From Barrio Dream to Nightmare, But With Hope

“Rather than… building up real estate holdings and a retail sector that could cushion the community against bad times… many [Puerto Ricans] relocated repeatedly, sometimes by choice but often not. The villains of the true West Side Story are demolition crews rather than street gangs…. In fact, Puerto Ricans have done well when they have had something like a successful barrio experience.” pp. 148-156 in Strangers Among Us by Roberto Suro.

So often violence that is in your face, covered in blood, sensationalized on TV, and done by our young people is spoken about. One form of extreme violence that is often ignored is that of people being kicked out of their homes, slowly. In Humboldt Park, with rising rent and property taxes and the greed of city inspectors and real estate developers, thousands of Puerto Ricans have been forced to leave our historic home. Still, many remain despite the obstacles they face.

Not long ago, I met Albert Méndez, a Boricua who has lived in Humboldt Park all his life and despite all the obstacles he and his family have faced, refuses to give up, pack up, and leave the community. In 1994, while still in his mid-twenties, he bought a three-story property in the community, where he is raising four children (one is in college studying biology) with his wife, Daisy, while working in a youth program. Then the violence of a demolition and construction crew crashed into their barrio dream.

In 2005, a real estate developer sought to buy Méndez’s and his parents’ properties. When they refused, he bought the home that was sandwiched between their two properties, demolished it, and constructed a huge condominium. In the process, the construction crew destroyed the foundation of Mr. Méndez’s building. “It was like an earthquake,” he says while he gave me a tour of the building and showed me video captured after the event.

According to Mr. Méndez, when the foundation was destroyed, as well as the gangway of his parents’ home, the construction crew fled for a while only to return denying any wrongdoing. Nonetheless, they fixed the gangway of his parents, but refused to do the same for Méndez for the very fact that it would cost about $170,000 to $175,000 to fix the damage. The building was left tilted, and the destruction (both initial and long-term) also includes a carbon monoxide leak and a sewer collapse in the basement, cracks in the apartment walls and the brick frame of the building, collapsed ceilings in the apartments, water leaks, and the list goes on. The most scary aspect is that the building’s second foundation, which was untouched, prevented the building from completely collapsing. Many of these things had to be fixed out of Mr. Méndez’s pocket since he is a responsible landlord; his insurance company refused to pay since it was not damage caused by a natural disaster.

A legal battle ensued between the family and the developer, which continues today. “I’m not looking for compensation; we just want our home to be fixed to the way it was,” says Mr. Méndez. In a sinister twist of events, when his lawyer put a lien on the condominum so the developer could not sell it while the case was pending, the developer filed for bankruptcy and the bank took the property and sold it for $600,000. “There’s time you get to the point… that you want to take your loss and leave,” says Mr. Méndez, but with still a feeling of hope and determination to rectify the wrong.

How much more of the violence of displacement can our community take? Some people question why is it so important to continue to develop a Puerto Rican barrio, especially in the midst of so much adversity. As long as Boricuas like the Méndez family do not give up, we cannot as a community give up either. However, we also need to struggle as a community, to do more on the issue of gentrification, before it is too late.

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