The smell of home filled the restaurant and the animated laughter of strangers gives a feel of community. Humboldt Park is not the homogeneous community it used to be but it has shown growth over the years and is now a great mix of people from all types of cultural backgrounds.
While the Latin Kings street gang used to rule the streets of this community, which was predominantly Puerto Rican, there was still a distinct feeling of Puerto Rican heritage. The community’s growth has brought positive changes to the neighborhood, like safety and higher home values as well as a new mix of events and activities, but residents say they see parts of the community’s Puerto Rican culture slipping away.
The Old Neighborhood
Ponce is a neighborhood restaurant on West Fullerton Avenue that serves authentic Puerto Rican dishes to residents like Jorge Flores, a Chicago resident who has lived in the Humboldt Park area for more than 30 years.
Flores sat with his father, nephew, and two kids and reminisced about what Humboldt Park used to be like. Flores described a more family-oriented area that held events that were about people, not money.
“Back in the 70s and 80s they were doing it for the people, now people are doing it for the love of money,” he said. “The public should do it for the kids if they aren’t going to do it for the people.”
Flores said when Humboldt Park had a predominantly Puerto Rican population it was friendly, people spoke to one another casually and generally enjoyed each other’s time. With the entrance of different cultures, Flores said, that feeling has changed.
“For Caucasians it was I don’t know you, you don’t know me and that was that, and for the African-Americans it was I don’t want to know you. As for the Puerto Ricans we had laughter and conversation, and if you saw a Puerto Rican in a restaurant you would say buen provechó,” Flores said, which translates to bon appétit.
The “New” Humboldt Park
Humboldt Park has been undergoing a transformation, with renovations of apartment complexes, new people in the community from different cultures moving in and businesses that were once staples in the community, closing their doors.
The culture shift can be seen clearly in the changing nature of the Puerto Rican Parade, which takes place every year at the end of June in Humboldt Park.
In the past there were no gates to block anyone and people would drive through the park shouting “boricua” while honking their horns. Once the city became more strict, the parade became shorter, gates were put up around the park and funding decrease, making it more difficult to organize and promote. There are fewer people going to the parade, which takes a toll on what the festival is all about.
Not everyone sees these changes as a bad thing and many members of the community enjoy seeing the city’s improvements and the neighborhood’s reinvention.
Guillermo Hernandez, a retired factory worker, said having the many different cultures all mixed in “Como un sopa” (like a soup) has helped reduce previous racial conflicts within the community.
“I like to see everyone interacting with each other and not have to worry about the color of their skin, sure we still have racism but it’s not as bad as it once was,” Hernandez said. “Everyone had to worry about which turf they were stepping over, and now no one has to worry about those kind of things.”
Leo Washington, a longtime friend of Hernandez, said being part of the neighborhood’s revitalization is reassuring and will make community more presentable.
“I knew one day this part of Chicago would see the light and get some good exposure to the rest of the city, but I never expected it to be so great,” he said.
“Humboldt Park is now home to young families of mixed races and backgrounds. Even though some people were forced to move out because of higher prices, it’s still a good thing in general,” Washington said.
The growing community gives hope to those who have stayed even as the neighborhood has become more expensive. They are excited about the beautiful things the area has to offer, whether it be the famous Latino restaurants and food trucks or the community’s annual events.
Even if most of the Puerto Ricans who once lived there have moved away, the spirit of the Puerto Rican culture remains with the people of Humboldt Park.