Friday, September 16, 2011

predawn sunset

You don’t hear live jazz in Bronzeville much these days, though at one point in history Bronzeville was the place to go.

The old Sunset Café is now an Ace Hardware on 35th Street. Today, a desk sits where jazz greats of old like Louis Armstrong once played. The wall mural that served as a backdrop to the likes of Dizzy Gillespie, Charlie Parker, and Nat “King” Cole is still there but the only music that accompanies the visual motif now comes through the radio.

Nearby, the old standbys White Castle, KFC, Popeye’s and McDonald’s wrangle for fast-food supremacy in the depressed neighborhood. Just down the street stands a strip mall. There’s talk it will be leveled and a better shopping center put in its place but that has been promised for some time now and the powers-that-be have yet to make good. Kitty corner to the Ace stands BP, an oil-spill company in the midst of an oil-spill community trying to reclaim the land.

Walk a half block east from Ace and you come to a broad street; there are three lanes in each direction divided by a wide, grassy median. The street is not as busy as one would expect for such a large boulevard. It is Martin Luther King Jr. Drive (or simply “King Drive” as the locals call it). Running a north-south trajectory, it spans the entire length of Bronzeville and then some. Like its namesake, King Drive dominates the grid in a grand yet gracious and dignified way—you can’t miss it. King Drive orients Bronzeville’s people like Dr. King oriented many so long ago. The sidewalks on either side of King Drive contain plaques embedded in the pavement intermittently. The plaques are testament to many African-American giants that are connected to Bronzeville’s past: poets, novelists, activists and musicians.

Just north of the library on King Drive’s west side sits a building with a café in the lowest level: Noah’s Ark café. Take a few steps down off the street into this café and you would swear you’d just entered the real Noah’s ark at the end of her voyage: the place is a shambles, as if a world full of wild animals had just had run of the place. It is dark and there are huge holes in the walls; electrical wires dangle beside old black cast-iron pipes; insulation peeks through the ceiling, as if a surgeon has opened up a patient and we can now see the patient’s insides. The coffee tables would make good firewood but little else. The curved coffee bar is tired, like a diseased elephant on her side, ready to die.

But here in this limping place a jazz band plays, smooth and live. They are anything but near-death. Here we have a grinning drummer, a keyboard player, a swaying bassist and a young man in love with his saxophone. And they are smiling, improvising. Just when you think the song is over, they surprise you with another round of the cadence—much like the neighborhood.

My friend Ronnie has brought us here to share a dream with us. He meets us out on the sidewalk and, as we are chatting there, we meet a homeless man named George. I was unsure how to look George in the eyes, since both of them seemed akimbo, if fixed. One eye focused straight and up while the other looked to the right. As George approached, he was holding a White Castle cup in his left hand and his right hand contained four or five onion rings with his thumb through the middle of them all. He wore a necklace with a crucifix on the end and he told us in the course of our conversation of John 3:16, the bread and wine as symbols of Jesus’ body and blood--and of his belief “in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

Every so often, George would get stuck on a consonant but push his way through the rest of the sentence as if determined to make himself understood: he just wanted a sandwich, something to eat, no money. He wasn’t like “those other guys” who “only take money.”

“All I want is a sandwich, somm-mmmething to eat.”

Another homeless man named Mark came out of the café around this point and Ronnie explained that the new owner of the café was allowing Mark to stay there while work was being done. As Mark rode off on his bike, he reminded us of the time but we would only be there till eight so Mark would have his temporary home back for the evening.

After a while, we entered the café. Ronnie instructed each of us to watch our heads as the threshold of the door was a bit low.

As we toured the small space Ronnie explained his dream: imagine a café by day that transforms itself into a jazz club at night. Bronzeville’s residents always have to go to other neighborhoods for something like that. It’s time this sort of thing came home again.

The new owner is a Vietnamese man. He is overseeing the remodeling of the café, hoping to resurrect it as a viable place of business. Construction supplies are lined up along the walls of the space: drywall, mud, metal corner strips, screws. The prospect of a remodeled café is a welcome addition to the community as it will provide jobs and a comfortable hang-out space, both of which are in short supply in Bronzeville.

Ronnie has been speaking with the new owner about some dreams for the space. Because of this, the new owner has invited Ronnie to be a partner in the café’s reopening for business. Ronnie has a heart for racial reconciliation and, because of a significant Asian presence in Bronzeville, has always desired to reach out in friendship to his Asian neighbors in the midst of a predominantly black neighborhood.

Discussing the remodeling of the café with the owner, Ronnie shared an idea on an element of design: change the space’s square columns into round shapes. At that, the owner perked up: he told Ronnie that in his culture square corners are considered aggressive—much better to round them off.

That got them both to thinking: what if they reopened Noah’s Ark café as a venue that featured an Asian-African fusion through various facets? They could knock out some blocks in the exterior wall, put windows in place and create an Asian garden which patrons could appreciate while sipping coffee indoors. And, they could feature jazz music as a cultural testament to Ronnie’s African-American heritage. In fact, since the old Sunset Café was now no longer in existence, they could call the remodeled café “Sunset” in hopes of restoring that which has been lost to this still-loved community. Even the kind of food offered could point towards reconciliation and restoration. And they both agreed that a good business gives back to the community, literally giving away at least ten percent of its income in charity. This café would truly be a place of blessing.

I believe the Sunset and these two will sow shalom—which, to this community (and to any neighborhood this side of eternity), makes present a piece of not-yet heaven. Far from the end of its day, this café is getting ready to rise above the horizon, a renewed light in a dimmed place. The sunset shall become a new sunrise in this tiny ark that can shelter drowning souls from the rain.

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