As we stood astride bicycles in the shadow of Alison Saar’s Monument to the Great Northern Migration last week, Bronzeville-based transportation advocate Ronnie Matthew Harris, 47, told me that community organizing is in his blood.
“Both sides of my family immigrated from the Deep South as part of the Great Migration, and landed here in the great mecca of Bronzeville,” Harris said, gazing at the 15-foot-tall bronze sculpture. “And as long as there has been a historic Bronzeville, you could find an organizer by the name of Harris.” His paternal grandfather and father were labor leaders, he explained, and his mother’s job at a local church involved many aspects of community development. “So it’s the family business.”
Harris is also passionate about improving conditions in the neighborhood—sometimes referred to as the Black Metropolis—where he was born and raised. As the leader of Go Bronzeville, a group that promotes sustainable transportation options in the community, he’d offered to take me on a neighborhood tour highlighting pedestrian and bike access issues he wants to fix.
“Data shows that a community that walks, bikes, and uses public transportation is a community that is healthier, safer, and more economically viable,” he said. “Go Bronzeville wants to respond to some of the inequity in public policy and urban planning that sometimes contributes to disparities in health and wealth.”
Go Bronzeville started as an initiative of the Chicago Department of Transportation, along with similar programs in Pilsen, Garfield Park, Albany Park, and Edgewater. The programs educate residents on how sustainable transportation can help them save time and money and improve their health. After the program ended, Harris got CDOT’s blessing to continue running Go Bronzeville on a mostly volunteer basis. Nowadays the group hosts neighborhood bike rides, mans tables at community events, and, via a city contract, promotes the Divvy for Everyone program, which offers $5 bike-share memberships to low-income Chicagoans.
To start our tour of Bronzeville’s transportation infrastructure, we saddled up and began pedaling south in one of King Drive’s wide bike lanes, separated from the street’s three lanes of southbound traffic by a painted buffer.
In 2012, CDOT proposed installing physically protected bike lanes on King, but Third Ward alderman Patricia Dowell vetoed the plan after local clergy expressed concerns that the protected lanes would interfere with church parking.
Although he’s a bike advocate, Harris said he believes Dowell made the right call. “The cultural norms are different here than on, say, the north side,” he said. “Most people would say, ‘Well, duh,’ but when it comes to urban planning, we don’t always keep that in mind.”
—Ronnie Matthew Harris
Still, Harris thinks attitudes in the neighborhood may have evolved since then. “Back then protected lanes were new in Chicago, and the perception was that none of us [African-Americans] are riding bikes, which isn’t true.”
But that wasn’t the main thing Harris wanted me to see. We rolled west on 29th Street to South Commons, a high-rise development just east of Michigan Avenue, to discuss a pedestrian access issue that’s very personal to him.
Harris spent much of his childhood two blocks west, at the Dearborn Homes public housing project at 29th and State. When he lived there, there was pedestrian and bike access along 29th all the way from the housing project to Lake Park Avenue, just east of Lake Shore Drive. It was thus possible to travel directly to Dunbar Park, a 20-acre green space southeast of South Commons, as well as to 31st Street Beach.
But this stretch of 29th Street has been privately held since the city vacated it in 1963. And in the early 80s, Harris says, South Commons installed an iron fence with a locked gate along the east side of Michigan, blocking foot and bike traffic from the west.
“It was for reasons of public safety,” Harris said. “In the late 70s and early 80s, this community was so volatile,” he said. “On State Street between Cermak Road and 51st Street there were three different housing projects—the Harold Ickes Homes, the Dearborn Homes, and the Robert Taylor Homes—each with its own competing gang. Gang members from the Dearborn Homes couldn’t really go west to wreak havoc because of the Dan Ryan Expressway, and because the cultural norms were you didn’t go to Bridgeport.” (Which, at the time, was a mostly white neighborhood infamous among Chicago’s black population for its violent racism.)
Instead, Harris said, gang members from the Dearborn Homes would often head east on 29th to hang out in Dunbar Park, which meant passing through South Commons.
However, most of Bronzeville’s public housing was razed in the late 90s and 2000s as part of the Chicago Housing Authority’s so-called Plan for Transformation. The Dearborn Homes, which were newer buildings, were spared from implosion and rehabbed instead—Harris says the housing development is now “beautiful” and relatively peaceful. As such, he argues that it’s high time public access was restored on 29th.
I asked Harris why Dearborn Homes residents and others who live west of South Commons can’t simply walk two blocks south and use 31st to get to the park. “Twenty-Ninth is a quieter route, and there’s all these cultural land mines involved with 31st,” he said, including the Illinois Institute of Technology campus. “I can’t tell you how many times colleagues of mine growing up were pulled over by the IIT cops.”
Harris hopes Go Bronzeville can work with South Commons, local aldermen, CDOT, and other authorities to permanently reopen the 29th Street passage. “The day has come for us to readjust our perspective on public safety, particularly when that perspective undermines public health,” he said.
Reached by phone this week, Cortney Cox, the property manager for the South Commons building adjacent to the gate, said he wasn’t sure why the fence and gate were originally installed, but that it might be possible to open the gate and allow the public access to the property. This, he said, would require a formal proposal by Harris and/or others, a site visit with the advocates, and a vote by the condo board.
As Harris and I continued our tour, we pedaled south on Indiana Avenue past the park, then west on 31st, jogging up Michigan and 29th again to get around the South Commons fence. After a brief spin in a new curb-protected bike lane on 31st, we headed east to the lakefront.
Just west of Lake Shore Drive, Harris pointed out a missing section of sidewalk on 31st Street. There was a wide, deep mud puddle there, with leaves and a large branch floating in it. “And it’s probably got a big shark in there,” Harris joked. Just then, schoolteacher Caretha Carrol and her young son Javaughn approached on their way to the beach. They were forced to detour into the street to keep their feet dry.
We stopped to check out a parking lot located at the southwest corner of 31st and Lake Shore Drive. As I noted in a recent column, the Chicago Park District is planning to expand the lot by another two acres in order to facilitate driving to the lakefront, at a cost of $1.6 million. Meanwhile, the CTA plans to revive the discontinued 31st Street bus line as a pilot in September, but the route won’t provide access to the beach. The six-month pilot will cost $251,000, less than one-sixth as much as the parking lot expansion.
Standing in middle of the already vast expanse of asphalt, I recalled what Harris said when we’d discussed the project on the phone earlier this month. “With all the other infrastructure and service improvements we’re looking at in the area, why this?” he’d said. “This is where we’re putting our resources: expanding a parking lot.”
Hopefully Harris’s work to highlight the importance of walking, biking, and transit access in the neighborhood will lead residents and decision makers to rethink which transportation projects should be prioritized. v
John Greenfield edits the transportation news website Streetsblog Chicago.