A Community Tries to Hold Its Ground

June 15, 2007

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59-foot steel Puerto Rican flags arch over a stretch of West Division Street known as the Paseo Boriqua.

Puerto Ricans in Chicago are holding their annual parades tomorrow. They're also marking the anniversary of a bloody riot following a Puerto Rican parade in 1977. In the riot's aftermath, Puerto Ricans made strides in education, work and politics. But now the community faces a challenge some are calling insurmountable. Rising rents and property taxes are displacing Puerto Ricans from West Side neighborhoods surrounding Humboldt Park, the heart of their community. We report from our bureau there.

This is what decent police relations sound like.

POLICE VOICES: “Goodnight. The park is closing. Goodnight.”

These Chicago officers are clearing out Humboldt Park after an evening of watching carnival rides and making sure the piña coladas for sale remain alcohol-free. It's the annual weeklong festival that culminates in tomorrow's Puerto Rican parades.

POLICE VOICES: “You guys take care. Be safe. Goodnight.”

Back in the 1970s, some Chicago officers had different methods. Mike Rodríguez recalls a few of his fellow cops on beats around Humboldt Park.

RODRIGUEZ: “At one point, they say, ‘Speak English!' And how can they speak English, you know, if he doesn't? He goes, ‘You're in America!' you know.”

Rodríguez was one of the first Puerto Ricans on the force. He patrolled this neighborhood for most of his 30-year career, before retiring in February.

RODRIGUEZ: “I seen the other coppers here, you know, beat the hell out of a couple of... just for simple little things that you talk it out and all that.”

Puerto Ricans say police brutality wasn't their only beef in those days. They remember lousy schools, callous landlords, and dead-end jobs.

SOUND: Motorcycles.

Mario Nieves leads these bikers as president of the Latin American Motorcycle Association. The group formed out of a biker contingent Nieves led in the 1977 Puerto Rican parade downtown.

After the parade, many young Puerto Ricans went back to Humboldt Park to continue the celebration. When Nieves got to the park, he couldn't believe his eyes.

NIEVES: “It was like Little Vietnam. Cars were on fire. Motorcycles were on fire. Shootings were going on. The police are going berserk. Thugs were going around throwing rocks at police. The pot boiled over.”

The rioting lasted a day and a half. Police shot dead two Puerto Ricans and arrested 200 others.

Puerto Rican Cultural Center director José López says the violence marked a turning point.

LOPEZ: “If we have the bilingual programs in the Chicago Public Schools, police sensitivity trainings -- today you have two of the highest-ranking officials in the department as Puerto Ricans -- if we look at our political representation, when 11 of the 22 major elected officials in Chicago, Latino elected officials, are Puerto Ricans, a lot of it has to do with the fact that Puerto Ricans took to the streets, and we were willing to say, ‘We've had enough.' ”

That frustration also helped give birth to dozens of Puerto Rican organizations, from a youth center to an anti-obesity program.

The community's heart is a half-mile of West Division Street known as the Paseo Boriqua. Each end of the paseo has a 59-foot steel Puerto Rican flag, arching over traffic.

TAPE: Drums and singing

This time of year, Puerto Ricans flock to cafés between the flags to catch up with friends. And they fill the 200-acre park with softball games and cookouts.

But the area has been changing. In 1980, Puerto Ricans constituted the main ethnic group in more than 40 census tracts near the park. By 2000, that number had shrunk to 15. And all signals suggest the trend goes on.

Carlos Flores is a Puerto Rican music and arts activist.

FLORES: “If you were to drive now on Division and Damen, it's like a whole different world. You know, the outdoor cafés, a lot of the young, white affluent people that are moving in. And it's kind of interesting, for a person like me, to have lived there 25 years and feel like I don't belong there. I'm a stranger or get treated that way.”

Alderman Billy Ocasio has helped lead efforts to preserve Humboldt Park's Puerto Rican character. He pushes some developers to devote a third of their housing projects to affordable units.

That doesn't always go over well. Elida Cruz co-chairs United Blocks of West Humboldt Park. She says the low-income housing provides recruits to gangs, and deprives the area of residents with more money to spend.

ELIDA CRUZ: “We live in America, where capitalism, you know, it reigns high. No business goes into business so that he can offer up his goods freely to the community. No, he does it on behalf of his family. The same thing, nobody buys a piece of property so that they stay in it because of some emotional bond that they have.”

But that's exactly what some other Puerto Rican leaders are counting on.

SOUND: Newspaper opening

A look at the cultural center's newspaper shows an ad beckoning readers to move back to the barrio. Behind that call, there seems to be increasing unity.

Many Puerto Ricans are working together for neighborhood preservation despite differing, for instance, on whether their ancestral island should break free of the United States. Puerto Rican parade leader Mikey Sánchez this year has reached out to supporters of independence.

SANCHEZ: “This is a strategy to bring your community back together, to know where their roots are, to make sure that Humboldt Park is going to be here forever, and we're not just going to be a walking suitcase: ‘Pack up your stuff and move out of our neighborhood.' No, we're going to be here for a long time.”

That battle cry isn't novel. From San Francisco to New York, Latinos have tried to fight off gentrification.

SOUND: More drums and singing.

If any community can hold its ground, it might be this one.

In Humboldt Park, I'm Chip Mitchell, Chicago Public Radio.

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HOST: The Puerto Rican parade downtown begins Saturday at noon in Grant Park. The parade in Humboldt Park begins at 2 at Division and Western.