Chicago’s Rosenwald Apartments are a perennial presence on preservationists’ most endangered lists, so speculation swirled when it was announced last year that city funds would help revive the massive Bronzeville complex.
The 1920s affordable housing project was built with money from Sears Roebuck and Co. leader Julius Rosenwald. A massive multifamily development, the four-story complex takes up a whole city block at 46th Street and South Michigan Avenue, enclosing a private two-acre courtyard.
Vacant for a decade, the building’s decay has mirrored that of many blocks in the neighborhood. But Bronzeville is not short on plans to rejuvenate this community, which is sometimes called The Black Metropolis. In fact, the Rosenwald redevelopment plan, though welcomed by some, irked the local community development partnership for its reliance on low-income housing.
Royce Cunningham, an architect living in Bronzeville, is one who wished for more from Rosenwald, so he asked a class of local high school students to reimagine the site. They rendered it as a “green live-work environment” that retained the original facade, but filled in the building’s 47th Street setbacks with photovoltaic glass conservatories to complement rooftop greenhouses.
That project (dubbed the Julius Rosenwald-Booker T. Washington Gardens) isn’t getting built. But Cunningham has gathered a group of black designers committed to “evangelizing and apostilizing energy efficiency, sustainability, and green technology to urban Chicagoland.”
“We realized this community was underrepresented,” Cunningham said. “The vision is that people would start changing their lifestyles by eating fresh food, and we would see young people embrace our agrarian roots.”
Cunningham’s own parents followed the Great Migration patterns that millions of African-Americans took to Chicago at the start of the 20th century. His parents came to Chicago’s stockyards from Arkansas and Texas, where they grew up as sharecroppers.
With his firm Architectural Services Group, Cunningham holds patents on several small-scale components of what he believes could help affordable housing become environmentally sustainable. They include a closet-unit gardening system and a solar-powered, low-voltage street lamp that charges electric vehicles.
Cunningham met horticulturalist Richard Dobbs and the other designers who comprise a gropu they call BUILD BOLD a few years ago while they were studying for LEED certification.
Dobbs, who has worked with the Chicago Botanic Garden and nearby urban garden Eden Place, said the neighborhood’s historical significance is unappreciated. “People take it for granted,” he said. “But it’s a potential goldmine. It’s just untapped.”
In addition to Eden Place, community gardens have sprung up on residential plots throughout the neighborhood, from the Bronzeville Community Garden on 51st Street to Sacred Keepers Sustainability Lab at 48th and King Drive, which is reserved for young gardeners.
In convening local designers under BUILD BOLD, Cunningham is tapping into a broader effort to rebrand and revitalize Bronzeville.
Paula Robinson, president of the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area Commission, has been part of the neighborhood’s bid for national recognition since 2004. With the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, they released a feasibility study for the idea in September. The designation would qualify the area for matching federal funds to build on development in the area.
“This is not just something we’re doing to share jazz history, blues, those kind of cultural achievements,” Robinson told WBEZ. “We intend to be a sustainable destination.”
To do that they’re focusing on the neighborhood’s open spaces: 367-acre Washington Park, the city’s largest, and Burnham Park, home to the recently rehabbed 31st Street Harbor. At the northern tip of the state’s ambitious Millennium Reserve plan to consolidate and develop open spaces in the region, Bronzeville could serve as a gateway from the city to forest preserves further south.
They’re also pushing transportation. Part of the effort to establish bike lanes and promote pedestrian-friendly streets has been motivated by necessity—the CTA Red Line reconstruction project has closed a major neighborhood train route for six months. Robinson told AN that they are looking at establishing a “historic bike trail” down State Street.
As the third component of their bid to rebrand the area, Robinson and others are reaching out to the Illinois Institute of Technology (IIT) and the University of Chicago. IIT professor Blake Davis runs a class in the college of architecture called IPRO, which directs students to design solutions for neighborhood problems. Previous efforts led to the creation of the nationally lauded urban agriculture program The Plant. His students are now looking to turn an abandoned rail line along 40th Street into an urban agriculture innovation cluster.
Segregated communities cut off by highways and other dividing lines aren’t sustainable, the designers of BUILD BOLD argue. Instead of relying on outside inputs for economic development, Bronzeville could capitalize on its assets as a cultural destination, building a sustainable community from the ground up.
“Bronzeville is the perfect site,” said Cunningham. “We have this housing stock that lends itself to repurposing.”
For Bronzeville’s real estate market, overcoming the legacy of public housing and its negative perceptions has been difficult. A study released last year by students at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign compared the neighborhood to Pilsen, where development and gentrification have picked up.
But development has not stalled. Earlier this year a $46 million shopping complex broke ground, anchored by a 41,000-square-foot Wal-Mart “Neighborhood Market” store focused on groceries.
Neighborhood investment could help accelerate efforts by community members like Robinson, who hope that Mayor Rahm Emanuel, while he pours millions into marketing campaigns aimed at increasing tourism, will look to the South Side, where few of those dollars are spent or reinvested. It could also help Cunningham’s vision for a green, self-sufficient neighborhood.
“We want 47th Street to be the lead in all this,” he said. “Can you imagine driving down Michigan Ave. from 22nd Street all the way through 75th and seeing wind turbines, permeable pavement, all of that?”
Emanuel’s office identified Bronzeville as one of the city’s “opportunity areas” for economic growth. Touting hundreds of millions of dollars already spent on or committed to projects in the area, including a new CTA stop near the McCormick Place Convention Center, the mayor’s announcement echoed Robinson’s call for “T3”: tourism, transportation, and technology.
“People are involved in different aspects of this, but our job is to pull it all together,” said Robinson. “That’s when sustainability is going to mean something.”