Our first on-site workshop was met with heavy snow and freezing temperatures, but upon our arrival at Anthony Overton Elementary School in Bronzeville, we were met with the warm smiles of our guest speakers and Bronzeville residents Stacey Adams and Paula Robinson. We sat with them under the bright lights of the gym, as they told us their stories and about Bronzeville's significance in their lives.
Stacey Adams was raised in Bronzeville. After being unsuccessful in finding a job after the army, he resorted to selling drugs to make money. "It was not a bad frame of mind, it was more like survival", he recalls, as he recounted days when he had no one to help him, and did not have enough money to feed himself. He was not aware of any other opportunities available to him. It was only after he spent time in Cook County Jail that one of the inmates suggested that he go back to school. This came as a surprise opportunity to Stacey, who had not realized this was a viable option for himself. He went to get a business degree and welding certificate. It was this certificate that landed him a job with Ghian Foreman, partner at the Washington Park Development Group, development organization that owns Overton Elementary, where Stacey now works as the caretaker of the grounds. In the future, he aspires to purchase the now closed Parkman Elementary, where he had gone to school as a child, and devote it to workforce development, to "create opportunities for people like me who come from the streets", and spreading the word more effectively so that people in the same boat will not have to resort to illegal business.
Paula Robinson is the President of the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership (BCDP), and shared some of the wealth of knowledge she has on the history of the Black Metropolis, as well as what she is doing to turn Bronzeville into the "community of the future". The South Side of Chicago suffered from restrictive real estate covenants with hard geographical boundaries, which created the need for self-sustaining goods and service. This resulted in the thriving Black Metropolis, which consists of African American business pioneers as well as those in sports and medical professions, including Anthony Overton himself. The term Bronzeville was also coined to designate a special culture and endearing community, even though it is not an official "community area" of Chicago, but made up of Grand Boulevard, and parts of Douglas and Oakland. Now, as part of the Urban Innovation Center, Paula strives to revive the legacy of that golden age, by creating and finding jobs that center around tourism, technology and transport (T3), which will create an "opportunity zone" in Bronzeville. On a more personal note, her mother was a teacher at Englewood High School, and her Godmother served as principal at Anthony Overton Elementary School.
After spending the rest of the morning at the Hall Branch Chicago Public Library, we warmed up with southern comfort food at Peach's Diner before returning to Overton for a tour of the building, as well as the installations put up as part of the 8x3: Art + Architecture activations of summer 2018. Additionally, we discussed our current research related to Chicago Public Schools and understanding this agency as a system.
Getting to visit Bronzeville, touring Overton and speaking directly with people who are deeply involved in lifting their community up, was a very grounding experience. No longer is this class about etic research, but delving into the lived experiences of the emic perspective has made our education richer and more personally meaningful.
VALERIE WONG is a senior at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, in the Department of Architecture, Interior Architecture and Designed Objects.