concept to life. Our partners in revitalization are critical to Build Bronzeville’s success. Learn how you can help.DONATE