Eduardo Arocho on Division Street
Brilliant, warming sunshine. Gurgling breeze.
Alexander von Humboldt looks westward out over the park, and the gathering morning clouds.
He stares from his perch, where he has stood for well over 100 years in the park that took his name.
Long ago the park became a magnet, drawing together communities that came and thrived, and then flew away to other places, leaving behind physical remnants or scattered families and countless told stories. But it also been an anchor for another for others who clung and still cling to it.
It’s Chicago’s story told again and again.
The story of community names and buildings that have become relics of different times and peoples. Synagogues that became churches that became meeting halls. Buildings carved by craftsmen that left their mark and signature behind.
It’s the story of a city stamped by waves of immigrants, pushed by race, religion, ethnicity and, often times, money.
Scrape away the names on mailboxes in some Chicago neighborhoods and you instantly have a snapshot of the city’s immigrant DNA.
The story explains why we speak at least 70 languages and if you added up all the spices added to family barbecues across the city on a summer day you would taste the world.
We are standing next to Nicole Dombrowski of the DANK-Haus German American Cultural Center,who explains Alexander von Humboldt’s history and why this vast green stretch on Chicago’s West Side has such strong German roots.
He was a German explorer of the late 19th century. Germans were living in the area that today is Humboldt Park, and they thought that naming the new park on Chicago’s West Side for him would be a good idea.The vast greenery also gave the city a new set of lungs.
We are walking through the park on a tour set up by the Chicago Cultural Alliance, a group that links 34 ethnic museums and community centers. We hear about how the Germans and then the Poles and now the Puerto Ricans have called the Humboldt Park community their home. There have been others, too, but these communities have loomed large here.
As we walk on, Grace Bazylewski of the Polish Museum of America, whose parents were immigrants after World War Two, tells us about the Polish parades she went to as a child, and the Polish storekeepers and the Polish organizations that flourished.
Eduardo Arocho steps forward. It’s his turn now.
His parents came to the mainland from Puerto Rico in 1948 and he grew up on a house looking out over Humboldt Park. We meander one by Puerto Rican community organization after another, passing, for example, the Puerto Rican Parade Committee of Chicago, and down onto Division, pass the cafes and restaurants that Arocho says is the tightest collection of Puerto Rican restaurants on the mainland. We take note that the jibarito sandwich is a unique Chicago invention, substituting layers of fried bananas for bread, and solemnly vow to return to indulge.
He knows its challenges, and one of the biggest, he says, is the declining number of Puerto Ricans and the arrival of others, especially those turning the old houses and storefronts into more upscale, more costly versions of their old selves.
Leaving the storefronts and on the way back to the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture, a stunning rehabilitation of the park’s 100-year-old stables and one-time offices for the park, Arocho is adamant that his community will not move on. Not with the new museum opening this fall. Not with all the work of his and other organizations.
“I don’t believe that gentrification is the natural course of the city,” he says. “The community that was here will stay here.”
Blazing sunshine. Radiating breezes.
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Tags: chicago, Chicago Cultural Alliance, Chicago's Ethnic Heritage, DANK-Haus German American Cultural Center, Division Street Business Development Association, Experience Chicago, Humboldt Park's immigrant roots, Immigrant history of Chicago, National Museum of Puerto Rican Art and Culture, Paseo Boricua, Polish Museum of America, Puerto Ricans in Chicago