All too quiet on the western front

OPINION

(Tribune File photo )
May 09, 2012|By Hector Luis Alamo Jr., For RedEye

It wasn't supposed to be like this.

I used to be a city-dweller—taking public transportation to school, buying exotic ingredients at the open-air fruteria with my mom or grandma, living in a beautifully cramped neighborhood with huddled homes.

In my current suburban phase, I mostly drive to chain grocery stores to pick up the usual ingredients. I'm lucky if I can get my hands on a decent avocado. The bus swings past at God knows when. My neighborhood is green and contemptibly peaceful.

It's enough to give a person narcolepsy.

When people ask where I'm from, I grudgingly tell them I live in the west suburbs, adding, in a rush of desperation, "but I'm originally from Humboldt Park."

It's tough out there for an exiled Chicagoan, a prison sentence anyone who truly loves the city hopes is only temporary. I will always consider myself a Chicagoan, though my address hasn't contained a Chicago ZIP code in more than 15 years.

People bad-mouth the old neighborhood, especially in the 'burbs. My wife, a lifelong suburbanite, views my childhood stomping grounds as only slightly more habitable than the wilds of Jumanji.

Few friends like to go with me to—or even through—HP, taking in Division Street. After dark, Humboldt Park might as well be the Bermuda Triangle, where all maps warn: "HERE BE MONSTERS."

Admittedly, the neighborhood they describe really did exist. It's the neighborhood I grew up in, the same one my mom was raised in—a Puerto Rican enclave plagued by drugs, violence and gang life. It's what made Mom transplant her kids to the suburbs. There was all of that, but there also was culture—sights and sounds you couldn't get in any other part of the city. There still is culture.

And a lot has changed since then, for better or worse, depending on whom you ask. But there are new places like Cafe con Leche, the Institute of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, Batey Urbano—features highlighting the neighborhood's culture (how often can you say that about a neighborhood?) and bringing with them a new surge of vibrancy. Humboldt Park is more alive than ever.

Not to mention that HP is carved into one of the greatest cities in the world, a place that traveling chef Anthony Bourdain called "the only other real city in America" outside New York. And we're not just talking the beloved Bean at Millennium Park.

There are unique, thriving neighborhoods wherever you go in this city—too many to name, in fact. Whenever you're in the city, you swear you feel it churning beneath your feet and all around. You hear Carl Sandburg in your head, or maybe it's Frank Sinatra singing over a brass band. Chicago is a party.

At my core, I'm a Chicagoan. Still, each moment I spend in the city is fleeting, a brief foray capped by a shameless retreat back to some yawning outpost.

But it wasn't supposed to be like this. I'm a Chicagoan, trying to remain a Chicagoan while in exile, on the wrong side of Harlem Avenue, outside the party, looking in.

HECTOR LUIS ALAMO JR. IS A REDEYE SPECIAL CONTRIBUTOR.

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