Will we be unwelcome in Bronzeville?
June 13, 2008 1:15 PM   Subscribe

Seeking advice and opinion about moving to Chicago's Bronzeville neighborhood.

My husband and I are considering a move from our northside Uptown neighborhood to the historic and historically African-American Bronzeville area. To get to the point here, my husband and I are accustomed to living in very diverse (racial, ethnic, socioeconomic, etc.) urban areas, we both appreciate character, history and architecture, and we both happen to be white. My questions for other Mefites who live in or are familiar with the Bronzeville area are as follows: Do you think that we, as white professionals, are an improper/unwelcome addition to Bronzeville? Is there much (some?) diversity (Latino, white, Asian) in Bronzeville? Are you happy living there?

My biggest concern with moving to Bronzeville is that I might feel isolated there for lack of diversity and because there seem to be fewer markets and restaurants within walking/biking distance as compared to here on the northside.

I would be very grateful for any and all honest comments and insights from Mefites living in or familiar with the Bronzeville area.
posted by applemeat to Society & Culture (7 answers total) 1 user marked this as a favorite
I live in Hyde Park now, and I don't think I would want to live in Bronzeville (I'm not sure I want to live in HP, either, but that's another story).

I think you can count on some amount of racial animosity, and I would say that in my experience Bronzeville is not very diverse. But the reason I would not live there isn't related to race: it is isolated, public transit is horrible on that part of the South Side, and basic stores and services become an all-day project instead of an errand. You will end up doing all of your grocery and other retail shopping in other parts of town, and you will have to get used to driving everywhere OR get used to having it take 3 hours to go grocery shopping.

I am white, FWIW, but I think that people of all races need groceries.
posted by Ignatius J. Reilly at 3:38 PM on June 13, 2008

A quick Wikipedia search shows Douglas (which contains Bronzeville) to be 85.5% Black and 6.5% white-more diverse what it used to be, but still heavily African-American. I wouldn't be surprised if you faced a great deal of resentment when you moved in. I'd also second the horrible public transportation and lack of easily accessible necessities.
posted by dinty_moore at 4:15 PM on June 13, 2008

You would feel isolated, if only just because of the lack of retail.

Not for nothing, that was the domain of the notoriously racist and incompetent alderman Dorothy Tillman.
posted by gjc at 6:23 PM on June 13, 2008

I don't know that you will be unwelcome, but you certainly won't be within walking distance of much of anything.

You should move to Hyde Park, I live there. The area is hardly the retail Mecca of the North, but the area is diverse, the people are pretty nice and you are within walking distance of the lake.
posted by aetg at 7:11 PM on June 13, 2008

I lived for 5 years on the IIT campus between 2000 and 2005. Are you looking at moving into the mixed income housing located at 35th between State and Wabash? Obviously you'll have good access to both the Red and Green lines from there. When I lived there, it wasn't a great walking neighborhood if you didn't own a car, but driving to the store to get groceries was simple and easy.

The IIT public safety force wasn't exactly competent, but there sheer presence plus the large police station at 37th serve to form a fairly safe buffer in the immediate area.

To get to the larger question of diversity and interesting things to do, I have to admit that I never really got into anything besides running along Lake Shore Drive in the immediate area off campus.

I am definitely interested and hopeful that somebody has more positive things to say about the neighborhood.
posted by onalark at 9:15 PM on June 14, 2008

Thank-you to all for your comments, we really appreciate them.

Our particular reason for choosing Bronzeville, in addition to its architectural history, well-maintained parks, and proximity to Lake/Lake S. Dr. and the Loop, is that we found an amazing Victorian house on an attractive residential street in the vicinity of Oakwood/39th/M.L.K. My husband and I spent two years looking for a vintage house up here in (diverse, somewhat seedy, architecturally amazing) Uptown, but when nothing in our moderate price range worked out for us, we reluctantly expanded our search to other parts of the city known for interesting architecture--and immediately found this Oakwood house that takes my breath away (and has a great yard for dogs!)

I rode my bike all around the new area yesterday, and have to agree with the comments above about the dearth of shops and services. So I've accepted that I am just going to have to have a car. It does seem like much of the area between Oakwood and IIT is already undergoing recent improvement and progress, e.g. empty lots and sketchy, boarded-up liquor stores now advertising new condos coming soon, abandoned buildings being re-habbed by developers, a brand new dry cleaners, a new outdoor produce market that just debuted this morning. And the notorious Dorothy Tillman is gone now.

Do any of you have experience with riding the M.L.K. CTA bus to the Loop? Not sure I want to walk west to the Sox/36th stop redline after dark.

Disconcerting moment: During my bike ride yesterday I passed by a group of very young kids, one of whom called out "Hey fuckin' white lady!" *Sigh* Can't say that I can’t imagine where the kid is coming from (I have unfortunate memories of my own uneducated, depression-era white grandparents privately expressing similarly ugly views when the "coloreds" moved into "their" Chicago block in the late 1970's.) And well, at least he called me a "lady." I suppose I should get used to some degree of unfriendly encounters, I just hope not to get such blatant scorn from my adult neighbors.

Final question: Is it “wrong” or “unethical” for us to move into a neighborhood that has for years celebrated itself as a center of black history? …Am I being overly sensitive about this, or, conversely, not sensitive enough?
posted by applemeat at 8:31 AM on June 15, 2008

Final question: Is it “wrong” or “unethical” for us to move into a neighborhood that has for years celebrated itself as a center of black history? …Am I being overly sensitive about this, or, conversely, not sensitive enough?

What you're asking is an amazingly complex question that brings in issues of gentrification, race, and economics.

The fact is you're not the only white people looking for a good value and increasingly people are looking toward the south and west of the city. $500,000 will buy you a lot of home (with maybe even additional rental property) in some parts of town, or a studio in the Gold Coast. Increasingly people are opting for the well built, older bungalows and greystones in less desirable neighborhoods.

The point is that you're entering into a neighborhood that is in flux. What it is today is not what it is going to be like 10 or 20 years from now. The Chicago housing market is one of the few which has actually seen a slight increase in recent years as opposed to loosing value. People will always want to live here, and that means increasingly neighborhoods like Bronzeville will become more gentrified (read: white) as the limited and overpriced homes on northside increasingly become harder to afford.

This 2004 article from the Washington Post documents some of the changes. Notably:

"An analysis of census data by the local nonprofit organization We the People Media notes that in the Grand Boulevard area, which encompasses Bronzeville, property values have risen 400 percent from 1990 to 2000, and there has been a tenfold increase in applications for building permits."

A lot of research has been done on this, but Chicago exemplifies the new service-oriented economy that we now find ourselves in. Manufacturing jobs are gone and have been replaced with white and blue collar service jobs. Increasingly in this city you're either cleaning toilets or trading futures. What that means is that populations with low education attainment are feeling the squeeze as higher educated central business district (CBD) workers move back into the city chasing high paying service jobs (banking, legal, IT, etc.) Those people have to live somewhere, and increasingly that somewhere is anywhere within proximity to the Loop.

I moved from the north side to Pilsen last year. Mainly to get closer to school and work, but also because I wanted to live in what I thought would be a unique neighborhood. I have mixed feelings about it. On one hand I like that the neighborhood is working class, cheap, and different. On the other hand I've found that the "Pilsen pride" everyone here talks about seems to be contradictory to the amount of graffiti, litter, and general dirtiness of the neighborhood. Travel a few blocks south into Bridgeport, where it's white working class and the sidewalks are spotless. Most of that has to do with city services, so in that respect it falls on the ineffectiveness of the Chicago Latino leaders to leverage political power for things like trashcans. The rest is cultural.

Litter is just a pet peeve of mine. The real problem is that education attainment is in the ditch for Latinos in Chicago. Second and third generation Mexican-Americans do well enough, but the influx of new-wave immigrants really drag the demographics down.

The writing is on the wall though for Pilsen's future. People on the northside are looking at maps of Chicago and realizing, "Hey, Pilsen is actually closer to the Loop than Lincoln Park, and what do you know, I can buy a three-flat, fixer-upper there for less than the cost of a condo here..." It's a no brainer. Pilsen is going to be sold out from under the Latino's in another 10 years. Just look at the south Halsted corridor between 14th and Cermack. If you didn't know better, there is no way in hell you'd believe that it was the eastern edge of Pilsen. It's all art galleries and cafes. Property values have gone up - I shit you not - 584% this decade. (All this information I'm pulling from memory, I'm a pol-sci grad at UIC and have studied gentrification around town, but particularly in Pilsen.)

But getting back to Bronzeville and your question...

If your experience is anything like mine in Pilsen you'll encounter both resistance and encouragement.

It's difficult to write these things without sounds like a jerk or a racist, but the fact is many people in the neighborhood will be grateful to have white neighbors because they equate that will increasing property values, decreasing crime rates, and more money coming into the community. Others will be resentful because they recognize that it means you're pushing out people who have been their longer. Mainly that's going to fall between people who have been able to buy into the neighborhood (property and business owners) and those who have less direct financial investments there.

I rent a one-bedroom apartment in Pilsen. In my price range I was looking for a two-bedroom. I settled on the one-bedroom by accident, just because it was rehabbed and had the features I really wanted. The point is here I am going around the neighborhood, a single guy, and I'm occupying a space that just a few years ago an entire Latino family would have occupied. Plus I'm paying more. Landlords are getting wise to that. Buildings all over the neighborhood are being rehabbed and rents are going up. I talked with a lot of landlords before moving here and everyone of them were way more excited about renting to a grad student than to a family... less hassles and more money.

Pilsen is unique because there is the cultural-nationalist force that is sometimes saying things like, "stop gentrification" or "keep the gringos out" and I don't think you'll encounter that on the same level in Bronzeville just because the nationalist component is missing.

Still you'll have to make adjustments. For one, you'll have to think a lot more seriously about your safety. Bronzeville is on up there as far as crime goes in the city. According to EveryBlock Chicago there have been over 900 crimes reported in the last 50 days. They pull their data from CPD blotter - so I think it's reasonably accurate.

You're trading safety and quality of life for value. Keep that in mind and you'll be fine.
posted by wfrgms at 1:04 PM on June 15, 2008 [4 favorites]

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