By Erick Johnson, Chicago Crusader
It’s not finished, but the wait list is well over a thousand applicants. For the past few months, residents all over the South Side have been filling out thick applications, hoping for a chance to move in the storied Rosenwald Courts apartments. It’s a piece of history where Jesse Owens, Nat King Cole and other famous Blacks once lived before they hit it big. One of them was actress Marla Gibbs, who, back in the day, played the sassy domestic Florence on the hit television sitcom, “The Jeffersons.”
She didn’t have a microwave in her fictional kitchen or in her former digs in Bronzeville, but one is there now, along with several sleek appliances and kitchen cabinets. And with some luxurious amenities, Gibbs’ successors at Rosenwald Courts are moving on up. The real deluxe apartment in the sky has been beautifully restored along with some 239 units in the sprawling complex at 47th and Michigan Avenue.
Rosenwald Courts—once the crown jewel of apartment living during the Great Migration—is experiencing a rebirth after years of neglect and urban blight. Stretching an entire city block, it’s a national landmark that for years was an eyesore in Bronze- ville. Rosenwald Courts is beaming once again after a $130 million restoration. Now a mixed-used development complex, Rosenwald Courts is once again in high demand as it attracts hundreds of applicants the same way middle-class Blacks had done decades ago. With new modern amenities, including elevators, some may argue that the Rosenwald is better today than when it was built in 1930.
On Sept. 30, Alderman Pat Dowell (3rd) and Mayor Rahm Emanuel are scheduled to hold a ribbon-cutting ceremony to mark the long-awaited reopening of Rosenwald Courts—a sprawling apartment complex that sits on 2.5 acres and stretches an entire city block. It is expected that it will be a celebration that will renew hope in Bronzeville’s future by celebrating the marriage of its past and present.
A reporter from the Chicago Crusader was given a sneak preview of Rosenwald Courts on Sept. 27. With three days before the ribbon-cutting ceremony, there was still much work to be done. Many of the units were not completed and laborers were still working on numerous storefront retail spaces that were not yet occupied. Most of the units for seniors were completed and officials say the entire complex will be completed by December.
For the units that are finished, they are generating widespread interest and appeal with its swank furnishings, wall-to-wall carpeting and amenities in a landmark that retains its historic charm and identity.
The five-story, sandy brown brick building brings together two generations of residents. Seniors live on the east side apartments that line Michigan Avenue. Families or individuals will live on the west side of the complex on Wabash Avenue.
At the back of the complex on 46th and Michigan Avenue are 36 units in three-story flats. Here, handsome wooden staircases, fireplaces and bookshelves have been restored to their original grandeur. In the front entrance of the flats, the original tiled floors and white marble walls are still intact. These units are huge.
Originally built for families, all the rooms are spacious. These units have also been equipped with a full kitchen that includes a microwave oven, granite countertops and matching cabinets. Also, each flat has its own washer and dryer. There are also new hardwood floors. Rosenwald officials say the flats are in high demand. Out of 33, only eight remain available to rent.
There were no units that were ready for viewing on the family side of the complex during the preview, but the Crusader was told that each apartment has a washer, dryer and microwave ovens. All of the family units are one or two bedrooms.
In the building for seniors, each unit has one bedroom. The kitchen includes granite countertops, sleek black cabinets with matching refrigerator, stove and microwave oven.
On all five floors, there is a “laundry lounge room” that includes washers and dryers, flat- screen televisions, tables, and cushioned seating. The floors are also equipped with a high-tech security system and an emergency button for seniors who need help.
In addition to new apartments and elevators, the family and senior buildings at Rosenwald Courts will have a furnished lobby decorated with African art, a fitness center and green areas where residents can barbeque, picnic or walk their dog.
In the building for families, there is also a storage area for bicycles. Both sides will also have a community recreation room that’s decorated with pictures of Rosenwald Courts’ famous tenants. In addition to Jesse Owens, Nat King Cole and Marla Gibbs, other former tenants included boxer Joe Louis, author Loraine Hansberry and former Olympic medalist and Congressman Ralph Metcalfe.
Rosenwald Courts will also have three parking lots that will hold up to 159 cars. Parking will be free for tenants, said Linda Cobb, area director of operations at Mercy Housing Management Group, which is managing the Rosenwald Courts.
Outside of Rosenwald Courts, 40,000 square feet of retail and office space is available for storefront business. Sip & Savor Coffee and Shawn Michelle’s Ice Cream will be two of the retailers setting up shop. Illinois Service Federal Bank, a historic Black-owned bank that started at Rosenwald, will once again have a branch at the complex. The monthly rental costs for the apartments range from $760 to $900 for two bedrooms. For the huge units in the three-story flats, the monthly rent is $950. Some units will be offered at market rate, while others will be discounted affordable housing, but to qualify for these units, applicants must meet certain income requirements. All applicants must complete a nine-page application.
Of the 239 units at Rosenwald Courts, about 120 of them are for seniors and 119 are for families. The Chicago Housing Authority (CHA) will provide 120 units of rental assistance for seniors. But, all units, including the non-age restricted units, will be affordable to households who earn less than 60% of median income. Thus, all units will be lower than market rate.
Cobb said demand has been high for all apartments in Rosenwald Courts and the number of applications has been well over a thousand. So far, the Rosenwald has signed leases for 73 of its units.
With the high amount of applicants, Cobb said credit scores and criminal backgrounds will be reviewed, but each applicant will be evaluated on a case-by-case basis. She said the newly restored Rosenwald is generating a lot of excitement in the neighborhood.
“People are so excited about living here,” she said. “I had someone come in the other day and say, ‘Wow, I used to live here.’ It’s been exciting to be a part of a historic place.”
For Bronzeville historians and community leaders, the renovation of Rosenwald Courts is a hard-fought victory in saving an important relic of Bronzeville’s past.
Once known as the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments, the building was later renamed after its developer, Julius Rosenwald, a former president of Sears, Roebuck & Company. A revered philanthropist who built the Museum of Science and Industry, Rosenwald gave millions of dollars to schools and facilities in the Black community at a time when few wealthy philanthropists gave to organizations that helped people of color. A trustee on the board of the Tuskegee University (then Tuskegee Institute), he also funded the construction of the historic YMCA on Wabash Avenue.
When Rosenwald built the apartments in 1930, he aimed to alleviate a critical housing shortage as the Black population on the South Side exploded during the Great Migration. At the time, Rosenwald Courts offered the highest quality of housing at a time when many Blacks on the South Side lived in dilapidated apartments where there was no heat, poor plumbing and no running water. During that period, Rosenwald Courts was the largest and most ambitious housing development in Chicago.
For decades, Rosenwald was a respectable place to live for thousands of Bronzeville families. In 1981, Rosenwald was placed on the National Register of Historic Places. However, the complex continued a slow decline as residents moved out and Rosenwald fell to neglect, rodents and disrepair.
In 2000, 1,500 were forced to move out after a gas failure shut down 118 units. For 15 years, the complex stood vacant and partially boarded up. Windows were often the targets of vandals and mold build-up filled many units.
Activists tried but often fell short in getting Rosenwald Courts restored. One of them, Bobbie Johnson, who led a long campaign to restore the complex, died in 2012. A Memorial Lounge in the Rosenwald has been dedicated to her memory.
After several failed efforts to restore Rosenwald Courts, Dowell worked with Jim Bergman, a developer who has 60 properties across the country. In 2015, Bergman gutted and rehabbed Rosenwald and spruced up the complex’s courtyard.
“It took a lot of time because there was so much work,” Bergman said. “There was a lot of water damage to the floors.”
The project drew heavy financial support from the city and the private sector, which granted $84 million in tax subsidies. The CHA contributed about $17.3 million to the project.