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Urban Renewal Takes Toll On Ethnic Neighborhood


June 18, 2001
Copyright © 2001 CHICAGO SUN-TIMES. All Rights Reserved.

Second of two parts

Looking around the neighborhood of Armitage and Halsted today, one can find no trace of the Lincoln Park of the early and middle 1960s--a truly Puerto Rican neighborhood.

The Starbucks at Armitage and Sheffield was once Arroyo's Liquor Store. La Estrella Record Shop at Armitage and Fremont sold salsa music. And at Armitage and Bissell, the man known as "Cabito" sold snow cones.

But for many Puerto Ricans who came here in the late 1940s and early 1950s, Lincoln Park was just a way station on a trip that continues today. Gentrification of their old neighborhoods and upward mobility within the community itself are dispersing ethnic enclaves.

The first group of 1,000 came as contract laborers in 1946 through a private employment agency, Castle, Barton and Associates.

In conjunction with the U.S. Labor Department, the agency opened offices on the island and recruited men for foundry and factory jobs and women for domestic work.

Many men worked at the Chicago Hardware Foundry Co. in North Chicago and lived in railcars. After deductions, their weekly salary of $35.40 was reduced to $1, according to the 1946 "Preliminary Report on Puerto Rican Workers in Chicago."

Leonor Diaz came to Chicago from the coastal town of Arecibo to work in the stockyards in 1949. His wife, Blanca Lopez, and four children followed him three years later.

Joining a cluster of Puerto Ricans already living on the Near North Side, the Diaz family settled near Erie and La Salle in 1952.

"To us it was not downtown, it was a neighborhood where people lived," said Hilda Frontany-Hernandez, Diaz's daughter. The Diaz family went to Spanish-language mass at Holy Name Cathedral--in the basement. Later, they went to St. Joseph's, 1107 N. Orleans--this time attending services in the church proper.

Trying to cope with the growing numbers of Puerto Ricans in Chicago--12,000 families by 1952--the Catholic Church helped found the Caballeros de San Juan (the Knights of St. John) in 1954, a fraternal society named after the patron saint of Puerto Rico.

The Caballeros helped Puerto Rican newcomers adjust by finding them health and social services, legal advice and employment, affordable housing and recreational activities.

Gloria Chevere's father, Joe, and uncle Miguel helped found the Caballeros' credit union at a time when banks didn't give loans to Puerto Ricans.

"Redlining was alive and well, and it was very difficult for working Puerto Rican families to get a mortgage to buy their homes. Our credit union eventually became a full-service financial institution," said Chevere, 48, an attorney who was a CTA executive from 1987 to 1990.

The Caballeros, along with the Puerto Rican Congress of Mutual Aid, were key organizers of the Annual San Juan Fiesta, first held in June, 1956. The celebration evolved into the Puerto Rican Parade held each June.

Carmen Cristia, now a young-looking 62, was queen of the first San Juan Fiesta.

She was dressed as a bride and had five girls carrying her 30-foot-long train. On June 24, the feast day of San Juan Bautista, Cristia marched in the parade along with Mayor Richard J. Daley, Cardinal Samuel Stritch and San Juan Mayor Felisa Rincon de Gautier from Holy Name Cathedral to the Chicago Avenue Armory, 234 E. Chicago, where a big party took place. "I was 17, and it was a great pride and adventure in my life. There were not so many Puerto Ricans then, but we were all very united," said Cristia, who is retired from the Chicago Police Department and lives in Dorado, Puerto Rico.

But Puerto Ricans soon began to move out of the Near North Side. Charlie and Matilde Flores and their five children came to Chicago starting in 1950 with Charlie, now 73. Matilde, now 72, and their children came later.

The Flores family first lived at La Salle and Superior, then moved to 1714 N. Larrabee. Then, in 1967, they bought a building at 1128 W. Armitage.

Flores, who worked for 36 years as a handyman for Western Electric Co., was perhaps the last Puerto Rican homeowner to leave Lincoln Park. He sold his building in 1997.

But he once again lives in a gentrifying neighborhood. On both sides of his home in the 1100 block of North Winchester in Bucktown, there is a three-flat for sale.

"Taxes are like $5,000, but I'm getting a senior citizen break. I'll manage," Flores said.

Puerto Ricans were already moving into Humboldt Park in significant numbers in the late 1960s when the Young Lords were formed in Lincoln Park to fight urban renewal.

The Young Lords occupied the Armitage Avenue Methodist Church, known as the People's Church, at 834 W. Armitage, and plastered its walls with revolutionary murals.

Young Lords founder Jose "Cha Cha" Jimenez, 52, who now lives in Grand Rapids, Mich., still believes the eviction of Puerto Ricans from Lincoln Park had to do with land profits and racial prejudice.

"We were stigmatized, but we were the children of the first Puerto Rican pioneers, we went through a lot of prejudice. And we opened the doors politically in the 46th Ward, in Lake View, Uptown, Humboldt Park and Logan Square," said Jimenez, now a counselor for street gangs and substance abusers.

Felix "Pipo" Cardona bought his first home in the 3600 block of West Palmer in 1968, when Humboldt Park was still mostly Italian and Polish. There were only four Latino homeowners on his block.

But in no time, Latinos, mostly Puerto Ricans, took over.

In 1977, Cardona, now 57, bought a building in the 2600 block of West Fullerton to open the Cardona Food Market. It was a full-service grocery store, and he had no nearby competition. Cardona worked 12-hour days, seven days a week. The business supported his wife and two children, Felix Jr. and Ines.

Not anymore.

Cardona put the building on sale a couple of months ago because he was losing money.

"About 10, 15 years ago, nobody wanted to live here. Now look at this. Anglos are going to grab everything," Cardona said.

But Victor and Esther Santiago, both 75, stayed put over the years.

They bought their two-flat at 1431 W. Fillmore, in Little Italy, in 1955. They saw all other Puerto Rican families sell or even leave their homes abandoned because they couldn't pay the rising taxes.

"People ask us all the time if we still live here," said Esther Santiago.

"But I'm not going to sell," Victor Santiago added. "People tell me that I have gold here. Why would I sell my home to buy someone else's?"

Disillusioned, many turn to evangelical churches

In the 1950s, most Puerto Ricans were devoted Catholics, many involved in the fraternity of Caballeros de San Juan

But despite the Catholic Church's effort to help Puerto Ricans assimilate, its nonviolent and assimilationist approach during the social upheavals of the 1960s and 1970s disillusioned many Puerto Ricans, who found active support in evangelical churches, especially the Pentecostal.

The 35 congregations of the Church of God throughout Chicago have 5,000 Pentecostal members, of which 70 percent are Puerto Ricans, said the Rev. Alberto R. Arias, senior pastor of the Church of God at 1132 N. Spaulding.

The 385 Pentecostal congregations in Chicago have more than 20,000 members, including the Church of God, and that number will double by 2005, said Arias, citing a study done by the Latin Evangelical Ministry in 1995. Half of those new Pentecostal members will be Puerto Rican, Arias said.

"We have reached out to people with whom other religions have refused to get involved--the poor, the drug addicts, the alcoholic, the prostitutes, the people that society doesn't want," Arias said.

While there are declining numbers of Puerto Rican Catholics, they represent the majority of the 128 Latino lay deacons in the Archdiocese of Chicago, said the Rev. Esequiel Sanchez, head of the Office of Hispanic Ministries.

The Rev. Claudio Diaz, pastor of St. Agnes in Chicago Heights, said evangelical churches have been strong in pastoral care, whereas the Catholic Church took more of a missionary approach toward Puerto Ricans.

"It is a challenge for us to retain our parishioners. Let's not forget this is a Protestant country, it's not Catholic, and immigrants have now many more religion options," Sanchez said.


Luis V. Gutierrez

U.S. congressman

Gutierrez, 47, was elected to the U.S. House in 1992 and is the first and only Latino congressman from Illinois. A native of Chicago, he worked as a teacher, social worker and community activist before being elected alderman of the 26th Ward in 1986.

Leida J. Gonzalez Santiago

Judge of the Circuit Court of Cook County

Santiago, 42, was the first Hispanic woman on the Illinois bench when she was elected in November 1992. She is assigned to the Domestic Relations Division of Cook County Circuit Court.

Mirna M. Diaz-Ortiz

Principal of Nobel Elementary School

In 1988, Diaz-Ortiz, 48, was appointed Nobel's principal, one of very few Puerto Rican women principals in Chicago. She has received three Principal of Excellence awards.

Hipolito `Paul' Roldan

CEO, Hispanic Housing Development Corp.

Roldan, 56, is one of the first Puerto Rican developers in Chicago's not-for-profit sector. Since 1976, he has developed more than 1,700 affordable apartments and town homes for families and elderly residents here.

Edgardo L. Yordan Jr.

Director, division of gynecologic oncology, Lutheran General Hospital

Yordan, 55, was named one of Chicago's top doctors by Chicago magazine in 1997. He has been an associate professor of obstetrics and gynecology at Rush Medical College since 1989.

David Hernandez

Poet and founder of the Street Sounds Media Group

Hernandez, 55, was among the first Puerto Rican (and Latino) poets published in Chicago. In 1971, he founded Street Sounds and has been organizing tenant unions, arts education programs and youth projects since 1967.

Esther Nieves

Executive director, Erie Neighborhood House

Nieves, 40, is one of a few Puerto Rican women heading nonprofit organizations in Chicago. She was listed as a Chicago leader in the "Who's Who in Nonprofits" by Crain's Chicago Business in 1997.

Roberto Herencia

Chief operating officer, Banco Popular North America

Herencia, 40, the bank's highest ranking executive in North America since 1997, is responsible for the day-to-day operations of Banco Popular's 100-branch network in six states.

Maritza Marrero

Vice chancellor, human resources and staff development, City Colleges of Chicago

Marrero, 44, has been the highest-ranking Puerto Rican (and Latina) in City Colleges since her appointment in 1998. Earlier, she was director of the Mayor's Office of Employment and Training.

The Rev. Claudio Diaz Jr.

Associate pastor, St. Agnes Church in Chicago Heights

Diaz, 38, is the only Puerto Rican priest in the Archdiocese of Chicago. He has taught Spanish, history and religion at Catholic high schools in Washington, D.C., and Florida.

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