August 27, 2020

The Forum: Bringing Economic and Cultural Revitalization to Chicago

From its iconic structure to its historic influence, The Forum in Chicago stands as a visual representation of the everlasting impact of landmarks on their communities. Thanks to social entrepreneur and owner Bernard Loyd, the late Classical Revival style building is on the verge of jump-starting its legacy as a cultural hub for Chicagoans in the Bronzeville neighborhood with a grant from the National Trust for Historic Preservation's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund. What once was a place of Black civil engagement and creativity, The Forum is now on its way to reigniting cultural and economic prosperity in the South Side of Chicago.

Constructed in 1897, The Forum is the oldest community meeting and performance hall in Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood. It is known to be the oldest assembly hall in the community and may have the oldest hardwood dance floor in the city.

The building was a prominent location for African Americans to gather during the Great Migration. Conveniently situated on the 43rd Street commercial corridor and close to the 43rd Street CTA Green Line station, The Forum was known as the epicenter of the “Black Metropolis” where Black achievement reigned.

Exterior view of The Forum in Chicago in 1964.

photo by: Courtesy of Bernard Loyd

The exterior of The Forum in 1964.

“The Forum has been the civic center of this [Bronzeville] community from the day it was built, and this community was initially an ethnic European community,” said Loyd who lives a block away from the building. “When the community turned African American, as a result of the Great Migration in the late-19 teens and early 1920s, The Forum became the civic and retail center of that community.”

The building was the heart of South Side politics, gatherings, music, and civil rights, because societal and racial exclusion limited Black residents' access to other parts of Chicago.

“It was a place where Black folks could live, and they couldn’t live any place else,” said Lee Bey, Chicago-based photographer and author of book, "Southern Exposure: The Overlooked Architecture of Chicago’s South Side."

“Oftentimes, that was the case for where you could shop. You couldn’t buy your groceries from white places. They wouldn’t sell to you, or if they did, you wouldn’t trust what they were giving you. As a result, you have a city within a city that has virtually everything that the market city has, only it’s Black owned or Black catered to. There are Black banks, Black insurance companies,” he added. “You had a cab company, grocery stores, night clubs, gyms, movie theaters...doctors, dentists, [and] there was a Black hospital. It had everything but just confined to these square miles.”

For over 75 years, The Forum served as a cultural anchor for many Black Americans to share ideas, perform, and buy commerce. Many significant memories are held inside the walls of the retail, hospitality, and performance building where Black entertainers and Bronzeville natives, such as Nat “King” Cole, Muddy Waters, and Louis Armstrong, shared their creative talents with community.

Exterior of The Forum in Chicago

photo by: Courtesy of Bernard Loyd

Exterior of The Forum in Bronzville, Chicago, Illinois.

Despite economic disinvestment caused by structural racism, which resulted in the loss of many neighborhood businesses, residents, and amenities in the second half of the 20th century, The Forum stands to this day waiting to revive its history and impact in the community. The building is the only structure remaining from its era and was vacant for over 40 years, until Loyd bought the building in July 2011. Loyd, who is also the founder of community development corporation, Urban Juncture, bought The Forum just days before its demolition. The Chicago native has since been working with a team and leads “Bring Back The Forum” to revitalize the building into a cultural and social hub where it can create more memories and share the community center’s rich history.

Loyd has been cleaning and working on the building for almost a decade and it is set to make a major comeback in 2022. Still, the building’s exterior and interior structure needs major repairs due to decades of neglect. But, thanks to the $100,000 grant from the Action Fund, the roof and key masonry repairs have been completed. Additional repairs will be made during the rehab.

“We just replaced the roof, but the entire building needs to be rehabilitated,” Loyd said. “The roof is so important because it prevents water from coming in, and it preserves the hall and other parts of the building while we raise the money and do the work to rehabilitate it. “

The Forum was recently added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2019, which will make the community center eligible for historic tax credits to subsidize development costs and gain wider recognition.

“Everything needs to be done,” Loyd said. “All of the internal systems. We need to replace every single window in the building. We need to replace all of the building systems, heating systems, lighting system, plumbing system, all the mechanical systems, and we need to put in an elevator. It is about as close to a gut rehab as you can get. The one thing is that the stage, the original hall is still in pretty good shape. We don’t have to rebuild it, but we have to refinish everything in the hall.”

The total rehab cost is estimated at $15 million, but that hasn’t stopped Loyd and his vision for what he describes as a “compelling destination.” He wants people to visit, enjoy, and learn about the city, while also connecting with other neighborhoods.

The goal for the rebirth of The Forum is it to be, “a premier Chicago entertainment destination founded on a celebration of the music, art, and history of the Bronzeville community.” Not only is the building going to be the “heart of the community," Loyd is looking forward to featuring Black art and creativity throughout the building, supporting local African American entrepreneurs, gaining revenue (especially within the Black community), and catalyzing the complete revival of Historic 43rd Street. This is an innovative venture, and it is in close proximity to the South Side Community Arts Center (a National Treasure) and Muddy Waters Home, two sites that are also Action Fund grantees.

“We are working to create a broader platform on 43rd Street,” Loyd said. “We’re looking to partner with the folks who are doing Muddy Waters’ home. There are also several other initiatives that are happening on 43rd Street. We want to partner with the folks leading those initiatives and pull together an effort that really embraces all of 43rd Street and figure out how we can utilize the rich culture to create a new 43rd Street that is anchored in that history, but does wonderful new things.”

Loyd and Bey both believe the revitalization of the neighborhood will help reconnect communities throughout the city, including those in the North Side of Chicago. It will also give people the opportunity to learn and appreciate the value of Black culture and history, especially during these times where people are reckoning with Black history and a history of social and racial injustice.

“These kinds of efforts are important,” Bey said. “Once we’re gone, our history is erased too. And that’s why these places are important to hold on to.”

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Brianna Rhodes is a journalist and entrepreneur who writes on various topics, including Black culture, diversity and inclusion, race, and social justice. She is also the founder of a creative agency called Brianna Rhodes Writes. She is a past Fellow of the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund.

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