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This is where Muhammad Ali, Quincy Jones, the Obamas and Chicago’s most dangerous ganglords lived

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Manish Saini
Manish works as a Journalist and writer at Revyuh.com. He has studied Political Science and graduated from Delhi University. He is a Political engineer, fascinated by politics, and traditional businesses. He is also attached to many NGO's in the country and helping poor children to get the basic education. Email: Manish (at) revyuh (dot) com

Bronzeville is the South Side’s oldest neighborhood. It has a turbulent history, is a hub of Afro-American culture, but also of violence.

Chicago is a divided city. The north is “white”, the south “black”. Not one hundred percent, but clearly. When you take a taxi from the “North Side” to the “South Side”, the drivers often ask whether you definitely have not made a mistake in the address and whether you know how dangerous it is there. In fact, one reads every day about shootings in the relevant quarters. However, violence is also increasing in the north.

Black Metropolis

Bronzeville is Chicago’s oldest and most well-known neighborhood. It was primarily populated by Germans at the beginning of the 19th century. The Great Migration began between 1910 and 1920 when thousands of African Americans fled the oppression in the southern states to Chicago, among other places, to find work in the industry. A total of around six million black people migrated from the American south to the north by the 1970s.

Bronzeville became one of the largest African American centers in the United States and also an economic and cultural hotspot. It was called “Black Metropolis”. Here the Afro-Americans were among themselves, were able to develop the district according to their own ideas and founded the “Chicago Black Renaissance”, a musical, literary and artistic movement of the 1930s and 1940s.

However, the practice of “redlining” began even then: the services and infrastructure in the south were worse than those in the north, and there were numerous barriers that prevented Afro-Americans from settling outside their “ghettos”. This structural racism, for example in the allocation of rental apartments and mortgage loans, is still one of the most explosive topics in the USA today.

The Bronzeville of Celebrities

It is noticeable how differently Bronzeville is presented by its residents. For example, Roy Malone is a 72-year-old retired history teacher who lived half his life in Bronzeville. He is proud of the historical richness of the quarter. He offers free tours, and indeed the density of important people who have lived and worked here is breathtaking: this is the house where Quincy Jones was born, where the singer Sam Cooke went to school; That was the villa of Muhammad Ali, right next to the house of Elijah Muhammad, the founder of the Nation of Islam, where the boxer of the century befriended Malcolm X. That’s where the Obamas lived.

This is where Nat King Cole lived, but he left when he got rich. Daniel H. Williams worked here, who carried out the first successful heart operation in 1893. Civil rights activist Ida B. Wells was born here. Bessie Coleman, the first female African-American pilot, lived there, and this is where the gospel was created with Mahalia Jackson. This was the nightclub of the boxer Jack Johnson, the first black world heavyweight champion to be killed in a car accident in 1946.

The Sunset Cafe building on 35th Street is still standing. Originally a garage, it became one of America’s premier jazz clubs. When Louis Armstrong lived in Chicago in the 1920s, he played here regularly. The club was controlled by the gangster king Al Capone. In 1950 the Sunset Cafe closed. Today the Urban Beauties shop is located there. If you fight your way through the hair extensions and artificial nails to the back wall, you can still discover the remains of the legendary stage with the expressive portraits of musicians.

But Maloney is upset when asked about the poor, less historic Bronzeville, the Bronzeville of welfare recipients, gangs, and drug addicts. These are clichés for him, and he is afraid that his quarters will be reduced to them. When asked about the many shootings, he says that these are accounts among gang members that hardly affect ordinary people.

The Bronzeville of Violence

Bronzeville also has a history that is often associated with violence. The DuSable Museum in the middle of the quarter is evidence of this. Founded in 1961, it is the oldest museum of African American history in the United States. An exhibition is currently devoted to the “Red Summer”. This means the summer of 1919, when race riots broke out across the United States.

The situation was particularly dire on the South Side of Chicago. Tensions erupted over the death of Eugene Williams. He was a 17-year-old black youth who took a dip in Lake Michigan on July 27th like many others. Although Chicago – unlike the southern states – was officially non-racial, there was an informal border between white and black bathers at Lake Michigan.

Eugene, who was floating on a self-made raft on the lake, probably accidentally got onto the “white” side of the beach. White beachgoers threw stones at him. He fell from the raft and tried to swim ashore, but was repeatedly chased back into the deep water by the flying stones until he drowned. Then a white mob attacked other blacks and finally marched to Bronzeville. During the seven-day riot, 38 people (25 black and 13 white) were killed and hundreds were injured. More than a thousand houses were set on fire.

Racism and segregation

“Chicago is one of the most racist cities in the US,” says Peggy Montes. The 85-year-old is the founder and president of the Bronzeville Children’s Museum. It is the only children’s museum in the country dedicated to African Americans. Your statement is astonishing because the museum, like Roy Malone’s tour, focuses on positive aspects. A large part of the exhibition is about the sons and daughters of Bronzeville who achieved success and prestige. Obviously, the Afro-American children – they make up 85 percent of the visitors – should be conveyed pride and optimism. Your statement is also astonishing because at first glance Chicago appears cosmopolitan and “mixed up”. It has been democratically dominated since ancient times, the mayor is the lesbian African American Lori Lightfoot.

But that’s the paradox of systemic racism: the majority of Chicagoans are not racist, and yet segregation continues. In Bronzeville only about a tenth of the residents are white. In the entire South Side, more than 93 percent are black, in some areas like Roseland there is only 1 percent white. In 1947 there was one of the biggest riots in the history of Chicago when black people wanted to settle in a “white” neighborhood.

Today there are no laws or violence that prevent this mix-up, and there are hardly any politicians who openly advocate segregation – and yet it exists. It is deeply inscribed in the structure of the city, says Montes. She states that children are initially “color blind”. “Only gradually do they pay attention to the differences in skin color and believe that they are important because that is how they are taught.” She wants to counteract this with her museum.

It’s striking how important culture is in Bronzeville. That it is one of the cradles of blues and jazz is perhaps less surprising than the central role of art. Murals pioneers such as William Walker worked here in the 1960s. The popularity of street art was also due to a lack of established exhibition venues for African American artists. The South Side Community Art Center (SSCA) was an exception. It was founded in 1940 as the first museum dedicated to African American art. It is fascinating that in Bronzeville of all times, in the middle of the war and the Great Depression, some residents decided to raise money for an art center.

Cultural self-awareness

To this day, the SSCA is an important address for Bronzeville and the self-image of the residents. In the sixties and seventies it was one of the centers of the artistic-political Black Arts Movement, and the annual “Models and Artists Ball” was legendary. When asked what influence the “Black Lives Matter” movement had on the center and the interest of the public, the director Monique Brinkman-Hill says, almost piqued: Before the term “Black Lives Matter” was coined, this was a focal point for the concept.

Suddenly a dozen police cars with sirens and flashing lights speed down East Pershing Road and stop in front of Wendell Phillips Academy High School. The intersection will be cordoned off. It turns out that someone shot the guard when he opened the gate to let the students out at half past three. He was hit six times. A bullet pierced the gate and hit a 14-year-old student in the stomach. According to eyewitnesses, the shooter then walked away. It’s the same high school that Malone proudly said his mother went to school there with singer Sam Cooke.

162 children under the age of 15 have, according to the Chicago Sun-Times already been shot in Chicago this year, a quarter more than in the same period last year. Many residents of the South Side complain that some quarters have become lawless rooms, under the control of gangs such as Black Disciples or Gangster Disciples. The perpetrators had nothing to fear from the police. You’re right. The man who seriously injured the guard and the high school student has also not been caught.

Carolyn H., an elderly woman who has lived in Bronzeville for decades, can no longer hear the talk of the historic “Black Metropolis”. “Wow, Bronzeville, black elite, culture!” She exclaims mockingly. “I’ll tell you something: I won’t stay in the car for a minute longer than necessary. It’s still relatively quiet around our block, but a few blocks further – boom, boom, boom! And again and again, innocents and children are hit. A bullet has no eyes, as we say here. A bullet has no eyes.”

You were reading: This is where Muhammad Ali, Quincy Jones, the Obamas and Chicago’s most dangerous ganglords lived

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