COLLEGE
02/29/2012 04:06 pm ET Updated Apr 30, 2012

Toward A Future's Past

“Gimme just a minute,” Harold Lucas says. “I’m gonna go inside and get one of those hoity-toity cocktails from the gallery.”

Lucas deserves his drink. For the past half-hour he has been guiding a whirlwind tour of historic Bronzeville. He is 68 years old and a recent survivor of a heart attack and double bypass surgery. For most of the tour, he has had to shout to be heard over the roar of his trolley tour bus and the murmurs of its passengers. The air inside the trolley is thick with the scent of perfume and champagne and most of Lucas’s audience consists of people half his age, elegantly dressed, and eager to amend, reject, and praise his version of their neighborhood’s history.

This is only the first of four tours that Lucas will give tonight, but even the challenge of these two hours pales in comparison to the decades that the lifelong Bronzeville resident has spent dedicated to this 1.7-square-mile section of Chicago. As the head of both the Black Metropolis Convention and Tourism Council and the Bronzeville Online Visitor Information Center, Lucas has worked, he says, to ensure that Bronzeville is recognized as the city’s “premiere destination for African-American tourism and cultural life.”

But his is not the only vision of the neighborhood on display Friday night in Bronzeville. Twenty-four-year-old Columbia College graduate Tempestt Hazel joined with Lucas to present “The Future’s Past”—an art exhibit and community retrospective at the Blanc Gallery, which aims to provide an “introductory glimpse into the histories of Chicago’s Black Metropolis.”

Hazel is not a Bronzeville resident, and did not grow up admiring the neighborhood’s long cultural history. She was pulled, instead, by what she calls serendipity. “I don’t drive,” she says, “so I spend a lot time walking and observing different parts of Chicago and their varying types of architecture.”

It’s obvious why Bronzeville would fascinate someone with an eye for design—stately three-story homes, beautiful churches, pristine glassy office buildings and restaurants, and recently flattened empty lots all line Martin Luther King Drive, a boulevard once known as South Parkway.

The project started off as a way to highlight these historic buildings, but later, Hazel decided to try to bring a new perspective to her depiction of the neighborhood. She enlisted the help of four other artists—Stephen Flemister, Krista Franklin, Emmanuel Pratt, and Amanda Williams—and began to construct silhouettes of historic Bronzeville sites to adorn the wall of the Blanc Gallery. Along with the silhouettes, the artists have begun to collect and display memorabilia that tie in with the neighborhood’s heritage: old playbills, records, posters and scraps representative of an artistic past.

“These are all works in progress,” Hazel says. “Over the next four weeks you’ll be able to watch these pieces evolve. That’s what makes it interesting—the change.”

The ostensible goal of “Future’s Past” as stated in a gallery news release was to bring “today’s residents into visual contact with yesterday’s heroes.” But yesterday’s heroes look remarkably different from the artists and curators that made this reflection possible. These new champions of Bronzeville represent a shift toward a community that can engage with the city at large in a conversation about what makes a neighborhood—and who should belong.

* * *

The art on the gallery walls is only one portion of the exhibit—Harold Lucas’s interactive tour completes and troubles the subjects behind the frame. Outside the Blanc, Lucas leads his trolley bus tour down Martin Luther King Jr. Drive, stopping at several historic places, including the Supreme Life Building, the Lutrelle Palmer House, and the former sites of the Regal Theatre and the Savoy Ballroom, which have been demolished. Each of these buildings also features Hazel’s art, which is displayed in the windows and brought to life by the soft halogen-glow of interior lighting.

One patron on Lucas’s tour calls out, “You missed the Ida B Wells house!” Lucas replies, unfazed, “Hold on just a minute, we’ll get to that.” Occasional shouts from the back of the bus remind the rest of the attendees that Bronzeville’s history does not easily fit one uniform interpretation. As Hazel says, “it changes a lot depending on whose telling the story.”

The Future’s Past exhibit is not just art for art’s sake, but it’s not a passive collection of historically significant facts, either. Bronzeville, the neighborhood which was once known across the country as the “Black Metropolis,” a center of African-American culture and entrepreneurial activity, is now often associated with its problems of economic stagnation and crime. Lucas attributes many of these issues to the Chicago Housing Authority, whose large-scale public housing projects, including the infamous Robert Taylor Homes, which isolated the neighborhood from the greater Chicago community and, he says, contributed to the “breakdown of the black family structure and values.” Today, the Robert Taylor Homes no longer stand—the last building was razed in 2007—but in Lucas’s eyes, the damage they inflicted remains.

On top of that, Bronzeville has struggled with forces outside the realm of the political. Natural disaster wreaked havoc on the neighborhood this past year after a fire at the intersection of 47th and King Drive destroyed several treasured Bronzeville institutions. The Blu 47 bar and restaurant, the Jamaican Consulate, and the Spoken Word Café—one of the original hosts of HBO’s Def Jam Poetry series—were all consumed by the blaze.

But in spite of a number of setbacks, multiple projects are currently in the works for the revitalization of Bronzeville. Jimalita Tillman and her mother, former Alderman Dorothy Tillman hope to re-open the Spoken Word Café in Ald. Tillman’s former political headquarters.

Meanwhile, Eileen Rhodes, a real estate developer and owner of the Blanc Gallery where the “Future’s Past” exhibit is now displayed, has partnered with the chef of the historic Parkway Ballroom, Cliff Rome, to open up a restaurant with broad appeal. Their vegan-friendly, “gourmet on the go” hot dog restaurant, H-Dogs, is located on the site where the Spoken Word Café once stood, and Rhodes hopes that it will attract more of the students from nearby universities to Bronzeville. She believes that more inclusive, colorblind solutions such as creative local businesses and art attractions will reinvigorate the community.

But for some, Bronzeville needs more than just free enterprise, and some community members want to ensure that the new business growth will not come at the expense of the neighborhood’s cultural and ethnic integrity.

* * *

But beginning his second tour, Lucas sets out his vision for the future of Bronzeville. He hopes the neighborhood will resist gentrification and retain a population that is at least “60-percent African-American.”

Lucas sees the success of black businesses in Bronzeville as being key not only for the prosperity of its residents, but also for the advancement of other black Chicagoans. “The rise of the black middle class in Bronzeville,” he insists, “will bring about the emancipation of this city’s African-American community.”

The question of neighborhood gentrification doesn’t come with an easy answer. In fact, the issue of racial change in Bronzeville is so charged that few people other than Lucas are willing to speak out publicly.

“Harold takes a hard line and polemical view of neighborhood development,” Rhodes notes cautiously in an e-mail, preferring to take a more apolitical stance.

But even if the other organizers of the event are unwilling to speak out on the issue of race, all those involved with “Future’s Past” seem united in their view of who their audience should be, and who will inherit this cultural legacy.

The project targets community members and challenges them to consider bygone realities and future possibilities for the neighborhood. Its intended audience isn’t just arbitrary. Because “Future’s Past” is aimed at those who are already somewhat familiar with Bronzeville’s past, the organizers are able to delve more deeply into personal histories.

With touching candor, Lucas discusses the Chicago Military Academy. A large, boxy building, the Academy is remarkable primarily in the role it played in his own life—he protested in front of the building while he was homeless, when the city threatened to tear it down. “I prayed almost everyday for those walls,” he says, his voice quavering.

Lucas’s version of Bronzeville history is more idiosyncratic and intimate than what you’ll find in the pages of a textbook. He avoids trite statements about many of the area’s most famous residents and entertainers like Nat King Cole, Richard Wright, Louis Armstrong. Instead, Lucas chooses to champion the underappreciated leaders and social architects, whose thoughts and achievement have blended with Lucas’s own. Chief among these local heroes are Earl B. Dickerson, a prominent attorney and the first African-American member of the Chicago City Council, and John H. Johnson, founder and editor-in-chief of the Negro Press, Ebony, and Jet Magazine, respectively. “These guys are up there with Malcolm, and Dr. King,” he says, “They’re definitely in my top-ten heroes list.”

Though the show was designed for Bronzeville residents, they are not the only ones coming out to catch a glimpse of this piece of Chicago history. “To be perfectly honest” Hazel says, “this show is for the people of this area, but the really interesting part of the show is that it has attracted a very diverse crowd. I’m not going to say that anyone should or shouldn’t come and take part in the neighborhood’s culture.”

Returning to the Blanc Gallery after Lucas’ tour, it’s hard to reconcile the stories and emotions of the tour bus with the scene inside the exhibition space. The interior of the gallery, like that of the new H-Dogs just down the road, is immaculate, white, spacious and brightly lit. The walls are lined with artist installations of old playbills, records, black silhouetted figures and drawn outlines of the old project houses, but it all feels slightly distanced, and less intense than the raw oral history.

The purpose of the exhibit is not only to retell stories of the way things used to be, but also to look forward to the new. In Hazel’s opening speech, she introduced the project with the oft-repeated phrase: “you have no future if you don’t have a past.” In context, she was able to bring out the power hidden in the truism. New projects and entrepreneurial ventures are helping reestablish the link between the Black Metropolis’s historic greatness and the new and evolving community that is taking root today. These are not big steps, but as Lucas says at the end of his tour, quoting his hero John H. Johnson, one needs always to “dream small dreams.”