Posts Tagged 'Bronzeville'

Joe Louis’s Home

Joe Louis was born in Alabama and grew up in Detroit. He spent his later life in Las Vegas.  But during the twelve years he reigned as heavyweight boxing champion of the world, he lived in Chicago.

Born Joseph Louis Barrow in 1914, he dropped his last name when he began amateur boxing as a Detroit teenager, so his mother wouldn’t find out what he was doing. As Joe Louis the kid fighter attracted the attention of John Roxborough.  Roxborough, one of the city’s gambling kingpins, became Louis’s manager.

In 1934 Louis turned pro. Roxborough began grooming him for a shot at the heavyweight championship, and that meant a move Chicago, where Louis could train under Jack Blackburn. Local promoter Julian Black joined Roxborough as a partner.  He found Louis an apartment on 46th Street off South Park Way (King Drive).

Joe and Marva

Louis quickly rose through the ranks with a string of knockouts. During one of his gym sessions he noticed Marva Trotter, a secretary at the Chicago Daily Defender newspaper. They started dating.  On the morning of September 24, 1935 Joe and Marva were married in New York.  Joe then went off to Yankee Stadium, knocked out ex-champ Max Baer in four rounds, and went back to his hotel and Marva.

The new couple settled in at the Rosenwald Apartments at 4648 South Michigan Avenue. The 454-unit complex had been built by white philanthropist Julius Rosenwald to provide decent housing for the city’s African Americans.  Louis later said that the Rosenwald “was the most fabulous building black people could live in at the time.”  Gwendolyn Brooks, Nat “King” Cole, and other prominent Chicagoans were also residents.

Louis continued winning in the ring until Max Schmeling stopped him in June 1936. Louis then rebounded with a new string of victories.  On June 22, 1937, he knocked out James J. Braddock at Comiskey Park to become the new heavyweight champion.

Marva was not at the fight. According to the Tribune, she listened to the action on the radio in their apartment at 4320 South Michigan Avenue.  After the fight, Louis had trouble driving back the few blocks home through the crowds.  “I thought all of Chicago was standing outside my house,” he wrote in his autobiography.  “Marva and I had to come out, I don’t know how many times, and wave at the people.”

Joe Louis’s Chicago Home

Exactly when the Louises relocated from the Rosenwald is unclear. According to the 1940 Census, Joe had purchased the three-story apartment building for $7500—about $140,000 in today’s money.  Their personal flat had five rooms.  At that time the tenants in the other five units paid rents ranging from $40- to $65-a-month.

One year to the day after he’d won the heavyweight title, Louis took care of his old nemesis, Max Schmeling, in just over two minutes. In the course of twelve years Louis would successfully defend his title 25 times, more than any other boxing champion.  Some critics scoffed at his challengers as the Bum-of-the-Month Club.  More likely, Louis was just too good for anyone.

Louis served in the army during World War II, mostly fighting exhibitions. When he came out of the service, his skills had noticeably deteriorated.  He won a few fights, but the magic was gone.  In October 1949 he announced his retirement from the ring.

Meanwhile, Louis’s marriage had also deteriorated.  Joe liked the ladies, and the ladies liked Joe.  Joe and Marva divorced in 1945, remarried in 1946, then divorced a final time in 1949.  Marva kept the two children and the apartment building on Michigan Avenue.

The rest of Louis’s life was not happy. He had trusted too many people with his money, and the Internal Revenue Service came after him for back taxes, which he couldn’t pay.  A boxing comeback was an embarrassment.  He had health problems and battled substance abuse.  His final years were spent as a greeter in a casino.

Joe Louis died in 1981. He was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.  A few years after his death, his favorite local golf course—Pipe O’ Peace in Riverdale—was renamed Joe Louis the Champ Golf Course.  The apartment building he owned on Michigan Avenue during his glory years remains a private residence.

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Then and Now, Cottage Grove-Pershing

1949--Cottage Grove Avenue @ Pershing, view south

1949–Cottage Grove Avenue @ Pershing Road, view south

2014--the same location

2016–the same location

In 1949 this stretch of Cottage Grove Avenue was a ribbon commercial strip.  At Pershing Road, diagonal Cottage Grove curved into a straight north-south street.  South of this intersection, the diagonal became Drexel Boulevard, which is partially visible behind the streetcar.  The Walgreen’s on the corner is the direct successor to the company’s first store, which opened just south of here in 1901.

Today the commercial buildings are all gone, replaced by Mandrake Park.  Drexel Boulevard has been cut back one block, and no longer reaches the intersection.  The neighborhood is being revitalized, with much new construction and a general sprucing-up.

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A South Side Project (5-17-1954)

As early as 1950, the Chicago City Council approved clearing twelve sites for new public housing.  Today the Chicago Housing Authority announced plans for a new project called Stateway Gardens.

The area covered eight blocks in the Bronzeville neighborhood, bounded by 35th, State, Pershing, and the Rock Island Railroad embankment.  The current housing was mostly frame shacks.  It was one of the worst slums in the city.

Before

Before

The CHA had already acquired a number of rubbish-filled lots.  Meanwhile, the city was working to clear the garbage as quickly as possible.  Officials wanted to begin building the new units before the end of the year.

Most of Chicago’s public housing was low-rise, no more than one or two floors.  Stateway Gardens was going to be different.  The planners wanted to have plenty of open space, to give the feel of “a suburb in the city.”  So this housing would be high-rise—eight towers of 16 floors each, for a total of 1,648 apartments.

Stateway Gardens was only the first stage of a bigger program.  The CHA wanted to clear the State Street corridor all the way south to 63rd Street, though nothing was definite yet.  If more projects were built, they would likely follow the Stateway Gardens model.  High-rise housing on landscaped plazas was the fashionable trend in urban design.

After

After

Later critics have claimed another agenda was at work.  East of the Rock Island tracks, nearly all the residents were African American.  The neighborhoods to the west were White.  Maybe the new public housing projects were an attempt to keep Black people on “their side of the tracks.”

If the South Side projects were really an attempt to isolate African Americans, then we’re looking at some real historic irony.  This date—May 17, 1954—is the same day that the U.S. Supreme Court handed down its landmark decision banning segregated schools.

Stateway Gardens was completed in 1958.  CHA followed with the Robert Taylor Homes on the tracts to the south.  Both high-rises projects were torn down in the early 2000s.

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