Memories of Chicago’s Northwest Side

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[Photo: Laser Burners, Flickr]

The first time I realized my neighborhood was being gentrified was when an apartment building on Erie and Noble Streets in Chicago’s Northwest side was being rehabbed and turned into condos. That was in the middle of the ’90s.

After that all the empty lots were re-zoned by then-Alderman Jessie Granato without the residents being notified. Cookie-cutter condos started to pop up all over.

I both lived in the neighborhood on Huron and Racine Streets and was a teacher assistant at Columbus Elementary School on Augusta Boulevard and Leavitt Street. I lived there since 1958 when my mother moved us to Chicago. I was twelve-years-old.

When we arrived we moved to 716. North Throop Street. A Puerto Rican couple had purchased the building and were renting to Puerto Ricans. Other Puerto Ricans had purchased property and rented to Puerto Ricans as well. We were not welcome in many other areas in the city.

I attended Carpenter Elementary on Erie and Racine and then Wells High School for two years. I did not finish high school, but later I got my G.E.D. I married and raised my children in the same neighborhood and the same house I bought in 1986.

For many years the neighborhood was neglected by the city and the police. We called the police at times, but they never came. Gangs ruled but I stayed and and loved my neighborhood. I was an activist with the former Northwest Community Organization (NCO). We had many victories, including issues of affordable housing and energy assistance; we won many battles against the public schools and the Chicago Park District. I was also involved with Cynthia Soto’s political campaign against Edgar López and with Rep. Luis Gutiérrez against Marty Castro.

Then it became a nightmare. I felt the gentrification process with skyrocketing property taxes. Our longtime residents were being displaced by the increase and sold their properties. Real estate agents were like vultures! Some residents were being harassed by city inspectors and given fines worth hundreds of dollars. They too were forced to sell. These were working poor families.

Now the police came around and harassed the youth, even the ones who were not in any gangs. Then came Chicago’s Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS), which was created to help the gentrifiers intimidate longtime residents. It made me sick every time I attended a CAPS meeting just to hear the yuppies’ complaints. Police never listened to us – the longtime residents – now they had monthly meeting to ease the gentrifiers into the neighborhood.

I once remember walking into Jewel Grocery on Ashland and Division Streets and being shocked at the change. Better products, bigger selections. A complete make over. Jewel was there for over thirty years but now it became a better grocery store for the newcomers.

All the neighborhood schools, about eleven of them within the boundaries of Western to Ogden Avenues (east and west) and North and Grand Avenues (north and south) were all overcrowded with mostly Puerto Rican children. The crowding was “solved” by bringing mobile units or “Willis Wagons” to most of these schools. Columbus School had four of them. Classes were held in closets, hallways, etc. Our classrooms had holes in the walls. The school yard was full of craters. Our mobile units smelled so bad and were constantly broken into. Once, when the teacher left the key the community went in during the weekend and painted the classroom. I was there for over twenty years and the classrooms were never painted.

When neighborhood families began to move I made it a point to ask the parents “why?” It wasn’t only the new construction. All the buildings where our students lived were being sold. The families were told to move and if they tried to stay their rents would go up by $300 or $400 dollars. Again, these were working poor families! All the eleven schools in the area started to lose enrollment. All those families who were displaced moved west towards the Brickyard Mall where rents were cheaper, but then those schools became over crowded…

That is when the busing started.

The Chicago School Board’s solution was to bus those kids back into the neighborhood they had just moved out of, where they could no longer afford to live. Columbus received four busses daily full of kids from three or four different schools. Some schools sent out seven to eight buses. We had kindergarden kids waiting in front of their home schools in the middle of winter to be bussed back to their old neighborhood. That made me the angriest.

The neighborhood is now gentrified. Take a drive pass Columbus on Augusta Boulevard and Leavitt Street across from my house on Huron and Racine and you will see Carpenter, the grammar school I attended. Go and take a look at the school yards – they have beautiful playgrounds, the building inside is nice and well kept. That did not happen until the neighborhood changed.

The saddest part is that the school ground at Eckhart Park on Chicago Avenue and Ada Street are now full of dogs and very few children. The smell of urine and dog crap is overwhelming.

The newcomers don’t want to meet the old residents, they just move in with the hope of selling in a year or two and make money. That is what destroyed my neighborhood, among many.


Maria Esther Ortíz Martínez was born in San Juan, Puerto Rico in 1946. Before she retired ten years ago she was a part of the Affordable Housing Committee at Bickerdike Redevelopment Corporation. With that committee they were able to get the Harold Washington Co-op building. She now spends her time between Puerto Rico and Chicago. In Puerto Rico she is a volunteer in the Free Oscar López campaign. Twice a week she goes with her friend Evelyn Velázquez into different areas of Santurce and take sandwiches, snacks and clothing they collect from friends and family to mostly homeless addicts. She also enjoys the beach and attends different kinds of cultural activities all over the island.

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