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Paseo Boricua: The Mile-Long Stretch Puerto Rican Boulevard In Downtown Chicago Gets New Life
By Lucio Guerrero
Growing up in Chicagos Puerto Rican neighborhood, Enrique Salgado only knew of a deteriorating and crumbling Paseo Boricua.
The nearly mile-long stretch near downtown Chicagos skyscrapers and economic muscle was on a fast decline. Vacancies ballooned, infrastructure wilted and crime rose. "The holes were so big in the sidewalk that we could play in them," Salgado, 25, said.
It appeared that Chicagos Puerto Rican communitythe second largest Latino population in the city behind Mexicanswas about to be lost.
Those who could moved to the suburbs, while others assimilated into different neighborhoods.
But in 1995, Paseo Boricua found new life when city officials and Latino leaders offered a symbolic gesture to recognize the neighborhood and the residents roots. They installed two, metal Puerto Rican flagseach weighing 45 tons, measuring 59 feet vertically and stretching across the streetat each end of the strip.
Under the flags, the blighted neighborhood transformed into one of the hottest Latino neighborhoods in Chicago, uniting the once fragmented Puerto Rican community.
Since the community banded, the occupancy rate of the neighborhood rose to about 90 percent, home prices stabilized and Chicagos 150,000 Puerto Ricans have a place they call their own. "What has happened here is just
incredible," said Rebecca Ortiz, 45, who grew up near Paseo Boricua. "I considered moving before, but now I wouldnt think of it. I am Puerto Rican, this is where I belong."
Its not just residents who are feeling that pride. Puerto Rican business owners are lining up to ensure that the resurgence flourishes.
"I came here because, first of all, Im Puerto Rican, and I believe in whats happening in this neighborhood," said Alberto Vázquez, who owns the YGO Salon along Paseo Boricua. "Puerto Ricans need to get united to make a change in the community."
"We needed to fight for our own neighborhood." Vázquez moved his hair salon to Paseo Boricua about 18 months ago after operating the shop in Chicagos Logan Square neighborhood, a predominately Mexican enclave, for more than 10 years.
"As Puerto Ricans, we need to get more involved," he said.
The seven-block stretch, located along Chicagos Division Street between Western and California, is unique in a city known for the blues and political blowhards.
Visitors can hear salsa and merengue music pulsating through the streets and smell the mouth-watering carne guisada puertorriqueña. A couple of grocers have set up shop to help buyers find those hard-to-acquire products from home, such as gandules verde, sazón and naranja agria.
"Every single ethnic group has a neighborhood, and its always an entry point for them," said Salgado, the executive director of the Division Street Business Development Association. "Paseo Boricua also gives those who are here a sense of rediscovering their roots and identity."
The area is visually stunning, having more murals than any other neighborhood in the city. A tile mosaic of Puerto Rican baseball slugger Roberto Clemente greets visitors at one end of the street.
Several times a year, Paseo Boricua is fashioned in gala to celebrate important Puerto Rican holidays, such as the Three Kings Day, the Peoples Parade, and Fiesta Boricua.
It is the only officially recognized Puerto Rican neighborhood in the nation. New York, with its vast Puerto Rican
population, does not have an officially designated Puerto Rican neighborhood.
"Once we put the flags up, people have been wanting to come to the area," said Chicago Alderman Billy Ocasio, whose district includes the neighborhood. "Sila Calderón (Puerto Ricos governor) came to Chicago and said Chicago is a role model for other U.S. cities and that everyone should make a pilgrimage to come see these flags.
"Since then, people have been coming from all over."
Ocasio and other Latino leaders are now teaming up to create a new look for Paseo Boricua. They are changing the facades of many of the buildings to resemble structures from Old San Juan. They hope to create a "Little Puerto Rico" similar to other ethnic neighborhoods like Chicagos Chinatown and Greektown.
But with all the new developments, the leaders wanted to make sure they did not unintentional raise the prices of homes and push out seniors and lower income residents who have lived there for decades. With the citys financial district and downtown close by, gentrification was a growing concern.
So Latino leaders and housing advocates secured funding for new, low-to-moderate-income housing in the area.
Hispanic Housing, a non-profit developer, will build a five-story seniors building at the edge of the cultural stretch to serve residents. The Paseo Boricua Apartments will have 56 one-bedroom units, with about 625 square feet each, and be part of a mixed-use development that also will provide jobs.
Banco Popular, Puerto Ricos largest bank, recently announced a $3 million loan pilot initiative to pave the way for new businesses and homes.
The Puerto Rican resurgence is also being viewed as an important step in teaching the next generation of Chicago Puerto Ricans about the areas past. Few of the youths know much about their neighborhood or their roots.
With the help of the Puerto Rican government, Latino leaders in Chicago acquired a building near Paseo Boricua that will house the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture. Ocasio said they spent about $3.4 million to renovate the exterior of the building and another $3.2 million for the interior.
The facility is scheduled to open late this summer.
"If I cant teach my daughter one ounce of what it is to be a Puerto Rican, then I want her to have a place where she can
see if for herself," said Delgado. "Thats what Paseo Boricua representsa space where Puerto Ricans can come and feel at home."