In Chicago's Bronzeville, The Forum Is Ready For Its Comeback
The Forum, in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, has been vacant for more than 15 years, but it still echoes with the music and laughter of almost a century of concerts and celebrations. That’s why, when the building was threatened with demolition in 2011, South Side entrepreneur Bernard Loyd knew he had to save it.
“You walk in and it kind of talks to you,” he says of the second-story ballroom space, which hosted blues greats like B.B. King and Nat King Cole. Originally built in 1899, the former dance hall had been gradually falling into disrepair after being left vacant in the late 1990s, inciting a neighborhood block club to approach their local alderman to request that it be demolished. In addition to looking neglected, the brick structure sometimes posed a danger to pedestrians on the sidewalk below.
“Water washed out the mortar between blocks in the section of the facade about 30 feet up from the ground,” Loyd says. “So when it rained, bricks would literally come raining down on the sidewalk.”
Loyd purchased The Forum days before it was scheduled to be torn down. Since 2011, he's been working with Urban Juncture, a community development corporation he founded, to bring The Forum back to life as a retail and performance space and help it once again assume its rightful place at the center of the Bronzeville community.
To do this, however, Loyd knew he would have to get the members of the block club, as well as the rest of the neighborhood, on board. “The first thing I did—well, we cleaned it up, first of all, and then we just got people to tour the building,” he says. “And the moment folks walked into Forum Hall, their perspective on the building just changed dramatically.”
Conveniently located right next to the 43rd Street station on the Green Line of Chicago’s “El” system, The Forum and its upstairs ballroom, Forum Hall, secured their spot as a neighborhood hub when new African-American residents began to flood Bronzeville in the 1930’s and ‘40s. The ground floor of The Forum building always housed merchants and retail stores, but the dance hall itself, on the building’s second floor, was where the magic happened. Members of African-American social and fraternal organizations, whom segregation prohibited from visiting "white" clubs and venues, would hold balls and events there. It was also an important site for labor organizing and civic meetings, and today, the Forum is a stop on the Chicago Labor Trail.
So far, progress on restoring the Forum has been slow but steady. Phase 1 involved stabilizing the building and doing necessary masonry and carpentry work, which meant no more falling bricks. Loyd and Urban Juncture have found partner-tenants for three retail spaces on the building’s “West Annex” on the ground floor—a café, a health salon, and a “purveyor of vintage goods.”
Loyd's goal is to have all three retail spaces up and running by the next Open House Chicago weekend, in October 2017. The next step will be to tackle the space directly underneath Forum Hall, a longtime neighborhood bar. (Robert Redford’s character Johnny Hooker was chased out of the very same bar in the 1973 gangster movie The Sting.) The final stage will see the original Forum dance floor space once again brought back to life as a performance venue.
Loyd is financing the project through a combination of personal money, city grants and a community development loan. He says that the greater Bronzeville community has been “very engaged” in the process, volunteering to help with cleanup of the building’s interior and exterior and engaging in community art projects, like a giant blackboard tacked to the side of The Forum and painted with the words “I wish 43rd Street was…”, with spaces for passersby to finish the sentence in chalk below. He hopes that bringing The Forum back will spur a neighborhood revitalization.
“The building is a repository of history and memories of this community,” he says. “When I go to The Forum, more times than not, someone will come up and say, ‘Hey, my aunt, my father, my grandfather told me about this building. They told me about how they would get all dressed up and they would come to this, or they would come to that.'"
"And if you took it away," he says, "you would lose a very important focal point of the community.”