By Kate Silver
Bronzeville is rich with famous residents, architecture, and history — it peeks from the shadows of the mansion-lined boulevards and from tree-studded streets. Once home to Chicago’s own Harlem Renaissance in the early-to-mid 20th century, the district became a hub for African American musicians, artists, writers, activists, and entrepreneurs.
Today, the neighborhood is seeing yet another resurgence, drawing doctors, lawyers, teachers, and business makers to the elegant Victorian-era homes, airy new condos, and funky artist lofts close to Lake Michigan and downtown.
Accessible from the Green Line (transfer from the Blue Line if coming from O’Hare or from the Orange Line from Midway) or by car, Bronzeville promises an enlightening jaunt through history, with plenty to eat, drink, and experience along the way. Here are some ideas for your next visit.
What To Do
Around the neighborhood, statues, memorials, and monuments pay tribute to Bronzeville’s rich history. The Monument to the Great Northern Migration (2600 S. Martin Luther King Drive) celebrates the black southerners who journeyed north to make their home here, and the Victory Monument (3500 S. Martin Luther King Drive), honors the black soldiers of the Eighth Regiment of the United States National Guard who fought in World War I.
Inside a park at 636 E. 35th Street, find the Stephen A. Douglas Tomb and Memorial, housing the remains of the famed Illinois politician and presidential candidate defeated by Abraham Lincoln in 1860, after a series of debates on slavery that rippled across the nation. The tomb is also only steps from the former site of Camp Douglas, one of the Union’s largest prisoner of war camps for Confederate soldiers during the Civil War.
Nearby, the former homes of famous residents are designated by historic markers. While none of them are open for tours, they can be viewed on a brief drive or not-so-brief walking tour from the Chicago History Museum, which tells the tales of legends like Louis Armstrong (421 E. 44th Street), journalist/abolitionist Ida B. Wells-Barnett (3624 S. King Drive), singer Nat “King” Cole (4023 S. Vincennes), author Richard Wright (4831 S. Vincennes Avenue), and Pulitzer-Prize-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks, whose first collection of poems was, in fact, titled A Street in Bronzeville (Brooks, along with Nat “King” Cole and Quincy Jones, at one time had apartments at 4600 S. Michigan Avenue).
Architecture buffs will want to make time to walk around Illinois Institute of Technology. Starting in the late 1930s, Ludwig Mies van der Rohe worked here for two decades as the head of the Department of Architecture, and 20 of his angular steel and concrete buildings still have a commanding presence on campus. A few blocks to the south, four connected homes with high-pitched gables, known as the Robert W. Roloson Houses (3213–3219 Calumet Avenue) represent the only row houses build by architect Frank Lloyd Wright.
And a house of worship — which operated first as a Jewish synagogue and then served as Pilgrim Baptist Church before a devastating fire in 2006 — designed by the famous architectural duo Dankmar Adler and Louis Sullivan is undergoing a transformation into the National Museum of Gospel Music (3300 S Indiana Avenue), scheduled to open in spring 2020.
One of the guarded local secrets about Chicago is this: it’s actually a beach town. Bronzeville, within walking distance of Lake Michigan, is beloved by those seeking sun and sand. 31st Street Beach is a few steps from numerous boat docks and a playground, and also has concessions and restrooms. Oakwood Beach, Chicago’s newest beach, is also home to a beach house with concessions and restrooms. At both, you can dip your toes into chilly Lake Michigan and admire the dreamy Chicago skyline in the distance.
For more activity and adventure, grab your sneakers and head to the Chicago Lakefront Trail, which passes by both beaches on its 18-mile route from 7100 S. Shore Drive to 5800 N. Sheridan Road. If the weather is nice, the path will be packed with runners, walkers, cyclists, in-line skaters, and other Chicagoans eager to soak up the precious sun before winter sets in.
A number of galleries make up the Bronzeville Art District, and in the summer months, their doors are open late on the third Friday of the month for the 3rd Friday Trolley Tour. Whatever the season, art aficionados should check out places like Gallery Guichard, featuring art inspired by the African Diaspora. The owners of Faie Afrikan Art were inspired by a trip to Mali and Guinea to bring art from Africa home to Bronzeville and share it with the public. Visitors can see the types of sculptures, paintings and textiles you would expect to find in a museum.
The South Side Community Art Center — designated a National Treasure by the National Trust for Historic Preservation and deemed a Chicago Historic Landmark — dates back to the 1940s, when it was founded by a group of artists led by artist, educator, and Bronzeville resident Margaret Burroughs to showcase and celebrate works by African American artists. Initially supported in part by funds from the Works Progress Administration, the center was dedicated in 1941 by First Lady Eleanor Roosevelt. Through exhibitions and programming, the center continues to inspire and promote African American art and artists.
Named after Chicago’s first African American mayor, the Harold Washington Cultural Center is Bronzeville’s home to Broadway and performance. In addition to a 1,000-seat theater, the center also offers educational workshops in dance, music, and performing arts, and invites local artists to use the facilities. Visit broadwayinbronzeville.com to see what’s playing during your visit.
What To Eat
Do you want Southern food, seafood, or Senegalese food? It’s all right here in Bronzeville, along with plenty of the neighborhood’s own local delicacies. The difficult choice begins at sunrise with breakfast. The peach bourbon French toast at Peach’s Restaurant — a breakfast/lunch joint known for its comfort food — is quite possibly the best way ever to start any day. And if you really like peach, ask for the peach coffee.
Chicago’s Home of Chicken and Waffles pairs sweet and savory for breakfast, lunch, and dinner, serving its namesake chicken and waffles along with catfish and waffles, omelets, skillets, and soul-food fare. For even more down-home cooking, Pearl’s Place serves a buffet three meals a day, along with made-to-order options, like shrimp and cheesy grits and jerk turkey. Cleo’s mixes up its menu on a daily basis, but you can always expect Southern classics, like a pan-seared, garlic-herbed salmon and an addictive hot honey fried chicken sandwich.
Norman’s Bistro serves American Creole with a Brazilian flair, with entrees such as shrimp, chicken and lobster gumbo, smoked cranberry salmon, and a duck burger. Live music often fills the bar area, with R&B, house, and other sounds; Sunday is jazz night. Truth Italian Restaurant puts a modern-spin on old-world classics, serving up favorites such as lobster bisque, steak marsala, and a turkey meatball sandwich. Breakfast, served until 3 pm, is popular here, too, especially the Philly chicken omelet, caramel French toast with apples, and sweet potato waffle with chicken. For a more casual Italian fix, stop by Slice of Bronzeville pizza parlor for a jumbo slice of the popular turkey sausage pie.
Speaking of turkey, at Just Turkey, everything is turkey-based — barbecue turkey, turkey burgers, turkey sausage, and the list goes on. Salads and sandwiches and wraps are the draw at Tastee Cafe, starting with the jerk chicken salad, spicy shrimp wrap, and pastrami melt. Try to save room for the tempting brownies, cakes, and cupcakes.
When ordering a seafood boil at Two Fish Crab Shack, diners choose their favorite crustaceans (lobster, crab, shrimp, crawfish), preferred flavor (jerk, Cajun, lemon pepper, garlic butter) and heat level and then get messy, eating it with their hands. While at Yassa African Restaurant, Madieye and Awa Gueye, who come from the Wolof Tribe of Senegal, serve favorites from their homeland, like Yassa Chicken with onion, garlic, mustard, and spices, and House Thiebou Ganaar — chicken fried rice with stewed vegetables — blending flavors reminiscent of Asia and Jamaica, while standing in a class all of their own.
Dance off your dinner at Renaissance Bronzeville, where DJs play and themes (“I live for Wednesdays,” “Rebirth Thursdays,” “Reign Fridays”) change throughout the week
WHAT TO DRINK
Since 1999, Some Like it Black Creative Arts Bar has been welcoming creatives to come together for a smoothies, coffee, cocktails, tacos, and sandwiches. On some evenings, the fare includes live music and spoken-word events.
If you need a caffeine boost, Sip & Savor has your answer in the form of indulgent espresso concoctions, like the banana caramel latte, honey vanilla latte, and fair-trade coffee.