Situated squarely between the Windy City’s thriving downtown district and the intellectual hub of Hyde Park’s University of Chicago, Bronzeville is what residents fondly call the “Black Metropolis.”
Everywhere you look you see signs of its heyday, which took place between the 1920s and 1950s – during the Great Migration, when African Americans left the Deep South for prosperous Northern cities like Chicago, Detroit and New York.
Bronzeville was the place to be during this era, serving as a cultural, entertainment and business hub for the black community. At its peak, more than 300,000 residents lived the area stretching from 22nd to 63rd streets between State Street and Cottage Grove.
The heart of the area was at the corner of 47th Street and South Park Boulevard (now Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive). That’s where the Regal Theater once stood, and its performers are now considered legends, from The Supremes and The Temptations to the Jackson 5 and Duke Ellington.
With the turbulence of the 1960s and the Civil Rights Movement came desegregation, and the neighbourhood faced a decline as a number of upper-middle-class and middle-class African Americans left to move to other areas. That decline finally turned around in the 1990s, with the middle class moving back. Local businesses have driven the revival since then.
So where can the visitor catch some of Bronzeville’s rich flavour and history today? Checking into Welcome Inn Manor Bed & Breakfast is a great way to start. The cosy establishment has been around since 1893 and is in walking distance to many of the area’s attractions and hot destinations. Each room offers a different vibe and boasts original African paintings and sculptures. Guests may also book an inclusive transportation package, which takes them to more than 50 sites and tourist attractions around town. All packages include a full hot breakfast, but there are a number of restaurants within five minutes.
High on many visitors’ lists are Bronzeville’s soul food offerings, which range from contemporary, upscale eateries to downhome cafeteria-style cafés. The family-friendly Chicago’s Home of Chicken & Waffles serves, of course, fried chicken and house-made waffles all day. The dish is served in classic fashion here, with syrup on the side, and as if chicken and a waffle isn’t enough, your choice of tasty sides includes grits, fries, eggs or potato salad.
The fancier Norman’s Bistro serves as a grand place to go for live music, socializing and a budget-friendly Sunday brunch. Most dishes are grilled or roasted, with Caribbean and Creole accents, and range from juicy pork chops to seafood gumbo. Live jazz bounces off the exposed brick walls every Sunday, and a backroom lounge features a DJ spinning soul music, or live sports on multiple televisions.
There’s more Caribbean cuisine to be found at Uncle Joe’s, which serves some of the best jerk chicken in Chicago, hands down. It’s mostly a takeout operation – and it’s best to order in advance to avoid long waits – with other menu highlights being the jerk catfish, beef patties and curry goat dinners.
And Pearl’s Place, a favourite of local celebrities and politicians, boasts classic Southern fare in a no-frills setting. Breakfast and lunch buffets are served daily, with such home-style standards as buttermilk biscuits, shrimp and cheesy grits, fried chicken, collard greens, chitterlings, cornbread, peach cobbler and banana pudding. Everything is made in house and vintage photos of Bronzeville’s heyday line the walls.
Live entertainment still hasn’t returned to the strength of the mid-20th century – long gone are the days when high-profile celebrities flocked to Bronzeville to perform. But there are glimmers of a rebirth. Jokes and Notes is doing its part in keeping hope alive. Wednesdays through Saturdays feature up-and-coming comedians, with some days and times are reserved for open-mic nights. Meanwhile, the Harold Washington Cultural Center caters to families with original and re-imagined musicals and theatrical performances.
Little Black Pearl, which focuses on mostly after-school and teen artistic programs during the day, serves as a popular location for after-work and nighttime social events. It showcases artwork from its students throughout the venue, while Blanc Chicago and Gallery Guichard highlight African and African-American work from professional artists. All artwork is for sale.