‘Chicago Tonight’ in Your Neighborhood: Humboldt Park Works to Maintain Local Culture

La Casita de Don Pedro is one of many parts of Humboldt Park that reminds people of the neighborhood’s deep Puerto Rican roots. Maintaining that culture is something advocates have been focused on.

Walking down Division Street, pedestrians will pass nine sidewalk murals painted by local artists. The idea is to create public art and embellish the neighborhood, but with Puerto Rican art, in particular, as gentrification steadily creeps in.

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Artist Cristian Roldán led the effort and recruited other artists. He says after living in Humboldt Park for seven years, he’s definitely noticed some changes in social norms.

“Recently, people used to go to the park to play music on cars, put the speakers out,” Roldán said. “Now you have signs this year that say ‘no loud music.’ It’s part of the changes in how people behave in this neighborhood, how they enjoy themselves. Things we’re used to doing, ways to relax, now they’re forbidden.”

For the sidewalk murals, Roldán partnered with the city’s Alfresco Initiative to create inviting spaces for outdoor dining.

Roldán describes them as rugs that invite you into your home.

“That is what gives meaning to public art,” he said. “The different types of ways of looking at the art work. That’s how it becomes part of collective aesthetics. From all of those different ideas, it builds dialogues, conversations.”

Recently, conversation has also been centering around the famous Paseo Boricua steel flags, which have been pillars in the community since they were erected in 1995.

The Chicago Landmarks Commission voted for a “preliminary landmark recommendation” for the Paseo Boricua gateway flags in early April.

Jose Lopez, executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, was one of the original community leaders who pushed for the flags to be built.

“They commemorate the first migration of Puerto Ricans that came to Chicago to work on the pipelines,” Lopez said. “It really memorializes the Puerto Rican presence in Chicago and in our country.”

Lopez said that come September, the City Council will formally vote on it, and a large celebration in the neighborhood will commence.

Video: Jose Lopez, executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, on the cultural legacy and history of the Humboldt Park community.

Another change the neighborhood has experienced is the lack of enough access to quality food.

The local alderman says Humboldt Park is in fact a food desert.

“It has been acknowledged as a food desert for many years,” Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th Ward) said. “People have to take their cars and go to Target or go to other fairly large markets in the area. If you don’t find what you’re looking for at those locations, nothing compares to what we are going to have and see at the future Central Park Foods expansion.”

He’s referring to the future home of Central Park Foods: the former CVS pharmacy on Division and Grand has been empty for 12 years. Before it was a CVS, it was a Jewel Osco grocery store.

The grocer is expanding from a much smaller original location just across the street. At the current location, shoppers can access fresh produce, but the owner Jimmy Bousis says it’s too small and time to move up to this bigger location.

“My vision is to serve the community better,” Bousis said. “I started my business in the early ‘80s. The store I'm at now is really small, and I cannot really serve the community and give them what they need. My dream was always to come here, to a bigger store, to serve the community and say thank you for your support all these years.”

For Bousis, that’s a dream that started back in 1987 when he first opened the small shop across the street, his first grocery store of many in the Chicago area.

He started it knowing nothing about running a grocery store at the time, but, today, he owns 10 stores in Chicago, and his son owns five Cermak Fresh Market locations.

Bousis says he’s investing $7 million into this new 35,000-square-foot location and hopes to open this as a full-service grocery store by November.

Video: Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th Ward) discusses the Humboldt Park community’s access to healthy foods and what makes the neighborhood special.

Another change in this neighborhood has been the area hospital.

Early last year, Norwegian American hospital changed its name to Humboldt Park Health.

Chief Medical Officer Dr. Abha Agrawal says that’s in response to what was happening: the pandemic illuminated health inequities like never before.

The name now reflects the Humboldt Park community, but also the goals of the hospital which is to provide more wellness, rather than just serving acute medical needs.

The hospital treats a great deal of chronic illnesses like diabetes and high blood pressure, but also a large number of patients with mental health needs, as well as a younger and LGBTQ population.

“The social determinants of health determine 30 to 40% of our health, rather I would say only 10% of the health outcomes are impacted directly by what we do inside the hospital,” Agrawal said. “It’s imperative for us to address social determinants of health.”

To that end, the hospital is planning to break ground in the next few weeks on a brand-new state of the art wellness center on Division between Richmond and Sacramento.

A rendering of the planned Humboldt Park Health Wellness Center. (Courtesy: Humboldt Park Health)A rendering of the planned Humboldt Park Health Wellness Center. (Courtesy: Humboldt Park Health)

It’ll include a walking track, fitness facilities, a pool and spaces for physical therapy and community gatherings.

“It’s a landmark building we anticipate it to be,” she added. “It will change the whole makeup of this neighborhood to say yes, Humboldt Park can have a beautiful building that will advance health in Humboldt Park.”

Agrawal says that's just phase one of a broader Wellness District Plan. They hope to bring in more affordable housing, also a social determinant of health, in phase two.

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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