“I am going to have a VERY hard time being at the Ciclo Urbano event if the No Se Vende people are talking about wanting white people to get the hell out in front of my children and waving Puerto Rican flags in our faces, ” wrote a new resident of Humboldt Park in an e-mail to the head of West Town Bikes on April 23.
Thus began a comedic fiasco well deserving of the title given to this commentary. But here is some background information first.
Humboldt Park (Chicago), in the last few years, is a community where homes, full of memories, are bulldozed and gutted, where families are pushed away by ridiculous increases in rent and harassment by greedy developers and city inspectors, and age-old murals are covered-up.
It is in this current reality that West Town Bikes, which is a mostly white-owned and frequented bike shop in Humboldt Park, decided to open-up a shop on Paseo Boricua. And with surprise of some, all this took place with the strong support of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center (PRCC). Why, you must be thinking, would an organization like the PRCC, which has been a leader in promoting and maintaing a Boricua cultural and business corridor along Division Street, facilitate this business' arrival here? Isn't biking like a poor yuppie's form of Starbucks coffee?
Well, one of the answers is because Puerto Ricans bike too! Puerto Ricans in Humboldt Park also have huge health disparities, which has pushed-up the rates of diabetes, obesity, and cancer. The PRCC also has programs like CO-OP Humboldt Park and Muévete, which work on the issues of health, including promoting physical activity. And most importantly, it is because being pro-Puerto Rican does not mean being anti-white or anti-new resident.
Those Paseo Boricua flags are gates of welcoming and gates of dialogue. West Town bikes respected what the Puerto Rican community has worked so hard to create on Division Street and decided to join the dialogue with its new shop, Ciclo Urbano. They also planned to celebrate this new relationship by organizing a large procession from their old location with the PRCC's Humboldt Park NO SE VENDE! Campaign (HPNSV). However, not all new residents, including the one who sent the e-mail, is as respectful or understanding of all this.
The e-mail's author (who I will call “angry neighbor,” since her personal identity is insignificant, but her actions is representative of a greater problem) also complained that HPNSV practiced “reverse racism” and had a “nationalist platform.” The angry neighbor made it a point to proudly claim that she was white, despite the fact she is “half hispanic” (her words), as a way to connect with the head of West Town Bikes. To sum it up, the e-mail's tone was along the lines of “we need to do something about these Puerto Ricans.” West Town Bikes did not buy it and we all enjoyed a procession on May 1 that included over 200 people.
Sadly, divisive tactics like those of angry neighbor is something that will only further destroy all the work that people have put into developing Paseo Boricua. There is an ever present sense of “yuppie isolationism,” where many angry new residents, longing for another Bucktown, seek to replace Paseo Boricua with their own visions of community instead of working with the community.
In the “city of neighborhoods” - a slogan that emerges from a horrendous history of racism and urban segregation – one can explore the world in only a few miles and a few minutes. In this global city one can find Pilsen, where México lurks in old Czech architecture and Bronzeville, the historic center of the “Black Metropolis.” One could also hear the loud sounds of Café Colao coffee brewing behind its counter, snapping its customers back home.
Once I gave a tour of this community to a group of young basketball players from Puerto Rico, who never stepped foot outside the island. While I explained the meaning of some murals and pointed to the iron emblems detailing symbols of Boricua culture on the light poles, I overheard whispers of excitement: “Wow, I feel like I'm in Puerto Rico, I feel like I'm home.”
The communities that I mentioned suffers from stains of ghettoization, places where people of color were forced to occupy, but are beginning to experience cultural and economic rebirth - development from the vision of its longtime residents. Sadly, Chicago, like most U.S. cities, is on a path of Disneyland cookie-cutter dreams– a metropolis of Lincoln and Wicker Parks for miles and miles. Like Pilsen and Bronzeville, Paseo Boricua and all of Humboldt Park, is in the path of the slow-moving bulldozer called gentrification. Our destruction will only please people like the angry neighbor and that is why we cannot let it happen anymore.
Originally published the column "Fíjate" in the May edition of La Voz del Paseo Boricua newspaper