An aldermanic attempt to anchor Puerto Rican culture in Humboldt Park and combat gentrification has been met with opposition from some residents.
Paseo Boricua –– the microcosm of the city’s Puerto Rican community along Division Street between Western Avenue and California Avenue –– is at the center of the feud.
A resolution by Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) that was adopted by the City Council in October extends the culturally-rich strip beyond California Avenue to Grand Avenue. The city also now recognizes that 1.6 mile stretch as “Puerto Rico Town.”
Maldonado’s resolution also seeks the Illinois General Assembly’s approval to designate Puerto Rico Town as a “special purpose” district. This designation, the resolution reads, would “allow for a process to involve the community in the prioritization and allocation of investments.”
Although the General Assembly’s approval is pending, a few residents, including business owner Kurt Gippert and his wife Maria Paula Cabrera, are apprehensive.
The couple created a petition against the designation and have sent it to Gov.-elect J.B. Pritzker. So far, they have collected 400 signatures in support of their petition.
Gippert said he and his wife have issues with the resolution because it was done quietly and without the input of residents.
“Renaming our neighborhood Puerto Rico Town or creating a cultural corridor, I don’t know, my wife and I don’t like it. But we understand what they are trying to do,” Gippert said. “With us, it is the way things are being done.”
Gippert said they think designating the area a special district will hinder economic growth in a neighborhood they believe has improved over the years. He also fears property taxes will increase, although the resolution does not mention the creation of a tax district like Special Service Areas that impose an additional costs on top of a homeowner’s property tax.
Gippert cited an episode of “Last Week Tonight with John Oliver,” in which the host examined how special districts across the country have taken advantage of local governments and operate with a lack of oversight.
“Every day I find out a little bit more about what a special district is, and the level of terror that it instills in me and other residents grow with each piece of information we learn,” Gippert said.
Maldonado could not be reached for comment.
But Cristina Pacione-Zayas, co-chair of the Puerto Rican Agenda that supports Maldonado’s efforts, said Gippert’s claims are unfounded. She also said Gippert and his wife are pandering to the newer population that is mostly white and that Gippert took Oliver’s episode on special districts out of context.
“When you add the layer of a special district, it provides you with some type of protection to be able to actually have some weight in directing funds to community-driven projects,” Pacione-Zayas said. “The whole concept of an ‘independent board that doesn’t have to answer to nobody,’ I don’t know where [Gippert] is getting that information from.”
More importantly, she said the designation would grant the community more leverage when it comes to using Tax Increment Financing funds for community-based projects.
Pacione-Zayas said the Puerto Rican Agenda –– a nonprofit group advocating for the local Puerto Rican community –– held many meetings about the issue with residents and business owners the last several years.
“The claim that it wasn’t a democratic process and the claims that it’s not the will of the community is just wrong,” Pacione-Zayas said. “Over the summer we had this big summit with over 300 people and community members were really participating and articulating this vision for anchoring the community.”
Manny Ramos is a corps member in Report for America, a not-for-profit journalism program that aims to bolster Sun-Times coverage of issues affecting Chicago’s South and West sides.