When a greenhorn asks me about Humboldt Park, I tell them to stop by Café Colao on Paseo Boricua for something delicious, or to head over to the Institute of Puerto Ricans Arts & Culture and walk through its collection of masterpieces from the island and those closer to home.
But the advice most people give about Humboldt Park is “avoid it.”
I know what people say about my old neighborhood. They’ve been saying it since I was a kid there. They’ve even been saying it since my mom was a kid there. A news article appearing just after the 1966 uprising called Division Street a “no man’s street” that “belongs to no one.” In 1997, Chicago Tribune Magazine referred to the neighborhood as “hell’s living room.” And as recently as a few years ago, an Australian baker opened up shop just a few blocks from el Paseo and started selling cupcakes she named “Humboldt Crack.”
The perception of Humboldt Park as an urban wasteland terrorized by violent thieves and drug dealers has been the official gospel since the late Sixties, but it still cuts deep for the people who love the neighborhood.
So when during my research for a story I came across a nasty summary of my old hood — “Gang and drugs rules [sic] Humboldt Park and surrounding areas” — I was more beaten down than surprised.
The comment is a review of an elementary school a block west of Kedzie and the park. For some reason, the comment pops up as a caption when you move your arrow over the school’s red marker.
Now, are drugs and gang violence a problem in Humboldt Park? Absolutely. Do they rule the neighborhood and the surrounding areas? Absolutely not.
In fact, I’d say the gangs and drugs are being run out of Humboldt Park by two opposing forces: community preservation and gentrification.
I posted a screenshot of the Google Maps caption to Facebook and asked residents from the neighborhood what they thought. As expected, all of the commenters were appalled and offended — except for the battle-hardened Xavi Burgos, who wrote simply, “Ay, always something.”
And as it turns out, there is “always something.”
In preparation for this article, I came across what I thought was another “error” by Google Maps. When you search “Humboldt Park,” the boundaries for the neighborhood don’t include anything (or anyone) east of the park, which anyone who knows anything about Chicago will tell you is the heart and soul of the neighborhood.
Turns out I was one of the few native Humboldt Parkers who didn’t know that Humboldt Park isn’t part of Humboldt Park, and that Paseo Boricua — the restaurants, the murals, the 45-ton flags — aren’t in Humboldt Park either. So when we think about “Puerto Rican Humboldt Park,” we’re not talking about a specific neighborhood with specified boundaries. Like vascos talking about the Basque Country or Kurds speaking of Kurdistan, Puerto Rican Humboldt Park is a ethnoscape, a space tied to a certain people in certain physical place.
Yet, unlike the Basque Country and Kurdistan, who today enjoy a great deal of autonomy and are looking forward to greater autonomy, Puerto Rican Humboldt Park is under threat from extinction from outside forces working to transform Puerto Rican Humboldt Park into just Humboldt Park. As with the Wicker Park that Puerto Ricans used to inhabit, and Lincoln Park before that, the area east of the park is now one of the trendiest real-estate markets in town. But there’s one last thing the real-estate developments need to do before they can cash in — they first need to remove the undesirables.
To justify getting rid of them, you first have to turn the people who live there into undesirables. You do that by divesting their community. You underfund their schools, send their jobs someplace else and deny them access to the tools that would allow them to fend for themselves. Then, on top of all that, you raise the cost of living. No opportunities and a poor education system effectively leaves people poor and ignorant.
Finally, when you’ve taken away every hope, kicked away every ladder to success, nailed shut every door, barricaded every pathway to a happy and healthy life, you sit back and watch the place crumble.
Once the community starts tearing down and the bodies start piling up, you declare the residents unfit for this and that street and begin replacing them with “better” people. And who’s going to say anything? The original residents had a beautiful neighborhood with a big green park and they squandered it all.
Think Manifest Destiny, only on a much smaller scale.
So I don’t want to hear anyone say that Humboldt Park is ruled by drugs and gang violence. If anything, the neighborhood’s plagued by poverty and the lack of opportunity that tags along with it. And those aren’t spontaneous symptoms of the kind of people who live there. They’re designed conditions, meant to feed negative perceptions and keep places and their inhabitants manageable.
The people of Humboldt Park are doing what they can to combat the shitty card they’ve been dealt, and as a result, as with most of the rest of the city, Humboldt Park has actually experienced a drop in crime and is safer today than it’s been in a very long time. There are plenty of groups and individuals in the neighborhood working to secure the pride and dignity that outsiders tried to drain from Humboldt Park. Things are beginning to turn around, and it’s in spite of yuppie developers who view themselves as “urban pioneers” in a space inhabited by indigent natives.
Meanwhile, the rest of Chicago continues to be ruled by a sad misconception of Humboldt Park.
It’s their loss.
[Photo: Google Maps]