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Bronzeville, Near South Side

Residential Museum Ban Would Be ‘Death Knell’ For South Side Preservation, Black History Museums And Gallery Spaces, Critics Say

If Ald. Sophia King's proposal passes, it would restrict cultural projects at the Emmett Till residence, the Lu and Jorja Palmer mansion, the Phyllis Wheatley Home and other small libraries and gallery spaces.

The Lu and Jorja Palmer Mansion, 3654 S. King Drive, on March 2, 2021.
Maxwell Evans/Block Club Chicago
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BRONZEVILLE — South Side preservationists, artists and community leaders are blasting an alderman’s plan to restrict homeowners from converting houses into cultural institutions — a move they say could erase the legacies of historic structures throughout the city.

An ordinance introduced by Ald. Sophia King (4th) in December would ban “cultural exhibits and libraries” from the list of uses allowed in most residential zones. The proposed ordinance is set to be voted on in City Council’s zoning committee Tuesday.

If the ordinance passes, homeowners looking to open museums, libraries and cultural centers at a residence would have to secure their alderman’s approval for a zoning change in some cases, and gain city approval for a special use permit in others.

It also could jeopardize ongoing preservation projects such as the Lu and Jorja Palmer mansion in Bronzeville, the Phyllis Wheatley Home in Washington Park and the recently-landmarked Emmett Till and Mamie Till-Mobley residence in Woodlawn. Each aims to open a museum or library within their respective structures.

The ordinance proposal “makes no sense,” said Obsidian Collection executive director Angela Ford, who is leading the Palmer mansion redevelopment plans. Ford wants to purchase the home at 3654 S. King Drive and turn it into a museum, library and archive for Black media makers by next year.

The massive, 133-year-old residence sits in King’s ward and has been vacant for nearly two decades.

“As we come into a post-COVID world, I’m really curious as to what the vision is for our communities, other than gentrification,” Ford said. “With all of the museums that are mentioned in the press right now, these are all Black leaders that have stepped forward to beautify their own communities. That very act is being challenged.”

In addition to potentially stalling plans for house museums, the ordinance could “have a huge impact on artist-run spaces and apartment galleries as well,” organizers of The Visualist, a community arts calendar run by the nonprofit culture/Math, said in an open letter.

“By providing safe havens for cultural work and helping to amend the deleterious effects of gentrification and segregation, these spaces have contributed a rich historical layer of many voices that might have otherwise been lost,” they wrote.

By protecting sites like the Till residence, neighbors honor their history and work to ensure tragedies like 14-year-old Emmett’s murder won’t happen again, U.S. Sen. Tammy Duckworth (D-Illinois) said.

Duckworth introduced a bill Wednesday to designate the Roberts Temple Church of God in Christ in Bronzeville — the church at 4021 S. State St. that held Emmett Till’s open-casket funeral— as a national historic site.

Perhaps there are reasons for restricting museums in residential areas, but “I would think we would want to uphold and lift up these sites, and preserve them for posterity so future generations can show respect to Emmett Till” and his family, Duckworth said.

Credit: Bob Chiarito/Block Club Chicago
The home at 6427 S. St. Lawrence, where Emmett Till lived with his mother before he was killed in rural Mississippi in 1955.

King’s office did not respond to Block Club’s requests for an interview.

After Block Club’s story ran, King said in a statement the proposed ordinance aims to ensure community engagement around cultural institutions, as museums and galleries may affect traffic and parking in residential neighborhoods.

Historic homes must be preserved and some should become open to the public, “but every home should not have this right and certainly the very community where it is being proposed should have input,” King said.

“We are not trying to stop, inhibit, or deter cultural exhibits and museums, and we are certainly not trying to prevent important history from being acknowledged and celebrated,” King said. ” … We are, however, responsible for protecting the preservation of our history and our community.”

Of the three existing “house museums” King identified — the Edgewater Historical Society, the Norwood Park Historical Society and the Ridge Historical Society — none would be impacted by the ordinance, she said.

A petition from nonprofit Preservation Chicago opposing the proposal received about 3,400 signatures as of Thursday afternoon.

Home museums are a way to educate Black residents about their culture right in their backyards, said Ariajo “JoAnn” Tate, owner of the last Phyllis Wheatley Home still standing in Chicago.

The former settlement home, which offered shelter and resources to young Black women moving north during the Great Migration, is in severe disrepair. A demolition court date this week was pushed back to July 13, as Tate and other organizers work to preserve the home and install an exhibit honoring the progress of Black women since the 20th century.

Interactive monuments to Black history are important, given the traumas faced by Black Chicagoans long before the civil unrest and pandemic of the last year, Tate said.

“I think the Black community — because they live with disparities, there’s health issues — they need something to uplift them,” she said. “Home museums are a way of uplifting them … [the museums are] something saying, ‘Someone just like me climbed to their highest.'”

Ald. Sophia King (4th) speaks at the unveiling of renovations to the historic Drexel Boulevard median last October.

Tate said she’s encouraged that Ford, Till residence owner Naomi Davis and other Black women are forming “a united force” against the ordinance. She’s also pleased at the active role her peers are playing in preserving their history.

“With the Phyllis Wheatley Association [that operated the settlement house], Black women came together to form it,” Tate said. “Now the fact Black women are coming together to save it, I can’t even tell you how I feel right now.”

In addition to the Palmer, Till and Wheatley homes on the South Side, Preservation Chicago has identified more than 30 other historic homes citywide that could be impacted by the ordinance’s passage, executive director Ward Miller said.

“I think this would be a death knell for all of these proposed institutions, and it would profoundly and adversely impact [existing] museums,” Miller said. “Even if they’re grandfathered in, if they wish to expand or happen to miss an important filing, they could be in jeopardy.”

The preservation community is “very much alarmed” by the ordinance proposal, which could affect tourism and discourage residents from saving historic structures in their neighborhoods, Miller said.

The city has succeeded for decades without a “heavy-handed” ban on museums in residential areas, and there’s no reason to change that now, he said.

“This has the potential to harm so many of our cultural institutions that we see in the neighborhoods that make Chicago a very special city,” Miller said. “This seems contrary to where we should be going as a progressive city and a world-class city.”

Credit: Colin Boyle/Block Club Chicago
The last of Chicago’s Phyllis Wheatley homes is seen in disrepair in the Washington Park neighborhood on Jan. 29, 2021.

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