By Ni’Shele Jackson
For Perspectives of Neighborhood Change: Case Studies 2018, African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, National Trust for Historic Preservation
This case study explores the role of community identity in organized resistance to displacement in Bronzeville and Woodlawn. A shared sense of neighborhood identity—especially when reinforced through commemoration and preservation—can build a community’s collective efficacy, which is defined as the ability of tight-knit communities to achieve common purposes and goals together.
To explore this, I compared the physical characteristics and prominent development pressures of both communities and interviewed neighborhood residents. At the start, I expected that Bronzeville residents would possess a united front against displacement because of their strong neighborhood identity and rich cultural history. However, Woodlawn shows us how the preservation of everyday places, such as affordable housing complexes and more recent histories, is equally important to neighborhood identity. Often developers rely on the forced displacement of residents, especially those in affordable housing complexes, to acquire properties. Bronzeville, Woodlawn, and their neighborhood identities suffer from the displacement of residents because of flaws and a lack of action in a city initiative, called the Plan for Transformation, to replace public housing stock.
Bronzeville and Woodlawn are long-standing African American communities on the South Side of Chicago. While both neighborhoods are equally rich in history, Bronzeville is more widely regarded as culturally and historically distinct. Split between the Grand Boulevard and Douglas areas, Bronzeville has been a hub for black Chicagoans since the Great Migration of black southerners to northern, segregated cities, which was facilitated by the neighborhood’s accessibility by train beginning in the 1920s.
Nine structures in Bronzeville are city landmarks, and numerous markers around Bronzeville identify historically significant places, including the former home of abolitionist and journalist, Ida B. Wells. The South Side Community Art Center, a former mansion that was bought and redeveloped by local black artists with support from the Works Progress Administration in 1940, is another prominent cultural and Chicago Historic Landmark.
Woodlawn, on the other hand, has a shorter history as an African American community. In the 1950s, blacks moved into the neighborhood following white flight to the suburbs. The University of Chicago has also greatly influenced building
patterns in the neighborhood. Yet throughout its relatively brief history, Woodlawn has been a hub for talented jazz musicians such as Ray Charles; a stage for infamous community organizing efforts by the gang, Blackstone Rangers; and home to legendary DJs such as Chicago household name, DJ Herb Kent.
Like many South Side black neighborhoods, Bronzeville and Woodlawn share a common characteristic: vacant lots. In Bronzeville, vacant lots in residential areas are juxtaposed against beautiful mansions now divided into apartments and other small living spaces. Public art abounds in Bronzeville; mosaics and large painted murals of black faces or Egyptian imagery decorate many buildings. In Woodlawn there is less grand architecture and fewer murals, but similarly, the empty lots stand out against the neighborhood’s three-story greystones and brick, two- and three-flat apartments. Vacant, underutilized, or deteriorated storefronts are found in both neighborhoods. Many older residents remember when the properties were well-used. Bronzeville resident Adilisha Safi ponders aloud:
“Vacant lots. Vacant lots. Why? What’s up with this? For me that’s most disturbing. You see homeless people and you got vacant lots…You know there was something there. What was that? I’m always asking, what was there? And if there were people, where are they now? It was either schools, or homes, or a business so, where are they?”
The vacancies cause economic drain from the neighborhoods because there are few local businesses where residents can spend their money. Residents must go to other neighborhoods for simple things such as groceries, which disconnects residents from their communities and works against the formation of local identity.
Preserving African American Places: Growing Preservation’s Potential as a Path for Equity
Under the auspices of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund and funded by the Ford Foundation and The JPB Foundation, the National Trust for Historic Preservation presents Preserving African American Places: Growing Preservation’s Potential as a Path for Equity. This report seeks to elevate emerging ideas, research, observations, and questions on the critically important issues of equitable development, social justice, and the practice of preservation.
At the heart of this project is the central question: How can preservation be a force for advancing equitable development and social justice in African American neighborhoods and other communities of color?
While not intended as a definitive research study or comprehensive analysis, this report reflects both past and current progress, and explores, uncovers, and advocates for expanding the role that cultural heritage and its preservation can and should play in the equitable growth of our communities.
Preserving African American Places seeks to understand the implications of place-based injustice and their impact on the preservation of African American cultural heritage, as well as to identify preservation-based strategies for equitable growth and development that respect the historical and present-day realities and conditions of African American Neighborhoods.