Along a sparsely tree-lined block in East Pilsen, amid a collection of older homes and newer apartment buildings, sits the two-story residence of Margot Lozano.
She shares the home with her husband, but they aren’t alone. She feels spirits roaming through the halls of the East Pilsen home.
The spirits make their way up and down the stairs at night, linger outside bedroom doors, and weave in and out of the family’s history, which has unfolded in a neighborhood in the shadows of the Dan Ryan Expressway.
Inside the faded blue wooden home, Margot Lozano sits on a large, black sofa next to her adult daughter Estelle. Purple curtains block the sunlight from one of their windows, casting shadows and leaving the living room reaching for light. A portrait of Margot, 57, on her wedding day peeks out from behind a red vintage-style radio.
The Pilsen natives recount the joys living there and how the kids played and their dogs roamed freely in the large yard.
“We’ve been very happy campers,” Margot says.
For Margot, the place they’ve made their home holds significance. Her parents were among the first Mexican families to buy in Pilsen in the 1940s after they were displaced from Taylor Street.
Since then, Pilsen has been at the crosshairs of city efforts — and developers’ interest — to re-imagine the historic port of entry for immigrant families into a middle-class hub. At the time the Lozanos moved into a single-family home, in the 1990s, it felt like a longshot to own a house with a yard in the community where Margot was born and raised.
The Canalport home has since fostered cherished memories and rooted the family in an ever-changing neighborhood. But tucked among those fond recollections are unexplainable things — footsteps up the stairs at night, dogs barking into an empty hallway and shadows lingering behind closed doors — things the family has never openly talked about until now.
With every footstep they’ve heard move up their stairs, the Lozanos have grown increasingly curious for some answers. When WBEZ’s Curious City posted a callout online asking listeners to share scary, disturbing or mysterious encounters in the Chicago area, Estelle Lozano submitted her family’s story.
What follows is an excavation of the past through public records and personal recollections that have been buried; the family even ultimately agrees to open the door to the spiritual world and try to make contact with the other side.
“I never considered them to be ghosts,” Margot says. “I just consider them to be spirits.”
A house that is a magnet for spirits
The phrase “haunted house” often conjures a relic that has stood for centuries. But the Lozanos’s home with the paint-chipped front stairs dates back only to the early 1990s, when the family purchased the land for a dollar with the help of a community organization fighting displacement.
From the outside, it’s unassuming. A Halloween decoration on the front door simply says Boo.
Inside, the home is brimming with stories and strange occurrences: a CD player turning on and playing music on its own, a candle flying off a table. On a mid-September afternoon, Margot recounts some paranormal experiences she’s encountered over the last three decades, occasionally rubbing her arms to chase away her goosebumps.
As a mother with young children, sometimes she’d leave the light on in the hallway while the family slept. She recalls waking up late at night to comfort her youngest daughter — who at the time was a baby in a crib — and in many instances seeing the silhouette of a man’s boot under the doorway.
It happened often enough that it didn’t scare her, it only made her curious. “I could see a shadow of boots, men’s boots, like he was leaned up against my hallway door, like he was guarding us,” she says.
Her daughter Estelle is now 33. Her most chilling recollection happened when she was eight or nine and playing hide-and-seek with her cousin, Johnny, throughout the two-story house.
From her hiding spot inside the first-floor bathroom, she could hold the door slightly ajar and peek through the gap to watch her cousin.
“I’m trying to see if I’m going to get caught,” Estelle said.
Standing in silence, Estelle remembers watching her cousin toggle with the unmoving knob on a door that led to the basement, pushing and shaking the door. “He can’t turn it,” Estelle recalled. “That door doesn’t have a lock. It’s never had a lock. There’s no way to lock it or anything like that.”
Finally, Johnny, standing at the threshold of the basement door, gave up and told Estelle to come out. Just as Estelle emerged from her hiding spot in the bathroom confused, the basement door slowly creaked open behind them.
The children freaked out and ran outside.
“I never understood why that happened,” Estelle said recently. “There was never any explanation or like reason why that door would have held like that unless, you know, it was literally somebody or something holding it.”
Estelle’s siblings had their own encounters. At nine, Jenna remembered being afraid of the rhythmic sound of someone making their way up the wooden staircase. “They would sometimes … come to my threshold or go in the other direction to my mother’s room,” Jenna recalled.
The sounds would prompt the family’s dogs to jump from her bed to pace the hallway — Jenna can still describe their nails scratching the hardwood floors and her father telling them to knock it off.
Margot’s husband isn’t a believer. He thinks she’s simply trying to make “rhyme and reason” for everything or that she’s “hallucinating,” she says.
But Margot has accepted the spirits as a fact of life. “I heard the creaks last night,” the mother said just a few weeks ago. She first thought her eldest daughter had returned home for the night — but Margot and her husband were alone.
The search for clues
Recently, Estelle and her partner, Paul Alvarez, started talking about the paranormal and whether they believed in ghosts. The conversation jogged her memory, and it all came back: the hiding spot in the bathroom, the eerie game of hide-and-seek and the unease of hearing footsteps at night.
Intrigued by the story, Alvarez began searching online for what had been on the property before.
News clippings painted a picture of a working-class neighborhood that was home to Irish and German immigrant laborers who helped build the Illinois and Michigan Canal, as well as garment factories, lumber mills, railyards, meat processing plants, tanners, and a blossoming brewery scene.
Then, in a Chicago Tribune story, a clue. On an early Monday morning in June 1886, a fire ripped through several buildings on Canalport Avenue and 18th Street, suffocating nine people. Among the victims were Michael Murphy, his wife Anna Murphy, their three daughters — Nellie, Annie, and baby Aggie — and Anna’s sister Mary Durkins, along with her 4-year-old son Patrick
“From the first it was evident that the fire at Canalport Avenue and Eighteenth street … was of incendiary origin,” meaning arson had likely been the cause, according to the Tribune.
But who? Determining who set the fire became a story of its own, with Thomas Durkin, Mary’s quarrelsome husband, becoming a prime suspect after police found kerosene oil-soaked rags under the Durkin family’s second-story window. Durkin would ultimately be cleared, as he appeared to be in suburban Joliet at the time of the fire.
No arsonist would ever be convicted of the crime.
The family’s funeral was a newsworthy affair in June 1886. Inside the Church of the Sacred Heart days after the fire, amid the coffins, sat a tiny coffin with the remains of 4-year-old Patrick.
Could this be Estelle’s ghostly hide-and-seek partner? After seeing the newspaper archives of the tragic fire, she felt relieved to potentially have an answer.
“Oh my God,” Estelle said. “That’s who was playing hide-and-seek with me all those years ago. We were playing hide-and-seek with a little boy like a little ghost.”
But the family still had questions. How to explain the boots and the creaking on the stairs? What caused the dogs to bark in the middle of the night? Who are these spirits? What was on the lot before?
Or, could all this be explained away as simple coincidences? A finicky door? A temperamental dog? Fluctuating temperatures that could cause floorboards to creak?
The questions required more digging through media archives, homeowner records and maps held by the Cook County Clerk and the Chicago Public Library.
Digging through the archives
Tracing the history of the Lozanos’s property proved challenging because of sparse record keeping and a systematic overhaul of the entire address system citywide at the turn of the century. WBEZ tracked down a list of owners for the Lozanos’s property dating back to the 1870s, but there were no records of Durkin’s landlord, John Raleigh, or the Murphys.
Still, over the years, newspaper clippings show that the small East Pilsen neighborhood experienced outsized calamity, from a smallpox epidemic to shootings and homicides to the displacement of thousands of families as an expressway went up in the late 1950s.
By the 1970s, the Lozanos’s future property was a vacant lot filled with rubble and concrete, recalls a former neighbor. The lot sat vacant until Margot and her husband purchased it and built their home in the early 1990s.
Over time, the neighborhood experienced a wave of gentrification that displaced some of the longtime Mexican families, who were driven out by high property taxes, a lack of affordable housing and the proliferation of developers with deep pockets.
What scares Margot most these days, she said, aren’t the spirits she hears at night. It’s the idea of losing her two-story home in a rapidly changing area of Chicago.
The historical records didn’t offer a lot of concrete information about the connection between the spirits Margot and Estelle said they had felt and the lot where the home had been built.
So WBEZ asked the family if they would consider talking to spiritualists who study the other side.
The medium’s pendulum swings
On a fall evening in October, Margot and Estelle warmly welcome a neighborhood medium and spiritual healer Cristina Puzio to the family’s home. Without knowing any details about the family’s experiences and with no knowledge of the fire, Puzio asks permission to roam the hallways and basement.
On the first floor, Puzio sweeps through the living room, bathroom and kitchen holding out a pendulum inscribed with symbols and hanging from a black thread. “My pendulum is reacting to energy here,” Puzio says in the kitchen. “But it’s not anything, like, overpowering.”
That changes when she begins to head toward the basement door where Estelle played hide-and-seek with her ghost boy decades ago. As she makes her way down the narrow basement steps, the noisy hum of Dan Ryan Expressway all but fades. In silence, the medium maneuvers downstairs around cherished mementos and storage boxes.
“There’s a strong presence of a little boy and a man,” Puzio says. “They could be related.”
Walking through the basement, she says a fire took place here many years ago leaving behind “a lot of death and sickness … and sadness.”
She stops and stares into the distance.
“That’s OK, I acknowledge you,” Puzio says. “I know you’re sad and you’re just trying to be playful too.”
After nearly an hour sweeping through the home, Puzio sits in the living room with Margot and Estelle, describing the spirit of a man, a playful child, a young woman who tries to communicate in an Eastern European language, and a strong energy roaming the second-floor hallway — all from different periods.
These spirits are respectful, they aren’t harmful or sinister, she says. Maybe the spirit of the little boy “wants to play.”
Margot feels validated. “So I do have some spirits here, right? See. I know I wasn’t crazy … They are living here rent free. That’s fine.”
Asked how spirits can linger in a place, even when a past building is long gone, Puzio explains a spirit unable to transition or a traumatic memory can cling to a piece of land even as the world around them changes.
In a home, a plot of land, and even a neighborhood, the spirits offer a window of the city’s past — echoes of its former life and the lives of those who came before.
“I have never ever been scared or spooked by any of this because I don’t find them to be offensive or hurtful or anything in that manner,” Margot says. Instead, she’s felt protected, even guarded by their presence.
“It’s OK,” Margot says of her spirits, “they’re more than welcome to stay.” In her home frozen in time, the matriarch plans to stay put, too.
Mauricio Pena is a Chicago-based journalist who has previously worked at Chalkbeat Chicago, Block Club Chicago, Chicago magazine, and DNAinfo. Adriana Cardona-Maguigad is a WBEZ reporter. Follow her on Twitter @WBEZCuriousCity and @AdrianaCardMag.