Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, overwhelmingly working-class and 130,000 strong, is concentrated in several neighborhoods on the Northwest Side of the city. All are major battlegrounds in today’s struggle to preserve and expand affordable housing.

According to the theories of Robert Ezra Park, there is such a thing as “ethnic succession” where neighborhoods ringing a city’s commercial district attract newly-arrived immigrants because, among other things, they are characterized by inexpensive rental housing. As each group of immigrants “moves up” economically, it also “moves out,” to be replaced by a new group of lower-income immigrants.

Chicago’s Puerto Rican community, which began to grow rapidly in the 1950s, fits this pattern, with West Town, an old Polish immigrant area, becoming the preferred site of settlement by Puerto Rican immigrants. A second focus was Lincoln Park, north of the downtown “Loop.”

By the 1960s, West Town and Lincoln Park were distinctively “Boricua” neighborhoods, with the usual network of religious, social and political institutions. Both areas were home to militant organizations fighting for the rights of Puerto Rican immigrants as well as the cause of Puerto Rican independence.

Eventually, racist police abuse led to the 1966 “Division Street Rebellion.” Since then the police department’s “Red Squad” and the FBI worked overtime to destabilize the Puerto Rican community through infiltration, provocations and red baiting.

In the early 1970s Mayor Richard J. Daley developed the Chicago 21 Plan, a redevelopment project the sole purpose of which was to disperse concentrations of low-income and minority people who might represent a political challenge to the ruling elites of the city. Coincidentally, the plan also provided new opportunities for profiteering by the real estate, development and financial interests that are the main bulwarks of the Cook County “machine.”

Chicago 21 slated the removal of entire ethnic neighborhoods, to be replaced by upscale housing and shopping districts designed to attract higher-income, and mostly white, people “back into the city.” Among the first targets was Lincoln Park, which became a hotbed of “gentrification.”

Real estate developers, supported by the city’s political leadership, began to buy up working-class housing and remodel it for rental or sale to a more affluent clientele, thereby driving up housing and driving low-income people elsewhere.

Housing activists in the area point out that, in many cases, rents for two-bedroom apartments have jumped from $400 per month to more than $1,000, in three or four years, due to real estate speculation/gentrification and the lack of new affordable housing construction.

Soon, not a single Puerto Rican institution was left and the vast majority of Puerto Rican people had been driven out. Today many are incredulous when told the history of the Puerto Rican barrio in Lincoln Park, now one of the wealthiest and trendiest – and whitest – areas in the city

Today, Puerto Ricans in West Town-Humboldt Park-Logan Square communities have become the front line in the battle to preserve affordable housing. Since the Republican Party is a non-entity in Chicago, speculators and developers have worked through Mayor Richard M. Daley and his allies, in order to get control of affordable housing units and empty lots that can be turned into expensive condominiums.

In an effort to resist this trend, several Puerto Rican social, political and cultural institutions, together with organizations representing Mexican immigrants, have allied themselves with not-for-profit agencies specializing in the construction or re-habilitation of affordable housing. Allied with these forces have been Rep. Luis Gutierrez (D-Ill.), County Commissioner Roberto Maldonado, State Senator Miguel Del Valle, State Representatives Willie Delgado and Cynthia Soto and Alderman Billy Ocasio, representatives of the liberal, independent wing of the Democratic Party.

Some not-for-profit institutions such as Bickerdike Redevelopment and Erie Neighborhood House have worked to create affordable housing, with an ambitious plan for local low-cost home ownership, only to be thwarted by the machinations of the Daley-allied politicians who blocked the proposal while pocketing hefty campaign contributions. However community groups in the area have managed to bring in some scattered site pubic housing in spite of ferocious “NIMBY” (not in my back yard) opposition.

Community activists charge that the Chicago police have worked along with this gentrification dynamic by harassing Puerto Rican and other poor and minority families. However, there is a determination to stay and fight. Just west of Clemente High, there is a strip of Division Street, bordered on either end by huge sculptures of the Puerto Rican flag. Many – and not only Puerto Rican people – see these giant flags as a line in the sand for a last-ditch fight for an affordable, livable neighborhood and a rebuff to the plans of the wealthy developers.

The author can be reached at pww@pww.org

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