Top

A Clearer Vision For Bronzeville

Story and Photo by Nik Kovac

Two summers ago, the city announced that $3.6 million was available to help revitalize the stretch of North Avenue between King Drive and I-43. The working title of this civic investment was the “Bronzeville Cultural and Entertainment District.”

Since then, two major real estate developments have been announced in the area, and the city hopes that many more retail, entertainment and residential projects will fill some of the gaps along the major travel corridor.

“Are there any developers in the room?” asked DeShea Agee, a recently hired economic development specialist for the city, on June 6, at the first of six weekly, open-to-the-public “visioning workshops” held at America’s Black Holocaust Museum. “We need your help to bring retail in. That is the face of the district.”

There has already been some movement on that front. The Just Jazz and Blues Lounge at 634 E. North Ave. opened its doors in September 2005. That same month the city approved grant and loan programs to improve existing facades, and declared that empty lots were available for development. Since then, several other nearby locations – like Garfield’s 502, as well as Soche and Gee’s Clippers on King Drive – have hung out shingles.

There is more to come. Last December, the city announced that a development team headed by former NBA player and Bucks coach Terry Porter was planning a 5-story building on the vacant land between 7th Street and the westwardcurving interstate just south of North Avenue. It will include a sports bar on the ground level, with loft and condominium space above.

“I believe Terry Porter’s project at the gateway to Bronzeville is going to generate excitement and boost our efforts to create an African- American cultural and entertainment district,” said Mayor Barrett at the time.

Sheila Payton, who works in local Congresswoman Gwen Moore’s office, attended the visioning meetings and described the Porter project as the “yeast in the bread” that will serve as a catalyst for other developments.

Back in November 2005, Congresswoman Moore had already secured $200,000 of federal money for another big project, the Bronzeville Cultural Center, now tentatively slated for the old Garfield Street school, just south of America’s Black Holocaust Museum.v

Plans for a cultural center were first advanced by a group of local African-American leaders back in 1997, according to Tyrone Dumas, board chairman for the African-American World Cultural Center, Inc. “When we first planned it,” he explained, “the budget was $40 million. Then we redesigned it five times over the last ten years, and now it’s been scaled down to $2.7 million.”

The cultural center will provide high-tech space for local arts groups and non-profits, as well as some permanent exhibition space. “Whatever we do will have to complement the Black Holocaust Museum,” reasoned Dumas. “We see it as a synergy. There are no egos here. When people get off that freeway, they are going to see a lot of opportunities in the center of the city.”

“The Cultural Center,” explained Congresswoman Moore, “will ensure that the talents of neighborhood arts organizations can be showcased to the wider community. In turn, these new visitors will expand the potential customer base for surrounding businesses.”

Representatives of local arts organizations showed up and expressed specific concerns at the visioning meetings. In June, at the first meeting, Evelyn Terry of African-American Artists Beginning to Educate Americans About African-American Art (ABEA) distributed a statement which read, in part, “While ABEA feels that the creation of public art in Bronzeville is a good first step, we have concerns due to previous incidents regarding inclusion and exclusion of African-American arts professionals. Exclusion has resulted in economic disparity in the African American arts community.”

In July, at the last meeting, Denise Crumble of the African-American arts collective known as Arts Village, expressed other doubts. “When planners instigate the process,” she cautioned, “and don’t include artists, it’s usually unsuccessful. I live in Riverwest, where you have a lot of artists and a lot of people of mixed income. Where is the affordable housing in this project?”

Agee directly responded to Crumble’s concerns. “A development that included a combination of affordable housing and market rate rents,” he told the room, “would likely be supported.”

If you would like more information about the city’s plans for Bronzeville and how to get involved, go to www.mkedcd.org/Bronzeville/index.html or call DeShea Agee at 286 0793.

Riverwest Currents online edition – August, 2007