Local

7 in Your Neighborhood: Bronzeville

Tuesday, May 07, 2013

The area known as Bronzeville reached its peak during what's called ''The Great Migration,'' when waves of southern blacks headed north in search of a better life.

"People came here literally thinking that the streets were paved with gold, and they met another kind of segregation, where we were restricted to living within what we call the Black Belt," said Paula Robinson, cultural historian.

That, in turn, created a city within a city filled with black professionals and all kinds of businesses owned by and catering to African Americans, a unique culture developed in this "black metropolis."

"When we're talking about Bronzeville from a cultural perspective, we're talking about the jazz, the blues, gospel. All that cultural expression," Robinson said.

It is that legacy that former alderman and long-time Bronzeville champion Dorothy Tillman has been working so hard to re-capture. After years of seeing the area decline, she made it her mission to bring back what was once a shining star in black America.

"Be proud of who we are. It's alright to enjoy someone else's culture but it's good to respect and love your legacy and your culture," Tillman said.

Perhaps the most visible sign of that cultural appreciation is the Bronzeville centerpiece, the state-of-the-art Harold Washington Cultural Center.

"We have a thousand-seat theater, a full-service recording studio, a video editing lab, a library as well as a charter school, an alternative charter school. We encompass education as well as entertainment," Jimalita Tillman, executive director, said.

And that cultural Renaissance extends to the many new public art pieces and respected galleries that have opened throughout the area recently. They've been extremely successful.

"It was important for us to be able to capture what our ancestors have gone through," said Frances Guichard, co-owner, Gallery Guichard.

But any community is only as strong as its economic base. Bronzeville Boosters point to the housing boom and the number of new businesses popping up in the neighborhood. Restaurateur Cliff Rome has opened several spots, virtually dominating an entire intersection with his ventures.

"It's really about giving back to the community because at the end of the day we are creating jobs and we are creating jobs in the community with our people and hopefully they will take that model and want to create that for themselves," Rome said.

"As Sam Cooke said, 'A change is gonna come.' And it will come. It's up to us," Dorothy Tillman said.

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