Paula Robinson’s decades-long quest to promote and preserve the neighborhood’s rich cultural and historical heritage just got a big boost.
Near 43rd Street and St. Lawrence Avenue in Bronzeville, coffee shop Sip & Savor is flanked by Ain’t She Sweet cafe and an upscale men’s clothing store called Agriculture. Across the street, new condos have recently gone up, as have townhouses just a bit west. And yet several empty lots sit nearby—unkempt grass and spindly trees next to concrete squares that mark structures long gone. “It’s unheard of to be near the lakefront and still see all these vacant tracts of land,” says community activist.
A marketer, self-styled cultural historian and accidental preservationist, Robinson has devoted a sizable chunk of her life over the past two decades to championing the South Side neighborhood that was once so vibrant it was called the Black Metropolis. “The stuff that Chicago is building on—jazz, blues, gospel—didn’t just come from the African-American community,” she says. “It came from this community, right here.”
Over the years, Robinson has won some battles and lost some, but recently she scored a big win: a seat at the table in developing a prime lakefront site on the edge of Bronzeville that could be key to the neighborhood’s revival. Just 2 miles north, Michael Reese Hospital was once a pioneering institution with a significant history of charity. It folded in 2008 and was bought by the city to be converted into an Olympic Village as part of Chicago’s failed bid for the 2016 Summer Games. Since then, the site has been an albatross of demolished buildings and straggly weeds. Earlier this month, the Chicago Department of Planning & Development chose a team called Grit to redevelop it. With Skidmore Owings & Merrill as consulting architect, the group consists of Farpoint Development, Draper & Kramer, Chicago Neighborhood Initiatives and Bronzeville Community Development Partnership, a nonprofit run by Robinson.
The city has asked her not to discuss specifics about the plan, which involves a $144.5 million sale that still has to be approved. Early reports note the inclusion of housing, a tech hub, retail, a hotel, a Metra station at 31st Street, a pedestrian walkway to the lake, and a big city park. “The team’s name really speaks to how I feel,” Robinson says. It stands for Global Research, Innovation & Tourism. “It also stands for ‘Get ready, it’s time!’ ” she says.
Robinson, 60, was born in Bronzeville and grew up in Hyde Park-Kenwood. Since then, she has lived in many neighborhoods, from Rogers Park on the Far North Side to the Far South Side’s Morgan Park, where she now resides and where her grandparents lived. Her ailing mother, a former Englewood High School assistant principal, is in a nursing home in nearby Beverly. But even though Robinson has ties all across the city, Bronzeville won her heart.
Once a beacon to tens of thousands of African-Americans escaping the South during the Great Migration of the early 20th century, this Chicago neighborhood claims connections to a veritable who’s who of black luminaries, including jazz giant Louis Armstrong, Pulitzer-winning poet Gwendolyn Brooks and civil rights activist Ida B. Wells. The area’s fabled Rosenwald Courts apartment building, constructed in 1929 to provide quality housing for a burgeoning black middle class, counts boxer Joe Lewis, singer Nat King Cole and music producer Quincy Jones among former tenants. Its landmark Wabash Avenue YMCA is where Black History Month was conceived. Meanwhile, pioneering entrepreneur Anthony Overton established multiple businesses in Bronzeville, including realty and life insurance companies and the Chicago Bee newspaper, making him the country’s first African-American businessman to head a conglomerate.
The area’s boundaries, like those of many Chicago neighborhoods, vary depending on whom you ask. By some accounts, Bronzeville encompasses just 1 square mile on the South Side—from 31st Street to Pershing Road and from the Dan Ryan Expressway to Martin Luther King Drive, west to east. But Robinson defines a much larger area as the “Bronzeville Umbrella,” citing the historic Black Metropolis that arose in part because of racist real estate covenants (ruled unconstitutional in 1948). To Robinson, Bronzeville runs from 18th Street to 67th Street.
Given the Reese site’s proximity to the lake, McCormick Place and the neighborhood she loves, Robinson has long considered its redevelopment crucial to a Bronzeville renaissance. Now the Grit team can “connect the Chicago necklace,” she says.
Earlier in her career, Robinson handled big accounts for major public relations agencies (Edelman, Burson-Marsteller, Burrell) before co-founding Loop-based PR firm BR&R Communications in 1990. When it folded a decade later, she segued into marketing and community development on the South Side. In addition to being president of the Bronzeville Community Development Partnership, she’s also president of the Black Metropolis National Heritage Area Commission, a 25-member steering committee seeking designation from the National Park Service.
“She has an idea a minute,” says Jacky Grimshaw, vice president for government affairs at the Center for Neighborhood Technology in Chicago. “Paula is a connector. She’s always engaging, always roping people into the Paula Robinson sphere. She’s the perfect person to have as a promoter of Bronzeville.” Grimshaw, who grew up in Bronzeville in the ’50s, lent her expertise three years ago to Robinson and a team working on an earlier Reese pitch: a bid to bring the Obama presidential library to the site. (The presidential campus will instead be farther south, in Jackson Park.)
Robinson’s mind is constantly spinning, sorting through information to share. Often the process leads to her telling three stories when one will do. She says a colleague once told her, “Paula, you’re giving me the Cadillac. We’re just trying to get in the Chevrolet and get it in drive.”
Her energy and ability to wear multiple hats ultimately led to her more recent roles of historian and architecture champion. Her intention in the mid-’90s was just to promote the area, until she learned of the dire fates facing many Bronzeville buildings. “Wait, I have to stop and do preservation?” she remembers thinking. “I have to save these sites? Isn’t there somebody else doing that? I just want to market it!” The reluctant preservationist quickly learned that a building’s history didn’t matter. Instead, “adaptive reuse” was what could spare a structure from the wrecking ball. So she did research, wrote letters and drafted proposals. The art deco Chicago Bee Building became a public library, now listed on the National Register of Historic Places; the Eighth Regiment Armory, the first of its kind for black troops, became the Chicago Military Academy. Robinson also worked to save the historic Arts & Crafts Rosenwald Courts building.
Not all of her efforts have been successful. The 1917 Metropolitan Theater was demolished in 1997, even though she linked arms with other preservationists in front of the building to stop demolition; the same fate befell the Pickford Theater, built in 1912. The losses pain her—”So much is already gone; why wouldn’t you save what was left?”—but she holds on to what she can. “We literally salvaged all the letters that spelled ‘Metropolitan,’ ” she says, “along with all this beautiful white terra-cotta,” a piece of which sits in her garden.
Blues legend Muddy Waters’ home, now a vacant two-flat, is another struggle. Only a metal sign near the curb—a Chicago Tribute Marker of Distinction, erected in 1999—designates it as a landmark. The sign is rusted and dented, reflecting the dilapidated home it commemorates. “Are we going to let it look like that?” Robinson asks, pointing to the shuttered brick building, which sits on an otherwise unremarkable street with some well-kept houses nearby. To her mind, the Waters home—which once hosted legendary jam sessions with Howlin’ Wolf, Buddy Guy and Chuck Berry—is another untapped gem that, if restored, could boost tourism.
“Paula’s been a creative force, very steadfast and consistent, working to bring historic significance to the Bronzeville area,” says U.S. Rep. Bobby Rush, whose district includes the neighborhood. “Paula understands the bridge between Black Metropolis and Bronzeville.” The two met about 20 years ago through Rush’s wife, the late Carolyn, who shared Robinson’s passion for history. Starting in 2008, Rep. Rush and Robinson worked together on another of Robinson’s big plans: to get the National Park Service to designate the neighborhood a National Heritage Area. She thinks it would drive investment.
“She’s been one of the few people who understand how important a historical designation is, what it means from an economic basis and a cultural basis,” Rush says. “It becomes an identity that can never be erased, once that historical designation is in place.”
In addition to history, Robinson thinks a lot about legacy—not just in terms of a broad cultural perspective, but on an intimate level. When old friends heard about her preservation efforts, she started hearing a familiar refrain: “You come to this naturally, and you don’t even know it. You’re Annabell Robinson’s granddaughter!” In the late ’50s, the Chicago Park District aimed to expand Ada Park on the Far South Side. But Robinson’s family house stood in the way, and her grandmother was not about to see her home torn down. Dissatisfied with a simple buyout, Annabell Robinson negotiated her own deal: In exchange for the land, the city relocated the frame house. Annabell became famous in Morgan Park.
With the winning Michael Reese bid, Robinson says she can return to what she loves best. “I’ve needed in the past to be very involved in preservation and community organizing,” she says. “My real interest and talents lie in development. So to be part of the development team is really thrilling to me personally.”
But her work’s far from done. The National Heritage Area designation effort is in limbo, given a new U.S. president not known for friendly attitudes toward Chicago or, for that matter, certain federal agencies. “The biggest thing that has happened is Donald Trump,” Robinson says. “It’s affecting our action plan and next steps, how he sees and thinks about the National Park Service.” Still, as Rush says, despite the “bleak outlook” on the federal horizon, “Paula’s not a quitter. She’ll see it to the end, and that end will be something she can approve of.”
Says Robinson: “I needed this journey over the last 20, 30 years. God didn’t bring me this far just to bring me this far.” That’s sure to mean good things for Bronzeville.