What’s Wrong With Chicago? – Part Two

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While on my way downtown on a bright summer Sunday morning, I noticed a disparity along Chicago’s Green Line transit route. As I rode along, I noticed an inordinate amount of vacant lots – 54 before I stopped counting – between the 55th and 43rd street stations.

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This area includes Chicago’s historic Black Belt from just outside Hyde Park to well inside Bronzeville. Long-time Chicagoans will know the area was once a booming hub of African-American activity and commerce. Blame it on economics, blame it on social inequity, and blame it on Governmental de-funding. Heck, you can blame it on Al Qaeda for all I care. The bottom line is this area has seen better days.

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I personally watched generations live well, buy property and pass it on to the next generation only to have subsequent generations later became disenfranchised and either leave the area or be forced out. I sat back helpless as the area languished in poverty for decades beginning in the late 60’s.

Gentrification could only do so much to revitalize the area(s). Yes, forward-thinking, well-to-do, upwardly mobile residents and entrepreneurs came back, but so many more had a hard time doing so because of the stigma of degradation and risk that was etched into the area over time.

What a shame. So many great and historic treasures lie here in plain sight and go sadly unnoticed.

Oscar Stanton De Priest House 4536-4538 South Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Drive

From 1929 to 1951, it served as the home of Oscar Stanton De Priest, the first post-Reconstruction African American elected to the United States Congress. The building was designated a National Historic Landmark on May 15, 1975.


The Forum

Mostly vacant for decades and facing demolition, its fate changed in the Fall of 2011 when the building was rescued by concerned organizations. Built in 1889, it predates the Ballroom Dancing & Jazz eras.


Dr. Dan’s House

445 E. 42nd Street was for decades the home of Dr. Daniel Hale Williams. The African American to perform the first open heart surgery in 1893.

Mammoth Insurance Building

The black-owned insurance company was founded in 1915 in Kentucky and merged with Atlanta Life in 1992. The Chicago office at 4626 S. King Dr. was constructed in 1922.

The Churches

There are so many historic, important and influential churches I this area: Mount Pisgah M.B.C., Liberty Baptist Church, Pilgrim Baptist Church, Fellowship Chicago and First Church of Deliverance which was designed by the first African-American Architect licensed in Illinois and was originally a hat factory. With so many more churches that show off their own architectural elegance and some have even been Synagogues.


These monoliths, had they been in any other area, would have been properly preserved and championed as landmarks. However, in this economic desert, they sit without prominence within the religious and historic communities of fall into disrepair. So, in my mind, it it isn’t the acres of lots that have nothing on them, it’s dilapidated structures that will be reduced to nothing.

I am not saying that the same can’t be said of areas outside the Black community. What I am saying is that it is in the Black community. Specifically, communities with such a rich and intriguing history. The empty streets don’t tell the tragic truth and triumphant truth about the struggle of the African American and the Great Migration. They don’t spew an even broader story than that – one of social injustices and a country divided against itself on the subjects of race and equality. This area holds a story that historians don’t always tell. Perhaps the disrepair and slums were the city’s way of ignoring it’s shameful past. Maybe it turned its back to try and forget by throwing a blanket of poverty over an unmade bed of potential.

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It’s amazing how a city that rose from the ashes of Jefferson Street cannot seem to be the phoenix it needs to be in the fires of racism (Yes. I said it.). While the rich one percent are snuggled safely in their homes, people with minimum wage jobs are forced to travel the streets with the ever-present fear of crime as they commute.

Where does our theme stand in all of this? There are too many spots open and unattended. Too many empty places where hope and progress should be. Too much time has passed and generations have now deemed this awkwardness as normal. They have been designated as garbage dumps, play lots, drug stash zones, and stay places for abandoned cars.

Why not put these spaces to good use:

Ask construction companies to train and build on these sites to recruit high school and college students for future jobs through educational programs

 Pave the lots and make them parking lots for people who work south and commute downtown. Provide a shuttle and make them affordable revenue centers for the city. Ask local churches and schools to help with maintenance and security through social learning programs.

 You want a peace garden? Let’s make a real one, not the make shift overgrown specks in a God-forsaken corner of a vacant lot that becomes a faded memory before it can thrive. Make it like the beautiful gardens in Lincoln Park with the city’s help. Fountains and flowers and ribbons or walkway and bike trails. Not playgrounds, they become hangouts for looting. Lets’ provide a real, intentional beautification effort.

The land belongs to someone? Okay. Talk with the owners and see if there is a tax incentive or amnesty program that can be given to help them use the land again. Maybe they want to sell. The price paid to an owner is miniscule when compared to the dividends that would be given to the community when the lots are used.

I know, I know. All this costs money. Money that the city doesn’t have. I get it. So save your speech, Alderman/Alderwoman. I’ve heard it before.

While I champion the causes that want to rebuild the area, I must admit, I certainly understand why it is so hard to get finances in the area. I can’t blame the “white man” for the tons of garbage and beer bottles slung out of car windows I can’t place culpability on City Hall for the teens and young adults who traipse the streets when they should be in school doing God-knows-what. The mayor can’t take the heat for any destruction caused by self-depravation. If the citizens don’t take pride in the area, why should the city?

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Yes, it is a two-sided coin and this piece may seem to waver between sides. The bottom line is that there is far more real estate that there is money and far fewer resources that opportunity. I pray that private industry can work through the red tape and bring more revitalization to the Englewood, Kenwood, Oakwood and Bronzeville areas.

What’s wrong with Chicago? There is too much of it going unused.


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