|Origins||Annexed in 1889|
Pershing Road on the north, 51st Street on the south, Cottage Grove Avenue on the east, railroad tracks by Federal Street on the west
This neighborhood was not significant in the very early years of Chicago’s history as it was a heavily wooded area with several prairies. There was likely settlement here and there in the area but not much information is out there.
In the year 1861 the area was annexed into Hype Park Township and functioned as a governed rural area.
In the year 1874 a horse carriage route was dug where we call Martin Luther King Boulevard in present day, as of 1874 the route was known as “Grand Boulevard” and it was traveled by tradesman and even by wealthy elites as they ventured to and from Chicago. Eventually the many planted trees near Grand Boulevard and the carriage route made ideal living conditions for Chicago’s elite as they built several elegant mansions along Grand Boulevard.
In the 1880s and 1890s a working class element came to live in this area of Irish, Scottish, English and German Jewish decent, especially after the annexation of the area in 1889.
With the annexation brought the buildup of many commercial businesses and residential homes thanks to the paving of roads and mass transit. The community was vive rant with a mix of upper class, middle class and working class Chicagoans. The neighborhood was then named after the very Avenue that made the neighborhood so great, “Grand Boulevard.”
In the year 1890 African Americans set up a small community in the Grand Boulevard neighborhood in the northern part of the neighborhood.
In the 1900s decade more immigrants of European ancestry moved into the neighborhood causing a larger boom in population and businesses, this made the neighborhood one of the most desirable neighborhoods to live in.
During the World War I years African American migration greatly increased as southern blacks flocked to Chicago in search of new opportunities especially after many white Chicagoans went off to war. The neighborhoods of Douglas and Grand Boulevard were the most attractive for African Americans because there were other native blacks in these neighborhoods and there were plenty of jobs, as the neighborhood rapidly transformed to 32% African American by 1920.
The white residents of Grand Boulevard heavily objected to the arrival of blacks and tried to push them out through means of violence and restrictive covenants but this did not work well because blacks had nowhere else to go because covenants kept them out of other all-white communities.
In the 1920s African Americans would not stop migrating to Grand Boulevard as many whites continued their methods of trying to remove blacks, many others packed their bags and left the neighborhood and by the end of the decade the neighborhood was 94% African American and was completely a part of the “Bronzeville” section that included the nearby Douglas and Oakland neighborhoods.
During World War I and right after the war the black Policy racket came to Grand Boulevard from nearby Douglas. The Policy racket was then run by successful black Policy Kings by 1918 and in no time the Policy gangsters ran the streets of Grand Boulevard as well in the 1920s.
The Policy racket was a criminal organization that killed, stole, illegally gambled and committed other crimes; however, they were good for the Grand Boulevard community as they provided jobs within their legitimate businesses and gave donations to many black families.
Grand Boulevard became the epicenter of the Bronzeville area as many restaurants, stores, saloons, entertainment, jazz clubs and blues clubs opened in the community. The neighborhood combined black southern culture with Chicago culture and the neighborhood even thrived when the Great Depression era closed many black owned businesses, the Policy racket helped keep the community alive in the 1930s as they now reached millions in profits.
During the World War II years Grand Boulevard was thriving once again as more businesses were opening and the Policy racket was at the peak of its success, the war industry also employed several African Americans in the neighborhood.
The neighborhood was the home of black upper class elites, professional black sports players and many black intellectuals in politics, law and medicine, although the black belt extended all through Grand Boulevard that was lined with several dilapidated houses and kitchenette apartment buildings along State Street on the west side of the neighborhood, Grand Boulevard was also a neighborhood where African Americans would move to if they experienced upward mobility; this would all start to come to an end after the war.
When World War II ended so did the war industry which put many African Americans out of work with no job prospects lined up. In 1945 the Outfit’s Sam Giancana began muscling in on the black Policy racket and in 1946 he forced Ed Jones and most of the Policy Kings out of business.
In 1952 it only became worse when the last Policy King Teddy Roe was gunned down in nearby Washington Park by Sam Giancana’s men. Sam Giancana then took over the Policy racket completely and also began selling Heroin in the black community.
The drug dealers that were moving Giancana’s Heroin were adult male dealers at first that refused to sell to the youths, gangs and women in the neighborhood back in the 1950s; however, Heroin became a growing problem as a good portion of the black males in the community became addicted to cocaine and heroin, and these men were supposed to be the patriarchs and providers for the community and their families.
The largest street gang to develop in the neighborhood was the Deacons that heavily guarded the neighborhood. Many homes, apartments and buildings fell into deterioration as the neighborhood became too poor to renovate and the city had no interest in fixing anything now that Ed Jones was no longer around to pull political strings for the community.
The “Black Belt” part in Grand Boulevard became even more dilapidated as several run down houses and burned out apartment buildings lined this State Street strip between Pershing Road to 51st Street since the 1920s, now they were in an even worse state of existence in the 1950s.
In the year 1960 the Chicago Housing Authority had a plan to deal with this horrific strip on and near State Street and that was to build the largest public housing projects in the country called the Robert Taylor Homes that would stretch all through the black belt from Pershing Road to 51st Street and Federal Street to State Street, then it would extend into the Washington Park neighborhood from 51 Street to 54th Street from Federal to State. These projects were completed in 1962 and the construction of another project complex started that year called the Washington Park Homes from 44th Street to 45th Street and Cottage Grove Avenue to Evans Street, these were completed in 1964.
The 1960s buildup of the projects seemed to help the community at first as the black families that lived there at first experienced better living conditions than they did in the 19th century dilapidated homes they lived in, in the black belt; however, street gangs that migrated from other neighborhoods like the Egyptian Cobras, Black P Stones and Black Disciples took control of these projects and began selling drugs in them, soon crime became a problem.
By the 1970s the neighborhood completely fell apart as the CHA and Chicago police stopped taking care of the projects, street gangs, drugs and crime ran the projects. Disinvestment and redlining also killed off any chance of this neighborhood bouncing back and cut off opportunities for residents to advance in life.
The new wave of Bronzeville gangs were dope dealers and killers as they ran the neighborhood as black middle classes moved out in favor of further south side neighborhoods. The community fell into a state of extreme poverty, high crime, violence, deterioration, vacant lots and gang infested blocks run by the Gangster Disciples, Mickey Cobras and Black Disciples.
The once elegance and southern soul the neighborhood had were now all gone as the 1980s and 1990s proved to be the worst decades for Grand Boulevard. When riding the Metra train or driving down the Dan Ryan Expressway one could see the hopelessness and despair of the Robert Taylor projects.
In the 1990s there was a call to bring back the Bronzeville neighborhood once again and urban renewal projects were underway.
In the year 1999 into 2002 the Washington Park Homes were all torn down, and in 2002 until 2007 the Robert Taylor projects were torn down. Both project complexes were condemned and were necessary to be torn down in order to revitalize the community. The projects were replaced with brand new town homes and condos where middle class African Americans moved back in. The crime and other socioeconomic problems have been greatly reduced in the 21st century, and even though there is still a lot of work to do on the neighborhood Grand Boulevard is well on its way.
Grand Boulevard still has issues with many vacant lots but most of it is from the tear down of public housing. This neighborhood is not full of slums and run down buildings like it used to have, as many teams of contractors and community groups have tirelessly worked year round over the past 20 years to restore old housing or even build new houses and buildings. Many shuttered businesses have been reopened and many community groups watch out for gang and drug activity. Grand Boulevard is a little behind the progress of the neighboring Douglas neighborhood but is rapidly catching up.
as it stands currently Grand Boulevard is still one the more violent and dangerous neighborhoods in Chicago but that will soon change.
All images below are photos of vacant properties at the time of the photo. All images below are courtesy of Google Maps.