The McDonalds in Bronzeville

McDonalds at Bronzeville

As I mentioned earlier, McCormick Place is a massive convention centre redevelopment in Chicago’s South Loop that appears to have bulldozed several blocks of old city land. Indeed, I suspect that McCormick Place is so large, Chicago could have New York over for a visit. It dwarfs Toronto’s convention centre by an order of magnitude.

It also, I have to say, reminds me terribly of Hull’s Place du Portage.

Way back when I was in grade seven, my father went to a librarians’ conference in Ottawa and took my mother and me along. To keep me entertained, my mother took me on a tour of Ottawa’s bus system (yes, I was a transit geek, even then). I’d noticed that OC Transpo’s buses crossed the Ottawa River into Hull, and as I had no memory of ever being outside of the province of Ontario, I asked if we could pay a visit to the province of Quebec. So we took the bus to the end of the line.

Big mistake. Although Hull’s downtown is said to be nice, our bus bypassed the downtown and continued on to a government complex overlooking the Ottawa River that I suspect was built to survive a nuclear attack. The buildings were concrete slaps, the doors were all recessed and hard to locate, traffic screamed along the roads with the noise amplified by all the hard surfaces, and there were no other pedestrians about. It was cold. It was unpleasant. And we caught the next bus and got the heck out of there. I wouldn’t leave Ontario again for another ten years, paying a visit to the much nicer city of Montreal.

I get the same vibe here in McCormick Place. The inside of the Hyatt Regency is posh, but the design of the place is clearly skewed to getting people indoors as quickly as possible. Covered bridges connect the buildings at several locations. The car traffic screams along Martin Luther King Drive. They’ve taken the step of boxing in an elevated expressway to spare us from exhaust fumes, and they’ve gardened up the sidewalks, but walking along the sidewalks along King Drive, you face nothing but slabs of concrete and glass. And, tellingly, there are few other pedestrians. Which is not a situation you want to have after dark in a city like Chicago.

Which is a double shame because McCormick Place is right next to a charismatic community called Bronzeville. This web site has more information on the history of Bronzeville:

The black area of the south side of Chicago was originally called as the “Ghetto” by outsiders. However, the “Ghetto” is a harsh term, carrying overtones of poverty and suffering, of exclusion and subordination. In the Midwest Metropolis it is used by civic leaders when they want to shock complacency into action. Most of the ordinary people in the black belt refer to their community as the “south side” , but everybody is also familiar with another name for the area ——- Bronzeville. According to Cayton and Drake of the Black Metropolis (1945) , this name seems to have been used originally by the editor of the Chicago Bee, who, in 1930, sponsored a contest to elect a “mayor of Bronzeville.” A year or two later, when this newsman joined the Defender Staff, he took his brain child with him. The annual election of the “mayor of Bronzeville” grew into a community event with a significance far beyond that of that of the circulation stunt, in which tens of thousands of people used to participate. In 1944 - 45, a physician was elected mayor. It was after this in 1945 that people started to use the term “Bronzeville” for the Black Metropolis because it seems to express the feeling that people seem to have about their own community. Cayton and Drake also say that the expression “bronze” when counterposed to “black” reveals a tendency on part of the Negroes to avoid referring to themselves as “black”. And, of course, as a descriptive term the former is even more accurate then the latter, for most Negroes are brown. Hence in conclusion we can say that the term Bronzeville was brought about to give the Black Metropolis the much needed upliftment and also so that people would not keep looking down on it as the “black” neighborhood.

Bronzeville proudly calls itself a minority neighbourhood, and what I’ve seen of it defies the stereotypes you might have of the Chicago south side. New townhouses and condominiums are moving into the area, and prices are jumping up. Martin Luther King Drive becomes a lot more walkable once you cross under the boxed in expressway and actually encounter buildings which face onto the street. There’s a McDonalds near the expressway which we’ve eaten at twice, now (the first time during our St. Patrick’s Day visit earlier this year — see the picture above), and its walls are covered with art depicting famous African Americans and community leaders. And we’ve had interesting conversations there.

Back in March, we met a woman who was going through a bunch of pictures, working on a book about the history of Bronzeville. She was more than happy to talk to us about the community, and the migration of African Americans it saw following the Civil War. My mother-in-law talked to her about a book that she had read, the award-winning Elijah of Buxton by Christopher Paul Curtis, depicting the life of the first child of the underground railroad born into freedom in the Ontario community given over to the former slaves.

And earlier today, while we went out to have breakfast (the McDonald’s is the least expensive place in walking distance) an older gentleman happened by to show us a bottle of sugar-free syrup that he’d brought to have on his hot cakes, saying that it was a shame that McDonald’s didn’t offer a sugar-free variant for those who were diabetic, especially considering how diabeties is more prevalent in ‘minority neighbourhoods’. This lead to a conversation about how much sugar there was in McDonald’s food in general, as shown by Morgan Spurlock’s movie, Super Size Me.

It is the stereotype that big cities are impersonal, that strangers talk to each other as little as they can get away with. But that’s not the case here. Bronzeville feels like a open and friendly community, and I think that comes through pride.

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