Don Cornelius on the TV show "Soul Train," in a photo in an exhibition at Expo 72, 72 E. Randolph. Credit: Soul Train Holdings, LLC.
Updated: July 11, 2012 10:13AM
Will the next economic growth area in Chicago be the South Side?
The North Side has been done to death: overcrowded, overpriced, overhip. But there are some encouraging possibilities when you look south and can see beyond the gangs, drugs and shootings that commonly define the area in the media.
Except to its residents, however, most of the South Side is invisible. It hasn’t marketed itself to Chicago visitors or other residents of the city and suburbs, saying to outsiders of all racial persuasions, “We have something for you.”
The South Side has a lot going for it economically. McCormick Place brings in hordes of visitors from all over the world, as do The University of Chicago and IIT. The South Side has the homes of the Sox and the president of the United States, a close-in airport and the Dan Ryan, the busiest stretch of interstate highway in the nation. Things like these that draw traffic are an opportunity for nearby businesses to feed off them and boost sales.
The new 31st Street harbor is intended to attract boats from around the Midwest. An expanded Gospel Festival will this year hold its main event in Bronzeville, not downtown. The Metropolitan Planning Council and Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning recently came up with retail and land-use plans for the area.
What’s not yet clear is what the community will do beyond paper plans to exploit its opportunities and draw people into the neighborhoods who can leave money behind. For that you need a South Side that is not planned so much as visible, well-marketed and safe. And most important, the area must have a special attraction to draw people. One good possibility: music.
Music is the art that for generations African Americans have excelled most brilliantly at. Pilgrim Baptist Church in Bronzeville is celebrated as the birthplace of gospel music. “Soul Train,” the brainchild of Bronzeville’s Don Cornelius, who recently died, went from WCIU to become the longest running first-run syndicated TV program ever. Renowned label Chess Records was also a South Sider.
Well-developed, broadly marketed, and secure venues for live jazz, R&B, rock, gospel and other sounds might bring tourists and suburbanites south (it worked for Harlem) while also keeping more black dollars in the ’hood. They could spin off benefits to South Side restaurants, lounges, lodging places and retail while adding security by putting more people on the streets. And they could give forgotten neighborhoods needed visibility to outsiders, visibility being indispensable to further growth.
Perhaps the South Side should aim to be The Nashville of Soul or The Branson of Blues. How about a live “Soul Train” music venue in Bronzeville in memory of Cornelius? Some cities have a soul or R&B “hall of fame,” but they don’t appear to amount to much. What better home for the real thing than South Side Chicago?
In today’s difficult economy, communities must find overlooked and underdeveloped economic value. In better-known Chicago neighborhoods, that’s getting harder to do. The biggest payoff may lie in still-forgotten neighborhoods south of the Stevenson.
Gann Associates President John L. Gann Jr. is an urban development consultant. A graduate of the South Side’s University of Chicago, he was director of local services for the Northeastern Illinois Planning Commission, the former metropolitan planning agency for Chicago.