Feature: Michelle Obama’s South Shore Neighborhood Explored in CHF’s Cooler by the Lake Trolley Tour

Last spring, the Chicago Humanities Festival offered a bus tour of Chicago’s Bronzeville neighborhood, and this September, offered a tour of the nearby South Shore neighborhood. South Shore is a mostly African American community these days, replete with colorful community culture murals, a far cry from the original “No Negros, Jews or Dogs” signs that used to be posted in the area. Originally an annex to 1893’s World’s Columbian Exposition, the area now has horse stables for the Chicago Police Department but is still considered a food desert for humans.

South Shore community mural. Photo by Karin McKie.

Area resident Yvette Moyo of the South Shore Tourism Center led this trolley tour, which was co-designed by the late Bronzeville preservationist Harold Lucas. While the conveyance was quaint, it was harder than the bus tour to see the sights outside the window without twisted and craned necks. Moyo talked about her neighborhood, one she shared with Michelle Obama in their youth, as well as her other pursuits: she publishes the monthly magazine The South Side Drive magazine, and runs the special event space The Quarry at 2419 E. 75th St., which also offers weekly jazz and other performances. The space also houses Imani’s Original Bean Pies, which are delicious!

The Quarry Event Center. Photo by Karin McKie.

Leaving from the sprawling South Shore Cultural Center, which also sports two 18-hole golf courses, the tour’s first stop is at Michelle Obama’s elementary school, Bouchet (originally called Bryn Mawr) at 74th and Jeffery, now near a mural of her as an Egyptian queen, as well as her former home at 7436 S. Euclid. 

Mural created by Moyo’s granddaughter Kayla Hodge when she was a student. Photo by Karin McKie.

The trolley passes Mosque Maryam, a former Greek Orthodox church and now the headquarters for the Nation of Islam, at 7351 S. Stony Island. Moyo recalled the neighborhood buzz when Muhammad Ali visited the temple, and also recommends watching the 1978 film Stony Island to get a flavor for the neighborhood at the time. Nearby is the Theaster Gates-designed Stony Island Arts Bank, which holds archives and books from the Ebony/Jet Building and Johnson Publishing.

Roots mural. Photo by Karin McKie.

The tour visited the Jackson Park Highlands, where the Reverend Jesse Jackson and jazz composer Ramsey Lewis used to live. Moyo mentions that lack of access to funds to achieve Black home ownership, redlining, leads to trashy patches and vacant lots, then family instability and urban blight. (Ta-Nehisi Coates 2014 Atlantic essay “The Case for Reparations” shares the stories of Black Chicagoans trying to build generational wealth through property, and is required reading.)

Protect Our Future mural. Photo by Karin McKie.

Seven miles of 71st Street have been designated as Emmett Till Road, to commemorate the home of the Chicago child slain by Mississippi racists. Due to a light rain, there are few disembarkments during the tour, so the trolley slows by the historic Avalon Regal Theater, “the epicenter for Black entertainment in America.” The new owner Jerald Gary is currently fundraising to revive the 79th Street building (the original Regal was on 47th Street).

Black artists mural outside the Regal Theater. Photo by Karin McKie.

Moyo touted Rainbow Beach, the area’s stretch of Lake Michigan, shared stats about upcoming projects too, like the future $100 million development at 79th and Exchange, and talked up the area’s renaissance. She wondered if the South Shore, originally a resort, might return to its original splendor. 

Watch the WTTW documentary “Chicago by L” to glimpse the rich history in all of Chicago’s neighborhoods too. Also see our feature on the tour of Pilsen murals. Then check out CHF’s autumn programs:

Rick Lowe on the Transformative Power of Art on 10/22

Chicago Performance Artist Jefferson Pinder on 10/29

Art of the Short Story with George Saunders on 10/29

A Screening of Charlie Chaplin’s THE KID with live musical accompaniment on 11/5

A SERIES of conversations and an after party — The Verge & Bit Bash on how big tech impacts our world on 11/12

A forum on Chicago’s Public Spaces on 11/29

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Karin McKie
Karin McKie

Karin McKie is a Chicago freelance writer, cultural factotum and activism concierge. She jams econo.

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