Build Bronzeville initiative aims to improve community
November 1, 2019

Photos by Andrew Adams
Every Wednesday night, Build Bronzeville comes to life at Boxville, an open-air marketplace on 51st Street.

By Andrew Adams

The stretch of 51st Street around Prairie Avenue and the Green Line long has been the site of boarded up windows, chain link fences, and empty lots. That is changing, however, with the community initiative Build Bronzeville.

Launched this year, Build Bronzeville is the brainchild of Bernard Lloyd and the staff of his community development firm Urban Juncture. The multi-faceted endeavor consists of several existing community and business initiatives, which range from a community garden to a coworking space and business incubator. 

According to Maya Jones, the neighborhood development fellow for Build Bronzeville, the project’s name came from a desire to be more accessible. “We’re saying what we’re doing,” she said. This initiative culminates a decade and a half of work since Urban Juncture’s founding in 2002.

Every Wednesday night, Build Bronzeville comes to life at Boxville, an open-air marketplace on 51st Street where entrepreneurs and restaurateurs operate out of rehabilitated shipping containers. These businesses include two restaurants and a tea shop in addition to several table-based vendors selling beet juices, essential oils, and books.

Lloyd spends each week standing on the sidewalk in front of Boxville passing out information cards and making connections between people getting off the Green Line and the various businesspeople around the market. A networking expert, he catches a single detail of someone’s story and instantly thinks of someone with whom he can connect that person.

Coming together at Boxville

Boxville is more than just a shopping center, however. It features live mixing from a DJ and serves as a “neighborhood square” where “we’re trying to be one of those third places where people come together,” Lloyd said.

One business operates full time out of Boxville: Makers Box, a graphic design and apparel outfit run by Will Jamison and his partners, Eddie and AJ. Two months ago, they were working out of their basement. When describing where their ideas and customers come from, Jamison said “there have been times where a couple of kids come in with a drawing.” As he said that, he pointed to some kids playing just outside his shipping container office. 

Build Bronzeville also encompasses four other vectors for community growth. Bronzeville Incubator is a coworking space and business incubator that holds events for members and the community focusing on business growth. The Forum is a historical entertainment venue with plans for a complete renovation. Bronzeville Cookin’ is the name for the first floor retail spaces along Prairie and 51st. Finally, the Bronzeville Community Garden is a social space and productive garden open to the entire community. 

The next twelve months will bring a growth period for Build Bronzeville. A new restaurant will open before the end of the year at Bronzeville Cookin’, funding for the Forum’s renovations is about to be secured, and Lloyd said he is laying early plans to expand Boxville to feature more than 50 shipping containers versus the current 17.

Build Bronzeville’s impact goes beyond Boxville’s businesses. According to Sandria Washington, a Bronzeville resident who has volunteered and participated in Urban Juncture’s projects, “it’s been nice to see 51st get some love.” Washington noted that, “I’ve been able to see different entrepreneurs grow their businesses after participating in Build Bronzeville.”

Activist and art collector Patric McCoy had a personal note on Build Bronzeville’s community building elements. “When my mother was alive, she was happy to go sit in the garden,” McCoy said, referencing the community garden on 51st. 

Dowell support

Third Ward Alderman Pat Dowell said, “hopefully the Build Bronzeville Initiative can successfully develop on the investments that I have supported for the 51st Street corridor. I am happy to work with any community-based development organization that can prove beneficial to my constituents and the residents of the City of Chicago.”

Businesses play a fundamental role in developing and revitalizating communities, according to Stacey Sutton, assistant professor of urban planning and policy at the College of Urban Planning and Public Affairs at the University of Illinois at Chicago. Sutton offered a word of caution toward any revitalization efforts, however, saying, “Now that Bronzeville is accessible, who gets to live there?” When asked how Bronzeville might avoid some of the problems other communities have faced, she said, “There is no prescriptive strategy to mitigate gentrification.” 

This concern echoed one of Build Bronzeville’s worries about revitalization. According to Jones, “a lot of times when people talk about neighborhood revitalization, it’s a thinly veiled way to talk about removing certain kinds of people.”

Gentrification is a major concern in many areas of the city, particularly as private and public funders invest more money in neighborhoods that historically have been blocked from access to significant capital. 

According to Lloyd, the project already has cost nearly $10 million, with the money coming from private investors, the City, some Illinois government agencies, and federal programs. 

The largest single funding source for Build Bronzeville is Chicago’s 47th/King Tax Increment Financing (TIF) area, which has contributed $3 million. According to City documentation, the money is going toward renovating Urban Juncture’s building to open space for three restaurants, a produce store, and the community garden across the street. 

Build Bronzeville had two locations participating in Open House Chicago on Saturday and Sunday, Oct. 19 and 20: the Forum at Calumet and 43rd Street and Boxville at Calumet and 51st Street. The Boxville Market, 332 E 51st St., is open from 4 to 7 p.m. each Wednesday, weather permitting. 

Log on to www.boxville.org for Boxville Market. For Build Bronzeville, log on to https://buildbronzeville.com. Call Dowell’s office at (773) 373-9273. For Urban Juncture, log on to www.urbanjuncture.com. Email Sutton at suttons@uic.edu.