A pair of young guys eyed me beneath the unbent brims of their basketball hats as I walked up to Stowe Elementary. Their gaze may have been due to the fact that this was my first time at the annual congress of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association. Or it might’ve been because, compared to everyone else, I was dressed like a douche, donning the tell-tale skinny jeans and blazer that announce to the world I’m trying too hard. Kids were playing a makeshift game of soccer on the concrete playground, though it was a chilly afternoon for May. Organizers distributed ready-made placards on the front steps while protesters put the finishing touches on the ones they’d written themselves.
“Are you press?” a brown woman asked me with a bright smile. I nodded and told her I was there to chat with Carlos Ramirez-Rosa, the 27-year-old phenom who shook up Chicago after being elected alderman of the 35th ward (Logan Square) last year, becoming not only one of the youngest people ever to serve in City Council, but also the first gay Latino alderman in the city’s history. I’d heard him speak at a conference on the Latino vote held at DePaul earlier in the month and wanted him to expound on his penchant for protest.
Plus Stowe is a five-minute walk from the home I partly grew up in, the one my grandma bought back in the early eighties following a decade of hustle as an immigrant from Honduras. It’s the same house nearly burned to the ground in 1993 but rebuilt good as new — the same one she still lives in. My mom even went to Stowe back in the day, before my little sister did less further back in the day. The last time I sort of lived in Logan Square was in the fall of 2004, when I was studying at DePaul and desperately trying to save money by staying with my grandma, seeing as the Lincoln Park campus is only one Armitage bus ride away. (This living arrangement turned out to be both better and worse than I’d imagined.)
Even then the neighborhood was changing, though only to native eyes. The first omen was when the Streetside Bar & Grill at the corner of Armitage and Kedzie (where Scofflaw now is) installed an outdoor ATM. I remember thinking, Who’s stupid enough to mess with their wallet out in the open? Then came the hipsters, playing extreme frisbee in Palmer Square Park, gazing uneasily at the mounds of yuca and pataste in the frutería on Kimball, riding their retro bikes while listening to their iPods, daring cars to even tap them. Next came the fancy lampposts down Armitage, and with them the fancy condos and eateries. Suddenly, more white faces — “not that there’s anything wrong with that” (as Seinfeld would say), but it’s merely a sign of things to come. The frutería got completely remodeled, with big bright windows and an official-looking sign. More condos, more bar & grills. At least the panadería‘s still there, if only with a new name. Plus I’m happy to report that the nearest Starbucks is a full six minutes away, driving — not one this side of Milwaukee — while there’s a decent cafetería on every other block at least. But let’s see how long that lasts.
According to a report published by DNAinfo just this week, it won’t last long at all. Since 2000, over 19,000 Latinos have left Logan Square, representing around a 48 percent decrease in the neighborhood’s Latino population. Where once, back in 1990 when I first lived there, Latinos made up over two-thirds of Logan Square residents, now they’re less than half. The cause isn’t a mystery: Long-time, low-income residents are being priced out by better paid newcomers. Take the recently built luxury apartments at Milwaukee and Talman, for instance, which are being rented out at almost $4,000 a month for a three-bedroom pad (perhaps to pay for the retired L car lifted onto a private deck for residents to hang out in). It’s the Manifest Destiny of urban elites. Guess who’s the Indians.
Nevertheless, despite my local pedigree, I couldn’t shake the feeling I was an outsider as I walked through the front doors of Stowe Elementary. Feeling like you don’t belong is unsettling in itself, even more so when you’re at a neighborhood meeting on the threat of outsiders. I’d scratch my notes discreetly like a COINTELPRO infiltrator.
The auditorium was musty and packed. People shuffled in as if for a baptism, minus the sequins and heels. I grabbed a bilingual program and found a seat in the back corner where a man was setting up a TV camera on a tripod. Roberto Maldonado of the 26th ward (Humboldt Park) was shaking hands with attendees at the front of the room when Joe Moreno of the 1st ward (Wicker Park) made his way down a crowded center aisle. Milly Santiago of the 31st (Hermosa) and Deb Mell of the 33rd (Avondale) stood near the stage as well, also glad-handing. As it usually goes with community organizing in Chicago, most of the adults in attendance were women, and there were a lot more kids than I should’ve expected for a gathering at an elementary school. The mood was more communal than political, more cheerful than austere, with hugging, laughing and general catching-up. A person walking their dog might’ve mistaken it for a graduation ceremony or some other end-of-the-school-year performance. Arguably the most occupied of the bunch, besides the group’s organizers, was Alderman Ramirez-Rosa himself, who finally entered the auditorium and made his way up to the stage right before the 54th Congress of the Logan Square Neighborhood Association came to order.
“Order” is a bit of an overstatement, since the collective chitchat hardly quieted once proceedings were underway. Most people seemed too distracted by the impending march down the 606, a nearly three-mile-long elevated railroad-turned-greenway also known as the Bloomingdale Trail. After Principal Jimmy Lugo welcomed everybody, a succession of speakers stepped up to the podium, though much of what was said barely made it over the din of the audience due to some serious low-talking at the microphone. Nearly everyone spoke Spanish. An old white man behind me roughly translated what was said into a tape recorder. The group’s incoming board of directors filed on stage to take the oath of office; those from the embattled Mozart Elementary seemed to garner the most applause. A guy with clean sneaks and another impeccable cap plopped down next to me. For the next 15 minutes he divided his attention between the goings-on at the front of the room and a gaggle of girls sitting in the row ahead of ours.
Then the aldermen were brought on stage and made to swear, one by one, that they would support the group’s struggle against the displacement of working-class families and residents of color — a tall order considering Stowe Elementary itself sits in the shadow of the 606, a linear park built by city hall to pump gentrification into the heart of an historical low-income Latino community. Add to it the massive property tax hike rubber-stamped by the council last October, which will phase in a $500 million increase over the next four years, beginning with a seven percent increase this year. To lessen the sting, a tax rebate has been proposed by the council’s Progressive Caucus, of which Alderman Ramirez-Rosa is a member. Backed by the Logan Square Neighborhood Association and other groups, the plan calls for giving rebate checks of up to $2,000 to Chicagoans in need regardless of their property values. Rebates would also be offered to landlords who maintain affordable rents. The six aldermen present (Ariel Reboyras of the 30th ward arrived fashionably late) all vowed to support not only the rebate proposal itself, but the very principles on which it’s based. Then the room erupted into chants of “Sí se puede!”
Finally the auditorium emptied out onto St. Louis Avenue and hundreds of community members — parents and grandparents, teachers and students, longtime residents and newcomers — marched down the 606 carrying signs, banners and flags. The placards made by the group read I AM _____ AGAINST DISPLACEMENT, with protesters having filled in theirs to indicate whether they were a student, teacher, parent or what. Many sported blue LSNA T-shirts. I walked beside Alderman Ramirez-Rosa for the first 10 minutes, hearing his views on gentrification, activism, police brutality, the city’s broken education system and, inevitably, the Bernie Sanders campaign (the fruits of our discussion will be published soon). At the Kedzie overpass a group of protesters stopped to cheer on a line of cars honking below. A few banners were tied to the railing for the whole avenue to see. A couple news helicopter hovered high above, giving the scene a tinge of militancy.
Whether the Logan Square and Humboldt Park communities can hold the line against an advance cadre of hipsters, real estate developers and bankers, I have serious doubts. And not because I think the residents of those communities suffer a lack of grit and determination, but because the last century of this city’s history — of areas like the Near West Side, the Near North Side, and now West Town — is a tale of white people with means claiming areas long condemned to blight and shooing the working-class, predominately black and Latino residents westward. Chicago is no different than any other city in America, wherein money talks and the poor… march.
[Featured Photo: Tony Webster/Flickr]