Gerri Oliver, who’s 81 years old, presides over her storied joint like a museum curator. Rummaging near the cash register, she brings out photo albums, a stack of magazines, sheaves of newspaper clippings, and other memorabilia, and spreads them across her art deco bar. They document the nearly 45 years she’s run Gerri’s Palm Tavern, the fabled nightspot at 446 E. 47th St. that’s among the last living links to Chicago’s “Bronzeville era”–and to the city’s blues, jazz, and black entertainment roots. Now she’s showing me the petitions and postcards urging Mayor Daley to save Gerri’s Palm Tavern. She’s worried that the city, in the name of honoring its musical heritage, will put her out of business.
The black-and-white photographs on the walls tell their own stories. Here’s a youthful Oliver posing with Josephine Baker, a frequent guest. Here she is with Dizzy Gillespie. And here’s Oliver with Dorothy Donegan, the jazz pianist and screen star who grew up in the neighborhood and became her close friend. Then there are all the pictures of Oliver and Harold Washington, who celebrated his 1983 mayoral primary victory here. The place was packed that night, and the street was lined with people trying to get in.
“You know who that is, don’t you?” says Oliver, nodding at a 1950s photograph hung near the front door. I admit I don’t. The distinguished looking man alongside her is James “Genial Jim” Knight, the Pullman porter turned businessman and policy king who opened the Palm Tavern in 1933, a year before he was elected the first “mayor of Bronzeville”–a tradition that continued for three decades and was revived last year. Policy games, which flourished in black Chicago, were the forerunners of today’s lottery.
When the Palm Tavern was new, the Chicago Defender called it the “most high classed Negro establishment in America.” Lore has it that the club was one of the first in town to receive a liquor license after prohibition was repealed; later it was one of the first to install “talkies,” or booth-side minijukeboxes. With its spotless white tablecloths, gloved waiters, and posh pseudotropical setting, Gerri’s Palm gained a reputation for fine dining–for a time the kitchen was run by Bill Bottoms, personal chef to Joe Louis, himself a regular–and as a meeting place for black Chicago’s political, professional, and artistic elite.
In the 1930s, 40s, and early 50s, the area around 47th and South Parkway–later renamed Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Drive–formed the commercial and cultural heart of the “Black Metropolis,” or Bronzeville. It was a mecca for African-Americans migrating from the impoverished south, and it bustled with black-owned businesses and with well-dressed men and women. The Regal Theatre, the Savoy Ballroom, and the Metropolitan Theatre ranked with the city’s premier entertainment venues. In the postwar years, the country blues of the Mississippi delta gained a hard, electrified edge in clubs along 43rd and 47th Streets.
Geraldine Oliver came north from Jackson, Mississippi, in the 1940s to study mortuary science–funeral directing was the family trade. But during the war she worked in a Western Electric plant and eventually she became a manicurist. She met “Genial Jim” Knight because she did his nails, and in 1956 he sold her the Palm Tavern. A few years later a reporter asked why she got into the nightclub business. “I just like people,” Oliver said.
Located between the Regal and the Sutherland Hotel, where many of the theater’s performers booked rooms, Gerri’s Palm was in the center of the action. She dropped the fine cuisine but served up home-cooked meals at least one day a week, and she became known as “Miss Red Beans and Rice.” Over the years, some of the biggest names in show business came in–Duke Ellington, Count Basie, Cab Calloway, Louis Armstrong, Lena Horne, Bill “Bojangles” Robinson, Billie Holiday, Dinah Washington, Quincy Jones, Miles Davis, James Brown, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Redd Foxx, and Nipsey Russell. There were groups like the Temptations, literary lights like Richard Wright, Langston Hughes, and Lerone Bennett Jr. Ebony publisher John Johnson patronized Gerri’s. The list goes on and on, across the “wall of fame” that dominates the back of the club, next to its small stage. Cardboard placards present the names of over a hundred friends and customers, the famous and not so. But these days, to get your name up there will cost you. One day Oliver told me $200, another day $20.
Gerri’s Palm Tavern can use the money. Like its neighborhood, it’s seen better days. The tropical murals have faded, the pressed-tin ceiling has been patched, and the booth seats have been duct-taped. Today Gerri’s exudes a dingy, tarnished splendor.
Not even that can be said of the scene outside Oliver’s door. Like all of Bronzeville, 47th Street declined after the war, done in by decades of disinvestment, social change, job loss, and urban renewal. When restrictive housing covenants were eased, many blacks who could move did, leaving houses that would stand abandoned for years. High-rise public housing developments brought in low-income residents. Businesses and nightclubs shut their doors–the Regal, Savoy, and Metropolitan all were eventually shuttered and razed. By 1990 Bronzeville’s population was a third of what it had been in 1950. While 47th Street is still a shopping district with an active street life, the strip abounds with vacant lots, blighted buildings, and low characters. The inner city’s underside is on full display here.
“Seems like almost everybody on this street is either a dealer or a user,” says Oliver. But somehow she’s managed to stay afloat–perhaps the Buddhism she practices helps her cope. She’s seen her club’s fortunes rise a little in recent years, as it’s become a showcase for jazz and blues musicians, for poetry readings, for staged dramas. For the past two years, bluesman Fernando Jones has brought thousands of visitors to Gerri’s Palm for his weekend presentations of I Was There When the Blues Was Red Hot, a play with music that Jones wrote, directed, and performs in.
“A lot of people have contributed to the history and continuity of this place,” says Oliver, looking around the room. “There are spirits here.” But though the city has recognized Gerri’s for its role in fostering black music culture–it’s a highlight of the Department of Cultural Affairs’ Neighborhood Tours program, and in February Mayor Daley issued a proclamation honoring Oliver as a “cultural icon” who’d refused to give up on 47th Street–it might also have decided that today Gerri’s Palm is simply in the way.
Department of Planning officials and Alderman Dorothy Tillman want to transform various parts of the area into a blues nightclub district and “African village” offering a bazaar plus African/Caribbean restaurants, coffeehouses, music stores, and other shops. Also planned are a Second City comedy club, a plaza with a statue honoring Quincy Jones, and a roller skating rink.
The theming has already begun. Two years ago, Tobacco Road street signs were installed along East 47th. That’s the title not only of the 1964 hit song by Lou Rawls, who grew up in the area, but also of a nonprofit community development organization with close ties to Tillman. Tobacco Road Inc. is building the 47th Street Cultural Center and Lou Rawls Theater, which after a troubled history is finally taking shape at 47th and King on the former site of the old Regal, demolished in 1973, and the South Center Building, torn down in the late 1980s. “We’re building [the African village] out from that center,” says Cheryl Cooke, who’s assistant planning commissioner for the South District and the city’s point person for the project.
Do these Disneyesque plans allow for preserving the remaining pieces of the street’s authentic history? The Midwest Real Estate Investment Company bought the building that houses Gerri’s Palm Tavern in a 1989 tax sale for $8,000, according to Gary Fresen, an attorney who has been advising Oliver on a pro bono basis. Oliver offered the new owners $25,000 but was turned down. In 1998, Fresen and other potential investors tried and failed to work out a deal with Midwest to buy the building, whose asking price had gone up to $75,000. A year ago the city filed condemnation proceedings against it, seeking to acquire it through eminent domain. All along, Midwest has rented to Oliver on a month-to-month basis.
Last year the city began notifying business owners within the so-called 47th/King Drive Redevelopment Area–a strip between 44th and 51st streets that’s bordered on the west by the Green Line el tracks and on the east by Saint Lawrence Avenue–that their buildings would be purchased too. While eminent domain cases can take years to be resolved, property owners can challenge only the compensation they’re offered, not the purchase itself.
Gerri Oliver is wary of being quoted because she fears roiling already troubled waters. But she says that neither Tillman nor the Planning Department has been in contact with her; and though she thinks the city doesn’t want Gerri’s Palm where it is, at least not in its present state, she doesn’t know if the club eventually will be moved, closed, or allowed to stay. “I don’t want to create waves–I don’t want confrontations,” she says. “In terms of the city, whatever will be will be.”
Some of Oliver’s supporters are more active. “It’s not the fact that it’s gonna be done, but how it’s being handled so far,” says Bronzeville historian Nathan Thompson, who’s written a book on Chicago’s policy kings that will be published next year. “There has been virtually zero input from business owners and residents. They’re shouldering over a lot of history in the name of progress–not that [progress is] a bad thing–but tell the fuckin’ truth about what you’re doing. Bronzeville was built on strong black business acumen, and now there’s nothing left to point to. That’s why it’s important to keep Gerri’s standing. A certain amount of people have held down the fort this long, but don’t just kick them to the curb. Everyone wants to see that area improve, but that doesn’t give you the right to walk in and steal everything and not consult with the community.”
In recent months a group that includes Thompson and Fresen has been campaigning to save Gerri’s Palm Tavern. “The question right now is, who’s gonna run the show?” says Thompson. “Is Gerri gonna run it, or is Dorothy Tillman gonna muscle the property and do whatever she wants with it?” This group has come up with a business plan, and it’s applied for empowerment zone funds to help renovate the club. “The run-down condition of the building isn’t Gerri’s fault,” says Fresen. “It’s solely attributable to landlords who have charged her $450 a month since 1989, never gave her a lease, and never put a dime into the building….It’s gonna be a hell of a black eye to the city if Gerri’s evicted.”
Chicago may take over the property–Fresen says Midwest Partners is asking the city for $60,000 for it–but Fresen and Thompson hope to assemble a team that will eventually obtain the title. “We are proceeding with the idea that Gerri’s consortium will be able to put together funds to acquire the building,” says Thompson. “We’re just trying to come up with all the different angles of saving the place.”
So are preservationists. Last year architectural historian Andy Pierce helped compile a report nominating Gerri’s Palm Tavern to the Landmark Preservation Council of Illinois’s Ten Most Endangered Historic Places list. “Our goal was to get some official recognition, get it on the map again so we don’t lose it,” says Pierce, who often takes out-of-town friends to the club. “A lot of people don’t fit into DisneyQuest or Clark Street blues bars. We don’t feel comfortable there.”
Gerri’s Palm Tavern, he explains, “is the real deal. It’s the roadhouse for everything that’s gone. Aside from the Lenox Lounge in Harlem, which just got renovated, I don’t know of anything else like it in the country, of that vintage of black entertainment and cafe culture. It’d be like if you tore down the Aragon, the Riviera, and the Uptown, and the Green Mill was all that’s left. It’s the Green Mill of Bronzeville.”
Pierce says Gerri’s is not architecturally significant. But the preservation movement has shifted its focus from just saving structures to “providing a context for the way people lived,” and in that light the club merits special attention. “This is about a business bought and sustained with black money. It’s about use, the neighborhood, entertainment, Bronzeville culture. There’s no excuse for not saving that place. If they’re going to develop a district, they should find a way to keep the last best piece, find out how it could fit in. It doesn’t make any sense not to include it in redevelopment plans–why bomb what’s left? I just wish we could put up police tape around it with a sign that says Do Not Disturb.”
Gerri’s Palm Tavern didn’t make the LPCI’s Ten Most Endangered list for 2000, but advocacy coordinator Julia Evans says it’ll be nominated again next year. She says that last June the LPCI sent a letter to Alderman Arenda Troutman (20th), who chairs the City Council’s committee on historical landmarks and preservation, expressing concern about the club’s status. The organization didn’t bother writing Tillman. “We didn’t expect to hear back from her,” says Evans, “so we sent it to Troutman. But we haven’t heard back from her either.”
Troutman admits she isn’t up to speed on Gerri’s Palm Tavern. “In terms of its landmark status, right now, I don’t know,” she says. But she’ll look into it.
Tillman didn’t respond to numerous requests for an interview. But the 1999 LPCI report quoted her chief of staff, Robin Brown. “I don’t know,” Brown said. “The alderman is doing everything she can to save it, to make sure Gerri’s Palm Tavern remains. She is interested in working to make sure it remains a presence. It may not be at that location–wherever it can be relocated.”
“We want to keep the fabric of 47th Street–it has a very rich history,” says the city’s Cheryl Cooke. “We don’t plan on demolishing [Gerri’s Palm Tavern]. We’re willing to work with Gerri.”
In Chicago, as in other postindustrial cities, the gap between the real cityscape and the stage set is shrinking. As a new urban economy emerges that’s based on education, tourism, sports, recreation, shopping, culture, and other forms of leisure, cities try to revitalize their downtowns and inner-city areas with mall-like “urban entertainment destinations.”
As John Hannigan argues in his book Fantasy City: Pleasure and Profit in the Postmodern Metropolis, such projects reflect the middle-class desire for urban experience and its parallel aversion to risk, especially risk posed by actual contact with the lower classes. To deny the realities of poverty, homelessness, social injustice, and crime, these projects become themed simulations. They filter, sanitize, gentrify, and historicize the messy and unpredictable vitality of cities into “landscapes of consumption” based on virtual reality and spectacle.
“Today, the profession of urban design is almost wholly preoccupied with reproduction, with the creation of urbane disguises,” architecture critic Michael Sorkin writes in the anthology Variations on a Theme Park: The New American City and the End of Public Space. “Whether in its master incarnation at the ersatz Main Street of Disneyland, in the phony historic festivity of a Rouse marketplace, or the gentrified architecture of the ‘reborn’ Lower East Side, this elaborate apparatus is at pains to assert its ties to the kind of city life it is in the process of obliterating.” Obliterating, he says, “by stripping troubled urbanity of its sting, of the presence of the poor, of crime, of dirt, of work.”
In recent years, Chicago has graced many of its neighborhoods with ethnic touches. Whether through public art, monumental forms, landscape design, or streetscaping, it’s hellenized Greektown, Italianized Little Italy, Asianized Chinatown, and Hispanicized Pilsen, Little Village, and West Division Street. Now the city has turned its sights on 47th Street. “Using Chinatown, Greek Town, and the Mexican neighborhood of Little Village as models,” says a 26-page Planning Department study, “local residents and city officials are working to create a busy commercial area with an African Village theme. This concept will enable Chicago’s African-American community to combine with the city’s African, Caribbean, and West Indian populations to operate a variety of businesses in a neighborhood with a history of black-owned businesses. Thus, the diversity of Black Chicago’s culture and history will be featured in a commercial and cultural setting that can serve as a catalyst for broader neighborhood revitalization.”
“It has been alderman Tillman’s vision for a long time to return 47th Street to its former glory,” says the planning department’s Cheryl Cooke. “She loves music–her first husband was a jazz musician. She wants people coming back there and having a good time–to eat, live, work, and play.” The transformation, she says, will begin in earnest next year.
A blues district, let alone an African village, doesn’t happen overnight. Case in point, its planned centerpiece. The Lou Rawls Theater and Cultural Center–as it was originally called–is considered a pet project of Tillman’s. But it was in the works for a decade before ground was broken.
Tillman and Rawls both claim credit for coming up with the cultural center idea, according to an article by Mark Ruffin in the April 22, 1999, issue of N’Digo. Tillman, now in her fifth term, said that Harold Washington “gave” her half a million dollars to raze the South Center Building, which sat on the southeast corner of 47th and King, just north of the vacant parcel once occupied by the Regal. Tillman has said she always wanted to put something back there. Starting in 1990, these city-owned lots became the site of the annual Bring It On Home to Me Roots Festival. Rawls, a noted philanthropist through the United Negro College Fund, envisioned not only a theater there but also a music education center for young people. After performing at the first year’s festival he took his idea to Tillman. She hooked him up with Mayor Daley.
Tobacco Road was incorporated in 1993 to raise funds to build the center. Rawls was originally the nonprofit corporation’s president, but he eventually stepped down, citing the distance between Chicago and his LA home. The organization, run out of an office in Tillman’s Third Ward headquarters at 4645 S. King, pieced together financing and in early 1998 bought the land, appraised at $280,000, from the city for $1.
Besides an 800-seat theater, the 40,000-square-foot center was going to include a music school, an audiovisual training center, stores, concessions, a museum, a library, and a jazz-and-blues-themed restaurant and banquet facility. The developer was East Lake Management and Development, an African-American-owned company with an office next door to Tillman’s headquarters. The complex was originally billed as a public-private project, but in April 1998 the Sun-Times’s Lee Bey reported that it was being funded almost entirely by government money, with little public oversight. Of the $4.27 million raised up to that time, all but $23,000 had come from state grants, federal empowerment zone funds, and general obligation bond revenues earmarked for educational and cultural activity.
Tillman has said that African-American projects of this scope deserve a slice of the government pie. “We have a right, too,” she told N’Digo, citing the “$10 million” in city funds given to the Loop’s Oriental Theatre. “This is the first time this kind of money has been given to any kind of cultural thing in the black community.”
Bey reported that Tobacco Road’s board was salted with Tillman associates. One of them, soul singer Otis Clay, was president. Another, Bemaji Tillman, was the alderman’s son. (He’s since left the board.) Terrence Bell, a campaign contributor, was the board’s treasurer. Robin Brown, her chief aide, was its secretary.
Bey wrote that no research had been done to show if the area around 47th and King could support something the size of the Rawls center, which was planning to book the kinds of shows already presented at the New Regal Theater on 79th near Stony Island.
Tillman was undaunted. “Contrary to what you’ve read in the paper, this facility has a lot of support,” the alderman told a cheering crowd a few weeks after Bey’s story ran, during groundbreaking ceremonies that featured the Dunbar and DuSable high school marching bands. “We hope to open our doors to this theater so the students can come in.” Vivian Carter, Rawls’s aunt, handed Tillman a check for $100,000.
Rawls continues to be involved in the fund-raising, and contributions–some of them from his show business friends–have passed $5 million. Nonetheless, the singer no longer has top billing. Last year, the name was changed to the 47th Street Cultural Center and Lou Rawls Theater, casting the spotlight on a street whose musical culture has been decimated but whose fortunes may yet rise again. Rawls’s song “Tobacco Road” is about a man who rebuilds his poor hometown after making it big.
The birth of the 47th Street Cultural Center has paralleled the much-vaunted rebirth of Bronzeville, the currently fashionable name for a narrow swath of the old black belt that once stretched from 22nd Street to 55th Street and whose spine was State Street. Earlier in the century its downtown was centered at 35th and State; by the end of the Depression 47th Street had become the community’s commercial heart.
A city within a city, long neglected and isolated from the larger urban fabric, Bronzeville is starting to reap the benefits of the economic boom rippling across Chicago. Pockets here and there are already coming back to life thanks to public and private development. Vintage commercial structures and elegant houses have been preserved and rehabilitated. And new homes are springing up from desolate grassland.
A campaign is under way to reinvent Bronzeville as a heritage tourism site. In 1986 activists and preservationists landed six surviving buildings, some of them vacant and dilapidated, and one public monument–the World War I black soldiers’ memorial at 35th and King–on the National Register of Historic Places. The so-called Black Metropolis Historic District, bounded by 31st and 39th Streets and State and King, now consists of eight buildings plus the statue; it was granted landmark status by the city two years ago. Community organizations have been working with the city and the private sector to find new uses for some of these structures.
Several years ago a public library branch opened in the Chicago Bee Building, built in 1931 at 3647 S. State. A block north, the Overton Hygienic Building, erected in 1923, is now owned and being developed by the Mid-South Planning and Development Commission, a coalition of community groups. The Eighth Regiment Armory at 35th and Giles was acquired by the Board of Education two years ago and turned into the Chicago Military Academy.
During the Great Migration and afterward, men could always find a room at the YMCA at 3763 S. Wabash. Though that Y closed in the 1970s and stood vacant, it was designated a landmark of the Black Metropolis Historic District. Last summer, after a four-year, $9 million rehabilitation by the Wabash Y Renaissance Corporation, it reopened its doors to Bronzeville’s homeless and poor.
But the Y’s an exception. Bronzeville is booming with new construction–single-family and town houses designed to appeal to young African-American professionals. Some residents fear a gentrified middle-class neighborhood–and a resultant tide of upscale commercial development that could engulf what remains of Bronzeville’s physical and spiritual heritage.
For example, on the 4500 block of Saint Lawrence, in Tillman’s ward, ten model homes in the $250,000 range are being constructed by members of the African-American Home Builders Association; the vacant city lots were given to the builders for $1 each. Activists point out that aside from some new rental units, such as those around 49th and Saint Lawrence, little housing is being built in the area that could be afforded by the low-income residents who’ll be displaced by the slated demolition of nearby CHA high-rises along State Street in the next few years.
To longtime community organizer Harold Lucas, the 47th Street plan raises a larger question: Who owns Bronzeville? Will economic redevelopment be driven by the community or be imposed by City Hall? Can the public and private sectors find a middle ground?
A self-described “Alinsky-ite urban preservationist,” Lucas, who’s head of the five-year-old Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council, has been trying to balance business development with the preservation and promotion of Bronzeville’s historic character. Working with the Commission on Chicago Landmarks, he led the campaign to create the Black Metropolis Historic District, and in 1995 his council saved the Supreme Life Insurance Building at 35th and King from the wrecking ball. The council, which now owns the Supreme Life building, has hoped to work with the city in turning it into a $3.5 million retail and office complex housing a Bronzeville visitors information center, though at the moment it’s in court challenging the size of the city’s offer to acquire the building through eminent domain.
Lucas fears that “money doled to outside groups will come in and regentrify our community” at the expense of its soul. He illustrates his point with the subhead of an Inc. magazine article last August on the economic boom in Harlem, which is being fueled by outside corporate projects–“Harlem residents hotly debate who will lead them into a prosperous future: Billie Holiday and Duke Ellington, or Mickey Mouse and Starbucks?” Says Lucas, “That’s what we’re talking about!”
He paraphrases the five guidelines the National Trust for Historic Preservation offers for preservation-based development: “Focus on authenticity. Use the same site. Make the site come alive. Find a fit between community and enterprise. Collaborate.”
Lucas, a fourth-generation south-sider, doesn’t think any of that will be followed on 47th Street. “I don’t know of any community participation, and I’ve lived around the corner [from 47th and King] for 15 years. What we’re talking about is maximum feasible participation and citizen involvement….Do political agendas supersede the will of the people? In this case, I guess they do. It’s absolute demagoguery.
“The question is, how can we share in the development of an international African-American heritage tourism destination? Are we going to respect our culture, our history and heritage, to create an authentic African-American cultural experience? Or will it be business as usual? I’m talking about corruption, gangsterism, and political clout being used over the citizenry.”
The Bronzeville campaign dates back to 1990, when the city and the Illinois Institute of Technology, supported by the McCormick Tribune Foundation, produced a comprehensive plan for the area bounded by 22nd and 51st streets, the Dan Ryan Expressway, and Cottage Grove. A two-year-long planning process that brought together residents, city officials, and institutional and business representatives led to the creation of what would become the Mid-South Planning and Development Commission and to a 30-year strategic plan, “Restoring Bronzeville.”
The plan’s mission was “to enhance the quality of life and maintain the cultural heritage” of the people who lived and worked in the area. But Lucas, who was part of the planning process, says there’s been “a lot of work done by the community that hasn’t been respected….The city wants it on their terms–that’s the problem. They want to take your idea and rewrite it. They should represent the entire community, not just your own fiefdom and act like a lord over the people and violate the public trust.”
For instance, he says, in the early 1990s residents proposed enhancing the 37th and State area–site of the Bee branch library and the Overton Hygienic Building–with African-themed amenities. More recently there was a grassroots effort to create a blues district along 43rd Street, not 47th.
This would seem to make sense: in 1985, a stretch of 43rd Street was christened Muddy Waters Drive, in honor of the Mississippi-born musician who’s arguably the most influential bluesman of the last half century. In the late 1940s and 50s, Waters, who died in 1983, and bandmates like Jimmy Rogers, Little Walter, Otis Spann, and Willie Dixon pioneered the amplified Chicago “urban blues” in a variety of south- and west-side clubs and recording studios. Pepper’s Lounge, home base of Waters’s band in the 1960s, was on 43rd Street, as were the Jukebox Lounge and the Checkerboard Lounge, which was opened by Buddy Guy in 1970 and is still in business. The 47th Street area was home to the 708 Club, at 708 E. 47th, where Waters and other musicians played in the 1950s, and to Theresa’s Lounge, where Guy, Junior Wells, and others helped shape the Chicago blues sound in the 1970s and 80s.
Several years ago, Bronzeville community leaders held a series of meetings with city officials, architects, and contractors to examine the idea of a blues district. “The feeling was it would be on 43rd Street,” says Paula Robinson, managing director of the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership, a consortium of six neighborhood groups. “The Checkerboard was there, Muddy Waters’s home is at 43rd and Lake Park, and the street was already designated. In the community planning process [you ask], ‘What do we have here? What can we build?’ The Checkerboard is an authentic building, valuable. What else is on 43rd we can build around? How can we begin to commodify these elements to get to development?”
But Robinson cautions, “It’s important not to take this out of context. There have been a number of blues district plans, feasibility plans. The bottom line is, plans are just that–they’re feasibility.”
“Forty-seventh Street was not known as a blues street,” says 81-year-old Timuel Black, a historian and longtime Grand Boulevard resident. “Forty-third Street–if there was a blues district, that was it. Forty-seventh Street was always a small-business street, many owned by blacks. If there was music on 47th, it was primarily big bands, jazz. The blues concept is very new–it was never a part of the culture of that street. It may become a blues street.”
Black–whose book Bridges of Memory, a study of three generations of African-Americans who have grown up in Chicago, will be published in 2002–leads frequent tours through Bronzeville and says he has to talk about a lot of vanished history. It doesn’t help, he says, that 47th Street was given the Tobacco Road designation. It’s a tag that suggests poverty, shanties, and ragged clothes, but the street Black remembers was a place where everyone dressed up to see a show. He thinks that marketing the street as a blues district will only make matters worse.
“In a sense, it prostitutes the street historically,” he says. “They’re just looking for revenue for the city and whatever nomenclature they can give the area. They’re trying to revitalize it through historical falsehood, and it’s not fair to the community and the history of the neighborhood. To sell 47th Street as a center of black culture is an insult to us who were born and raised here, to the people who are a part of black culture in Chicago. It’s an insult to Langston Hughes, Billie Holiday, W.E.B. DuBois, Paul Robeson.”
Veteran saxman Jimmy Ellis, a product of the neighborhood, has his own memories of 47th Street. Starting out in the late 1940s, he played at the Regal Theatre and at many other south-side venues, and today he can recite the names of the music clubs in the 47th Street area–the Regal, of course, and also the 113 Club at 47th and Michigan, the Congo Club at 48th and King, the Cue Lounge at 48th and Indiana, the Savoy on King just south of 47th.
“It was strictly jazz–it wasn’t about no blues,” says Ellis, who at 70 still plays around town with his quartet and runs a music workshop at the University of Chicago. “I love Dorothy Tillman and like what she’s trying to do, but somebody didn’t give her the right information about 47th Street. She’s not from the area. I’m not knocking anything, but I don’t like what they’re gonna do with that–it’s not a Tobacco Road, man, it’s not the right description. Everybody dressed sharp. Jazz was the essence.”
Two years ago Harold Lucas and Pat Dowell-Cerasoli, then executive director of the Mid-South Planning and Development Commission, lobbied the city for a 43rd Street blues district. But Tillman was supporting 47th Street–after all, ground had just been broken for the Lou Rawls Theater–and the deck was stacked in her favor.
In May 1997 the City Council had approved the Planning Department’s 47th/King Drive Redevelopment Plan, a “revitalization strategy” designed to create a “mixed-income community” through the elimination of “blighted conditions” and the encouragement of “commercial, residential and institutional development.” The next month a “Market Analysis for a South Side Blues District” was issued by the Planning Department. It recommended that “in spite of the sentimental attachment to 43rd Street that revolves around the fame of the Checkerboard Lounge,” the city should “concentrate its efforts on fostering an entertainment district on 47th Street.”
The report, by Applied Real Estate Analysis, Inc., cited the direct access to 47th Street from both the Dan Ryan and Lake Shore Drive and that street’s larger collection of older buildings, which could provide blues clubs with reasonably priced space. Furthermore, existing development projects like the Lou Rawls Theater would have a ripple effect and attract more private investment. The report also stated that “it makes sense for the City” to put resources into a blighted area.
The fact that blues wasn’t historically a part of the 47th Street scene is of little concern to the street’s backers, who envision nightspots that offer a full range of music from the African diaspora–jazz, pop, reggae, and rhythm and blues–as well as traditional African sounds. “Alderman Tillman has a strong appreciation of roots and culture,” insists the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership’s Paula Robinson, who lauds the prospect of having a “real entertainment district, like on Ontario Street, smack in the heart of the city.”
In lieu of a blues district, the Bronzeville Partnership is working with the city to revitalize 43rd Street, roughly between State and Vincennes, through mixed-use redevelopment. Over the years this strip has been drained of retail activity and few buildings survive. Robinson says the revitalized area will create opportunities for African-Americans to own their own homes and businesses, and allow the neighborhood’s residents to spend their money where they live.
“If 47th Street is for tourists–or when I’m entertaining guests from out of town, or when I feel like dressing up and going out–then there’s opportunities on 43rd for housing and shops [selling] true authentic local whatever,” Robinson says. As Bronzeville turns into a tourist district, she says, it’s important for the local people to have their own amenities. “More important,” she says, “it creates jobs for indigenous residents–that helps support the tax base.”
The city’s plans for 43rd and 47th streets may not contain every element of Mid-South’s “Restoring Bronzeville” plan, Robinson concedes. “But the remnants of the plan, the backbone and foundation, are there,” she says. “Who knows? Someday you might even see the Checkerboard Homes.”
But will the Checkerboard Lounge survive?
The Planning Department’s market analysis found that Chicago’s blues scene was stronger than it had been in years. But though existing clubs were well established, few new ones had opened in recent years, and it was risky to start a live-entertainment venue specializing in one form of music. The report concluded that 47th Street could overcome the drawbacks by clustering clubs offering a broad range of roots music, and by recruiting established clubs to open new venues in the area.
That’s what the city’s trying to do. Earlier this year, says Checkerboard proprietor L.C. Thurman, Tillman’s office and planning officials both approached him with the idea of relocating to 47th Street. He’s noncommital; he’s waiting to see what the city offers. Buddy Guy’s Legends was approached, too. The Buddy Guy name has enough drawing power to guarantee success almost anywhere in the city, but it doesn’t look like he’s going to the south side. He’s at 754 S. Wabash now, and manager Adam Daytz says, “Buddy just bought up some land a block north” to build a three-story restaurant and entertainment complex. “It’s pretty much a done deal.”
The clientele of Buddy Guy’s Legends is predominantly white–which is no surprise. Supplanted by rhythm and blues and by soul music, by the 1960s the blues had fallen out of favor with black audiences. When the resurgence came at the end of the decade, it was sparked by rockers, most of them British, and whites became the primary consumers of the music.
According to the market analysis, the local club scene rebounded in the 1980s. And while Chicagoans, suburbanites, and out-of-towners flock to north-side blues clubs, fewer frequent the south-side venues, whose audiences are primarily African-American. This generalization isn’t absolutely true: though it’s located in one of the bleakest parts of the city, many white blues fans descend on the Checkerboard Lounge on weekends. They also travel to Lee’s Unleaded Blues, at 74th and S. South Chicago, and to other south- and west-side clubs.
Who would come to a 47th Street blues district? Would African-American Chicagoans and tourists visit in large enough numbers to keep it going? Would whites from the north side and from out of town patronize the area? The Checkerboard’s Thurman, for one, thinks they will; he says that if whites come to his place at 43rd Street, they’ll go another four blocks south.
But the market analysis stated that “perceptions of the South Side as being unsafe will be the largest obstacle to overcome in creating an entertainment district with a wide audience.” These perceptions are shared by blacks and whites alike. Concerns about safety and parking run through the market analysis like a musical motif, even though (as it points out) such fears correspond only loosely to reality.
To create a “supportive environment” for a blues district, the report recommended not only clustering old and new clubs together but also improving the general appearance of the area, getting rid of “illegal activity,” providing plenty of parking and security, and adding hotels, restaurants, stores, and prime housing.
“I wish them luck,” says Lenin “Doc” Pellegrino, who established Kingston Mines in Lincoln Park in 1968 and still runs the club, which is the oldest blues bar on the north side. “Maybe it’ll work, maybe it won’t–we’ll have to watch and see what happens. I wouldn’t knock it. But I don’t quite understand why they’re doing it. I think if they want to push blues into a black area, I’m not sure it’s going to work. I don’t know the benefits that would come from having black music in a black neighborhood. A good scenario is that it’ll uplift the area and draw a lot of white people, [but] most middle-class people, people with money, are nervous about going into that area.”
Would a successful south-side blues district draw patrons from north-side clubs? Pellegrino doesn’t think so; the north-side clubs will always command a heavy tourist and convention trade (in addition to the faithful) because they’re close to downtown and to near-north hotels. Pellegrino likens the situation to Italian restaurants: there are a lot of good ones in Little Italy and around 24th and Oakley, but just as many in other parts of the city. “It isn’t going to hurt anything. There’s plenty of people, plenty of room,” he says. Besides, 47th Street is “too far away.”
Blues harpist Billy Branch says he first stepped onstage in the early 1970s at Theresa’s Lounge, where he worked with Junior Wells, Lefty Dizz, and Carey Bell. He recalls sitting in on the old Monday night blues jam sessions at the Checkerboard Lounge. Branch and his band, Sons of Blues, continue to gig at such venues as Kingston Mines, Artis’s on the south side, and Rosa’s Lounge on the west side. He’s mystified at never having been invited to the Bring It On Home to Me Roots Festival, but he supposes Sons of Blues would be a blues district presence. “I’ve only heard a little bit about it,” says Branch. “But it sounds like a great idea to me.”
A resident of South Shore, Branch says he often drops by Gerri’s Palm Tavern to visit Oliver. In fact, he shot a television interview there last August. Branch says he likes to have all of his TV pieces done in the 47th Street bar. “It’s really an institution,” he says, “a classic place.”
A recent Planning Department map highlighting Grand Boulevard area redevelopment projects shows red, blue, green, and black lines zigzagging around neighborhood blocks of various shapes and sizes. Many of the districts they outline overlap. There’s the long, skinny blues district, extending about five blocks east from State to just past Vincennes. There’s the African Village, roughly bounded by 46th and 48th streets, the Green Line, and Saint Lawrence. Most of these districts lie within the boundaries of the 47th Street Redevelopment Area, a rough rectangle centering on 47th and King that drops as far south as 51st Street.
Most of the businesses along 47th–from Michigan Avenue past Vincennes–are labeled “commercial/redevelopment opportunity.” Other parcels along the strip are also marked: to become a roller skating rink on the southeast corner of 47th and Vincennes; to become an African bazaar (which, says a report, “will feature authentic African, African-American, and Caribbean/West Indies goods and services”) at the northeast corner of 47th and King; to become the Quincy Jones Pocket Park at the southwest corner of 47th and King.
The rink and the bazaar haven’t taken shape yet. But a building was razed earlier this year to make way for the park, which is now a lot full of wood chips. Before the year’s over, artist Ed Dwight intends to begin construction on what he’s calling the Quincy Jones Sculpture Tribute. Jones lived near 38th and Prairie until he was ten, when his family moved to Seattle. He frequently returned to Chicago to perform, though Dwight says from his Denver studio that “Quincy actually had a great distaste for Chicago.”
At any rate, Dwight’s designed a 15-foot-high bronze statue of Jones that, backed by a waterfall, will stand at the western end of the plaza. The musician’s accomplishments will be engraved in granite. A steel “wall of tribute” will offer bronze bas-reliefs of musical icons who influenced Jones as a performer and those, such as Michael Jackson, with whom he later worked as a composer, arranger, and producer.
Dwight has created 75 public sculptures throughout the country, many with African-American themes. “My objective here,” he wrote in his proposal for the Quincy Jones park, “is to establish a spirit of awe and reverence with elements of functional monumentality. America has fallen woefully short in the inclusion of accomplished African Americans in the artistic iconography of the natural landscape. With all the powerful art expressions that Chicago offers, there is minimal reference to the African American experience.”
The park will be one small piece of 47th Street. What about the rest of it? “Where does the community fit into the public funds going into redevelopment? What about the existing businesses?” asks Ron Carter, editor and publisher of the weekly South Street Journal and former head of the 47th Street Business Association. “Bottom line, there has been no business and community participation….There was no opportunity to take part.”
The business association formed in October 1997, several months after approval of the 47th/King Drive Redevelopment Plan paved the way for the blues district and the African village. The business group was troubled about the changes in the neighborhood and wanted some input with the city.
In January 1999 the city obtained the authority to purchase through eminent domain most of the properties on 47th Street between the Green Line and Saint Lawrence. The business association soon came out with its own community-approved “Proposed Forty-Seventh Street Development and Redevelopment Plan.” Designed “to facilitate economic growth for the business and residential community,” it was presented to local political and community officials.
“The plan was basically to include existing businesses in the city’s plan–that was really our main focus,” says Carter. “We just wanted to be part of the process.”
Carter says his group–representing about 15 businesses–was concerned that its members wouldn’t benefit from the city’s redevelopment plan. “We submitted petitions opposing eminent domain until the community and existing businesses knew what the plan was. A lot of businesses couldn’t plan for the future if they didn’t know how they fit into the existing plan. We kept saying, ‘Show us the plan.’ But they always stated it wasn’t a plan. It was no real secret as to what their intentions were all along.”
He continues, “It was a rough two years, trying to have some kind of accountability to the community by elected officials. The city didn’t acknowledge our concerns. [The Planning Department] continued not to allow local businesses to take part in the plan. There were state and federal officials that were sympathetic, but they didn’t want to take any public position in supporting us. We had a position of presenting concepts of inclusion. But it was a process of exclusion. It was supposed to be community driven, but it was politics as usual.”
The 47th Street Business Association dissolved last November, when Carter moved his newspaper out of the neighborhood. “A lot of businesses were intimidated by the city, and it was no different in the residential community,” he says. “It’s the political frustration. Businesses trying to meet their payrolls and profits [didn’t want to] get involved in the political bias of elected officials.” Carter’s paper still covers 47th Street, but not as closely. He says he got tired of writing about the changes there, and people got tired of reading about them. “I stood up,” he says, “where others were not.”
Jerry Perelgut owns the Public Furniture Company at 512 E. 47th St. He’s Jewish, an anomaly on a strip where most stores are run by blacks and Palestinians, and lives in Skokie. His father-in-law founded the company downtown in 1937 and moved it to 47th in 1953. Perelgut–who later bought the business–has been a local presence ever since, handing out cakes and cookies to favored customers and “witnessing changes in the neighborhood, both good and bad.”
Perelgut heard from the city for the first time in September 1999. A letter written by a Law Department official told him that his property–which is within the redevelopment area–“has been designated by the City for acquisition” and that “eligibility for relocation payments or other relocation assistance will be determined” at a later date.
Perelgut’s still waiting. He’s been in sporadic contact with law and planning people, but hasn’t gotten much out of them. He says that last year he stopped Tillman on the street–he sees her walking around with people he believes are developers–and asked her how long he’d be able to stay in business. “I’ll call you,” she responded, but didn’t. “I don’t like the way this is being done,” Perelgut says. “She doesn’t come in and talk or contact any merchants on the street.”
Perelgut shows me a copy of the 19-page (plus maps) redevelopment plan. Under the section “Redevelopment Project Area Goals,” he’s marked the sentences “Increase the real estate and sales tax base for the City of Chicago” and “Provide an economic environment that nurtures and protects existing businesses.” Indeed, the plan’s introduction states: “Existing business owners and residents will be encouraged to seek financial assistance in order to rehabilitate, repair, and maintain their properties.” The plan speaks of a “unified overall development theme” embracing both old and new buildings.
But Perelgut says “they’re not giving us any options. They don’t come in and discuss things with anybody. When you do something of this nature, you would like to discuss it. You would like to get a little more information so you know if you’re going to be in business today–or tomorrow. There’s a doubt–you don’t know. How else can you feel? You have no information. You’re in limbo, strictly in limbo.”
The Planning Department’s Cheryl Cooke suggests that residents and business owners won’t have to wait much longer. In late October her office received the first draft of a tax increment financing plan for the area, and she says the city will soon begin holding community meetings on it. A TIF, one of the city’s favorite redevelopment tools, finds the city borrowing money to remake a neighborhood and paying it back from the extra property taxes generated there. What about the businesses slated for acquisition? “We’re in the talking stages,” Cooke says. “We’ll be taking it to the community to get community input. It’s still in the planning stages.”
Gregg Parker is also in limbo. For the last seven years, Parker, a musician and consultant, has been trying to find a permanent home for what he calls the Chicago Blues Museum, a vast trove of African-American memorabilia. He’s got photos, posters, clippings, show bills, film and video footage, and a lot of old Regal Theatre stuff too, including the original 1927 blueprints. “I want the museum to be for everybody–it’s not a black and white thing,” Parker says. “I would love to be on the south side. I’ve just done everything in my power to be down there.”
Parker has met with aldermen, Tillman included, and with building and planning officials. He says that a few years ago the city offered him a run-down house in Woodlawn, but then he was told the city wanted to concentrate blues-related activity on 47th Street. Last fall a letter from a deputy planning commissioner assured him that the department would assist “in your search for a site for your blues museum” in that area; a vacant building next to the site of the old Metropolitan Theatre at 46th and King was put forward as a possibility.
“They were nice people,” says Parker. “But no one ever called me back. I never heard from anybody whether I was included in the plan or not….How can you have a blues district without a blues museum for people to see what history is down there?” Parker–who while living in LA in the 1970s was a studio guitarist for Mick Jagger, Isaac Hayes, and Stevie Wonder–is currently a consultant for an upcoming PBS series on the history of the blues. “I’ve done all these Hollywood things,” he says, “but I can’t get next door and get a building for the blues. A black man can’t even get a place for a museum in the hood.”
There are reports that a museum is planned for the Lou Rawls Theater complex. But that has nothing to do with Parker. He’s trademarked the name Chicago Blues Museum, and he warns he’s got lawyers lined up in case anyone tries to run off with the concept.
On a Saturday night in September, about 40 people have shown up at Gerri’s Palm Tavern to see bluesman Fernando Jones’s I Was There When the Blues Was Red Hot. It’s the play’s 198th performance–Gerri Oliver can always tell you the exact number. “It’s different every time I’ve seen it,” she says. People sit at the bar, at tables, and in the half dozen booths lining the wall below the smoke-grimed murals.
The audience is almost exclusively African-American, though there’s a table of four tourists from Europe, and also this writer and a date. Before the play begins, a young woman reads a Langston Hughes poem and Harriet Tubman’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech. The emcee makes a few jokes, including one in my direction–wasn’t I the guy who held him up the other night? Self-conscious laughter. During the play the actors will refer to us in a good-natured way as “suburbanites.”
Breaking down the barriers between performers and audience members is one of the key elements of I Was There When the Blues Was Red Hot. The semi-improvised cabaretlike “dramatic comedy,” as Jones calls it, focuses on the lives of characters who frequent a club that is in many ways similar to Gerri’s, and possibly Theresa’s. Though set decades ago, it happens in real time, real space. Actors mingle with the seated guests, and at one point we’re urged to get up and join in a rousing blues number. Jones makes it hard to tell where his show ends and real life begins.
And that’s the point. He draws parallels between Gerri’s threatened status and the status of all “authentic” blues clubs, as the music shifts from down-home vernacular to uptown commodity. The character Udig, the play’s conscience, is martyred for voicing harsh truths. He’s a former blues performer fed up with getting paid in “promises, pork chops, and pennies, while the white boys are gettin’ paid in the 3 Cs–contracts, caviar, and cash money! Besides, I’m an artist.”
Says Udig: “I got words that mean somethin’ in my music. I carry my bass around with me even though I don’t play in the clubs no more. Now, I play for me! You think ole Udig just wanna play for some white college kids who got everything in the world but black folk to entertain ’em? And consider themselves goin’ slummin when they come down here, in the hood, in raggedy blue jeans, baseball caps, and grungy T-shirts? No matter what y’all think or say about me behind my back, or to my face, I woke up this mornin’ and was still black.”
How much longer will the blues–and jazz, and poetry, and comedy, and drama–be red-hot at Gerri’s Palm Tavern? Will the prophecies uttered in I Was There When the Blues Was Red Hot play out on a reborn 47th Street? As founder of Blues Kids of America, a music and art education program, 36-year-old Fernando Jones says that a lot of youths he mentors know the once-glorious entertainment strip only as a drug haven.
“The redevelopment of 47th Street is one of the most brilliant ideas I’ve seen in my lifetime,” says Jones, who grew up around 60th and Michigan. “It’s a move in the right direction. But it’s dynamic, important, and significant from a sociological and historical perspective to keep Gerri’s Palm Tavern alive because you need the old establishments to help validate the new ones. It should be the headquarters from which it all stems. Otherwise, it’s like a child without grandparents–who is he? Gerri’s like a village elder, and the village needs everybody.”
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Jim Newberry.