The first few decades of the 20th century saw huge numbers of African Americans moved to the Midwest during a period that is now called “The Great Migration.” Midwestern cities like Detroit, Cleveland, Cincinnati and St. Louis saw their black populations swell as more and more black people migrated to them from the South. These cities became the focal point of African American life and the most important of all these cities was Chicago.
Despite the fact that many business in Chicago benefitted from black labor the city was unprepared and in many cases unprepared to house this large population of southern blacks. Many white Chicagoans greeted the huge numbers of southern black people with contempt. Moreover, Chicago simply did not have the housing to accommodate this huge new population. The overcrowding caused by the huge influx in the black population, many of whom were prevented from getting housing due to the fact Chicago was segregated, and the competition with other ethnic groups in Chicago—the Irish in particular, lead to significant racial tension. This racial animosity eventually manifested itself in the 1919 Chicago Race Riots, in which nearly 50 people died, hundreds were injured, and perhaps as many as one thousand people were left homeless the vast majority of whom were black.
It was in the context of both the racial tension and the systemic housing crisis faced by the now large black Chicagoans that Julius Rosenwald came up with a plan to develop an apartment building for middle and working class black people. Rosenwald first publicized his idea to build an apartment building for black people in July of 1928. The complex, which was to be called the Michigan Boulevard Garden Apartments, was located in the heart of South Side Chicago in a place known as the “Black Belt.” The apartment building spanned from 47th to 46th street between Michigan and Wabash Avenues, and was located right in the middle of a vibrant black community.
Julius Rosenwald had his nephew Ernest Grunsfeld design the building. The inspiration for the design of the apartments may have come to Julius Rosenwald during a trip to Vienna inn 1926. Like the apartments he saw on his trip he decided to build his apartment using the innovative idea of having shops on the first floor and the apartments above them.
The building is an enormous 465,544 square feet, 16,400 of which are commercial space. There were originally 421 apartments that ranged from 3 to 5 rooms. The Rosenwald had more than 1150 windows and more than a half dozen entrances. There were no elevators (this would become a major problem for future renovations) so residents living at the top had to walk up all 5 floors. In the center of the complex is a large courtyard with garden and a fountain. The total cost of the apartments was 2.7 million dollars.
The decision to build this apartment building was far more than simple altruism. Rosenwald had a friend named Benjamin Rosenthal who was a real estate developer and in 1916 had tried to sell cheap housing to people of different ethnicities, European immigrants principally. Rosenthal had hoped to make a profit off of it despite the cheap rent, and ultimately Julius Rosenwald was convinced to get involved. While the project was a failure, Rosenwald did not abandon the idea that you could provide cheap housing that would be profitable. Rosenwald’s desire for the building to be profitable was not purely for personal gain. He hoped to show other whites that such ventures to help blacks could be provided by the private sector and still be profitable.
The Depression however may have cost Julius Rosenwald the financial side of this vision. Even though rents were already well below market rate they were still too expensive for residents. Yet soon after the apartment complex opened the property managers were flooded with applicants hoping to move into the apartment complex. Besides the fact that the apartments were cheap they were also safe. Children played in the courtyards while the parents could shop at the conveniently located storefronts. The apartment complex was its own little community and became the backbone of the commercial sector on 47th street. In the 30s, 40s, and 50s, the apartment complex became a major nexus of black life and culture in Chicago. Jazz legend Nat King Cole, the poet Gwendolyn Brooks, one of the greatest boxers in history Joe Louis and 27time Grammy winner Quincy Jones.
Over the years however the apartment complex came to fall under hard times. In 1956 the longtime manager Robert Taylor was unable to get enough support to transfer the complex into a cooperative. The fortunes of the building trended steadily southward after that. The building deteriorated and became increasingly dangerous in proceeding decades. The Urban League, with the help of a developer, rehabilitated the apartments during the 1980s but safety hazards during the 1990s and early 2000s caused the Rosenwald to be vacated.
The building has been empty for over a decade now and the conditions of the dilapidated building have gotten even worse. The vacant Rosenwald apartments have become a hotspot for crime. There are a number of groups currently trying to renovate the building but the costs of such repairs would be enormous. The cost of repairs might run as high as $150,000,000. Many of the plans to rehabilitate the Rosenwald have failed because of the high costs and complex challenges of updating such an old building to meet modern disability and city codes. Some want to demolish the building, but due to its rich history many believe that it would be a travesty to destroy the Rosenwald.
As government housing projects have fallen into disarray and their utility has drawn increasing skepticism and gentrification has forced many middle and working class black people out of their neighborhoods, the Rosenwald apartments take on new significance. The future of the building is unclear buts its legacy is not. For a time it was the heart of one of the most vibrant and talented black communities in world and a number its residents went on to become icons in American culture. The building stands as a testament to Julius Rosenwald’s ambitious altruism and entrepreneurial spirit.