Made in Humboldt Park

Residents and community organizers in a race against violence and poverty

  • Felix Rodriguez works with the New Saints of Humboldt Park, an at-risk youth group.
Felix Rodriguez works with the New Saints of Humboldt Park, an at-risk youth… (Lenny Gilmore/RedEye )
February 28, 2012|By Tracy Swartz, RedEye

Humboldt Park is no stranger to foot traffic, but for an hour on April 21 all the steps will be in the right direction.

That's when the Earth Day 5K is expected to draw hundreds of runners to the West Side park. Sure, there are dozens of road races in Chicago each year, but most showcase the lakefront and the North Side—not neighborhoods that have fallen on such hard times as Humboldt Park.

The race, which loops through the park, was the brainchild of native Roberto Chavez and his brother Carlos five years ago.

"We thought it would be a great way to get people out in the neighborhood," said Roberto Chavez, 37. "We want to promote this is as a safe place as opposed to homicide, gangs and drugs and people on probation."

Humboldt Park is moving forward, but it hasn't won the race against violence and poverty. The community area has logged 120 homicides in the past five years—the second-highest number and 10th-highest rate of any other community area, a RedEye analysis of police data found.

The tension over the perception of Humboldt Park as a violent community came to a head last week when the owner of TipsyCake bakery sparked outrage among residents for saying that constant gunplay in Humboldt Park is what caused her to move her bakery to Bucktown.

Community residents and activists describe a neighborhood, a longtime Puerto Rican mainstay, that is plagued by job loss, gang wars and gentrification. But new community groups hope to combat these problems by providing youth with outlets beyond violence.

"There's a lot more positive happening today than there was 10 years ago," said Dan Valliere, executive director for Chicago Commons, which offers youth leadership development programs in West Humboldt Park. "More recently, the past five years, a number of organizations have been coming in and opening up great things. The neighborhood is hopefully started turning around."

Once a month for the past year and a half, a coalition of Humboldt Park groups including Chicago Commons has come together to focus on "creating an environment that's conducive to education," Valliere said.

One of the group's goals is to put fresh food at the front of neighborhood convenience stores and liquor in the back. Another is to improve safety.

"Whereas it used to be the homicides and the negative activity and there wasn't much positive to balance it, now there's more positive events," Valliere said. "Hopefully the next generation, we'll start to see the payoff."

In the meantime, foreclosures and resident exodus continue to hit the community area, which the city defines as the area bordered by Bloomingdale Avenue, Governors Parkway, Kenton Avenue and Kedzie Avenue. A portion of the community area below Humboldt Park extends east to Rockwell Street.

Homicides span these borders. The community area has logged more than 20 homicides each year for the past five years, often placing it among the community areas with the most homicides.

Men in their early 20s are Humboldt Park's typical victims.

There are pockets with more deaths than others, such as Kedvale Park at Hirsch Street and Kedvale Avenue, where statistics show a concentration. The park itself is well manicured, save for a torn soccer net or two. But it's the homes nearby that may yield more answers.

The area had a 39 percent foreclosure rate last year, among the highest in the city, according to blockshopper.com, a homebuying website.

The neighborhood and eight others were selected last year to be part of a new Mayor Emanuel initiative to lower foreclosure rates by fostering partnerships with banks and community groups to assist homeowners at risk of property loss.

Residents also have been leaving. Nearly 15 percent of the neighborhood moved out from 2000 to 2010, according to Census numbers. The community is down to 56,300 residents from 65,800 in 2000.

Both the Hispanic and black populations saw declines, while the non-Hispanic white population saw a bump from 2000 to 2010.

What hasn't changed about the neighborhood is the persistence of violence. Felix "Gato" Rodriguez, 39, blames the violent crime on the lack of safe places for youth to go.

Rodriguez was born and raised in Humboldt Park and has never left the community, though he said he's had the opportunity.

He said the Puerto Rican culture of the neighborhood—especially the food—has encouraged him to stay put. But he doesn't like the direction his neighborhood has taken.

Outsiders are displacing the older Puerto Ricans, some of whom he has depended on for advice. The number of jobs in his neighborhood is decreasing. Gangs are jockeying for territory.

"A lot of these wars are happening because people are robbing each other. They have no money to pay their bills. They have no money to support their kids," said Rodriguez, a former Spanish Cobra gang member who now works with the New Saints of Humboldt Park, a local group that aids at-risk youth.

Still, Rodriguez said he's optimistic that eventually the neighborhood will turn around if the community works together to develop economic and education opportunities.

"We need more leaders, and followers is what we have," Rodriguez said. "We have too many followers."

Neighborhood news

Want to get involved? RedEye rounded up a few Humboldt Park community service groups.

Art Kidz, formerly Graffiti Zone

artkidz.org

The community arts program hosts shows of students' work

Bickerdike Redevelopment

bickerdike.org

The organization, at 2550 W. North Ave., community plans affordable housing projects in Hermosa, Humboldt Park and Logan Square.

Chicago Commons

chicagocommons.org

The organization, formed in 1995, runs the Nia Family Center, which offers daycare and after-school programs at 744 N. Monticello Ave.

Youth Service Project

youthserviceproject.org

The group, located at 3942 W. North Ave., offers arts and culture and crisis intervention programs.

tswartz@tribune.com | @tracyswartz

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