‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Gage Park

Chicago’s Gage Park neighborhood sits in two ZIP codes that have seen some of the highest number of COVID-19 cases in the city. 

The community is located on Chicago’s Southwest Side, where the Hispanic Latino population has skyrocketed over the past few decades. 

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According to city and census data in 1990, Gage Park was 40% Hispanic Latino. Now, it's 92%. And many of the neighborhood’s residents are immigrants. 

At the Frida Kahlo Community Organization, Natividad Hernandez is devoted to working with immigrants – those here legally and undocumented alike – to access benefits. 

But she says that’s been difficult throughout the pandemic.

“In the pandemic everything has changed,” she said. “Nothing is the same. And now, because immigration has been working very slow, people (are) just getting afraid of losing benefits.” 

Hernandez says one of the reasons there are so many COVID-19 cases in the area is because of a lack of information – something she’s working to change. 

She tells clients they can get tested for the coronavirus for free, and they don’t need to worry about their names or information being shared with immigration enforcement. 

Video: Our full interview with Antonio Santos, of the Gage Park Latinx Council.

Leaders of the Southwest Collective say another reason for the large case count is that many residents live in multi-family units, and it’s hard to stay socially-distant when generations, or neighbors, share a kitchen or laundry space. 

The Southwest Collective is a nonprofit that formed last year that promotes and helps businesses in all of the neighborhoods surrounding Midway Airport.  

Founder Jaime Groth Searle says it’s always been hard for businesses to compete against giants like Amazon. 

But a new issue has popped up. She says bars, salons and stores are having a hard time enforcing COVID-19 guidelines with wary customers. 

“They don’t want to turn away business, so they’re caught in this Catch-22 of like, I’ve tried to enforce it, you need to wear a mask,” Searle said. “And folks really get mad, and they walk out … and when you’re small and local …you can’t afford an angry review on Yelp, or you can’t afford someone to walk out who is a regular.” 

She says the collective is working to advise businesses on what they can do if they do get a bad online review, and how they can post helpful signs. 

Another small business in the neighborhood is Grecia’s Bakery on 51st Street, where nearly everything is made from scratch using owner Maria Ortega’s father's recipes.

Like many Mexican bakeries, Grecia's is self-serve. Ortega says they’ve always sterilized the tongs and trays after each use. 

Despite the coronavirus, she wants to keep that up to preserve authenticity. But now customers are asked to social distance, and to wear disposable gloves and to use hand sanitizer.

Ortega says despite the increased costs, she’s made a point of keeping prices low because she knows some of her customers can’t afford to pay more. 

“We have a lot of customers that come on a daily basis, established clientele with them. They come to us with their family problems, right now the unemployment … and we’re with them, we understand that,” Ortega said. 

Ortega says the bakery’s business actually increased at the start of the pandemic. She used Facebook and Instagram to get the community’s attention. But business has now begun to slow. 

Video: Our full interview with Chicago Lithuanian Center Chairman Antanas Rasymas.

One group that’s been organizing pandemic relief efforts in the neighborhood is the Gage Park Latinx Council, formed in 2018. 

Director and cofounder Antonio Santos says neighborhood residents have been struggling to pay rent and put food on the table, and his group hopes to ease some of the burden — including for undocumented people. 

“We’ve organized a mutual aid effort for undocumented families,” he said. “Despite paying taxes, undocumented folks are not eligible for any kind of federal assistance, so that includes food stamps and unemployment, things like that.” 

Another staple in Gage Park is the Chicago Lithuanian Center. 

The Center runs a school on Saturday mornings for kids and teenagers, teaching them Lithuanian culture and customs. 

Their major revenue comes from renting out their various spaces and halls, which has dried up since the center closed in March. 

But the organization’s chairman Antanas Rasymas is optimistic the center will make it through, and continue serving as a home for the region’s large Lithuanian diaspora. 

“[We’re] very headstrong on keeping the center open and alive, for future generations,” he said. 

Community Reporting Series

“Chicago Tonight” is expanding its community reporting. We’re hitting the streets to speak with your neighbors, local businesses, agencies and leaders about COVID-19, the economy, racial justice, education and more. See where we’ve been and what we’ve learned by using the map below. Or select a community using the drop-down menu. Points in red represent our series COVID-19 Across Chicago; blue marks our series “Chicago Tonight” in Your Neighborhood.

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