From roughly the 1930s to the mid-1950s, between the Harlem Renaissance and the Black Arts Movement, the Chicago Black Renaissance flourished in Bronzeville, nurturing some of the country’s greatest musicians, film directors, artists, writers, and poets. During this time, migrants seeking to escape the institutionalized racism of the South took on the daunting challenge of staking out a new way of life in a harsh urban landscape. Many found inspiration and a common political identity here as they developed a unique aesthetic consciousness. Along the Streets of Bronzeville carves out a minutely observed local history of the community that shaped the imaginations of Richard Wright, Gwendolyn Brooks, Margaret Burroughs, and many others.
With scholarly analysis and eyewitness accounts, this exploration of specific businesses, artists’ organizations, and key figures recovers the vivid details of a neighborhood in flux. An area known in the 1920s as the “Stroll”—roughly present-day Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard—comes to life with its curious crowds milling about day and night. A $1 million department store complex at 47th St. and South Parkway became a commercial mecca and the center of Bronzeville life, with its elegant Regal Theater and massive Savoy dance hall. Numerous African-American-run businesses flourished here as nowhere else in America at the time.
Elizabeth Schlabach, an assistant professor of History at Earlham College, considers the cultural meaning of these and other prominent sites and activities, not least the prestigious South Side Community Art Center and the South Side Writers’ Group. She attends to social and economic hardships as well by focusing sharply on a few sobering details, especially as they appear in literature. She explores, for instance, the significance of the dreary, tight one-bedroom “kitchenette” apartments that affected the creative vision of their occupants.
Schlabach also reflects on Bronzeville residents who expressed their creativity in unconventional ways. To this end, she examines the South Side gambling phenomenon known as “policy.” Policy offered residents the opportunity to think and dream beyond every day difficulties. By evaluating the imaginative richness of so-called “dream books”—interpretive handbooks for common dreams intended to increase the odds of winning at policy—she illuminates the talents and aspirations of ordinary people. This too entered the creative consciousness of South Side artists and writers.
Although Schlabach’s language could at times be clearer, most readers will find Along the Streets of Bronzeville to be an accessible and informative guide to Bronzeville’s history and cultural geography. She captures both the thrill and alienation of a city open to migrants yet prone to segregation (among the more jarring details is a brief mention of restrictive housing covenants supported by the University of Chicago in the first decades of the twentieth century). Readers of Richard Wright and Gwendolyn Brooks may be most pleased, however, since of all the writers and artists discussed, they receive the greatest share of the author’s attention.
Along the Streets of Bronzeville offers a rich, artistically oriented micro-history that complements broader, more substantial works such as Adam Green’s Selling the Race: Culture, Community, and Black Chicago, 1940-1955; Thomas Holt’s Children of Fire; and Isabel Wilkerson’s The Warmth of Other Suns. Throughout, Schlabach strikes a fine balance between acknowledging injustice and hardship and illuminating the proactive artistic and political endeavors characteristic of the Chicago Black Renaissance.
October 2013, University of Illinois Press
$45, hardcover, 192 pages
—Reviewed by Vicky Albritton