Humboldt Park claims a distinction that no other urban neighborhood shares: It is believed to be home to the oldest surviving outdoor community murals in the nation.
The three murals date to 1971, during the early years of the Chicago-born contemporary or community mural movement, which had been launched in 1967 with the creation of the “Wall of Respect” in Bronzeville by a group of Black artists and activists. The movement soon spread across the country.
As they mark their 50th anniversary, these classic Humboldt Park / West Town street murals resist being labeled aging relics from a bygone activist era. Though they largely depict events and issues that were current at the time, the murals remain relevant, reflecting the hopes and struggles, heritage and resistance, of the Puerto Rican community — and of the community at large.
“For me, what was interesting about the murals was their social messages,” says José López, executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. “They speak to issues that impacted directly on the community, like housing, police brutality — all the issues that we continue to address today.”
Each of these “people’s art” landmarks has been restored at least twice over the decades, according to artists and organizers, a sign of how meaningful they are to their neighborhoods. They also show how outdoor murals can act as markers of public memory.
“My belief is the three murals done that summer are the oldest community murals surviving in the country, not just the city,” John Pitman Weber says.
As co-founder of the Chicago Mural Group coalition in 1971, he worked with grassroots organizations and led neighborhood residents working on two of the murals: “Breaking the Chains” at Rockwell and LeMoyne streets and “Together We Overcome” at Division Street and Hoyne Avenue. This is actually West Town, in an area that was predominantly Puerto Rican at the time.
The other mural is “The Crucifixion of Don Pedro Albizu Campos,” painted by the Puerto Rican Art Association — José Bermudez, Mario Galán and Héctor Rosario — at North and Artesian avenues. This mural shows persecuted 1950s Nationalist Party figures on crosses and advocates for island independence.
Yet mural expert Eduardo Arocho says the wall has “transcended its original meaning to represent Humboldt Park.”
Arocho has led neighborhood and mural tours for over 20 years. As a former longtime director of the Division Street Business Development Association, he also helped commission newer murals and street pieces along the Paseo Boricua, the six-block stretch of Division Street between Western and Sacramento avenues that includes the monumental steel Puerto Rican flags.
“Murals are the best way to tell the story of our community,” says Arocho, who recently launched his own Paseo Boricua Tour Company. “A lot of our experiences are not in books.”
The artworks were created as part of the same Chicago Mural Group summer program, with the help of federal funding and local organizations as sponsors. The murals’ content was discussed through a series of “open community meetings,” says Weber, then an art professor at Elmhurst College, who is one of the nation’s most influential muralists.
Weber and a racially mixed group of youths worked at the flashpoint of tension when they painted “Together We Overcome” on the side of a Puerto Rican-owned business along a once-derelict stretch of Division Street. The mural chronicled Black, Latino and white gang conflicts in the area, reflecting larger racial divisions. The scene is resolved by a unity march and a brotherhood clasp of Black and Brown hands.
Three years later, in 1974, Weber added images of a coffin. That’s a reference to Association House youth worker Orlando Quintana, who was shot and killed nearby by an off-duty cop the previous year, sparking anti-police brutality marches.
In 2004, Weber and a team repainted the faded mural and added references urging affordable housing in a now-gentrified area. The building’s new owners and neighbors welcomed it, he says, though it’s now obscured by a garden.
Why restore decades-old street murals in changing, or changed, city neighborhoods?
“Oh, why don’t we burn down an art museum? Why keep a record of human history or human culture at all?” Weber replies. “That wall is a vestige of the history of the area. And the question is: Is it an advantage to erase history so that every place is the same? Knowing where you are is part of the question of knowing who you are and what stories you are part of.”
“Breaking the Chains,” created on an apartment building, is another street survivor. Weber led its residents, many of whom were members of sponsor Latin American Defense Organization, a social justice group, along with local youths, in designing and painting the wall.
The work shows racially mixed hands “breaking the chains” of injustice, poverty, racism, slum housing and other negative forces, which are listed on the wall, in order to create a positive, progressive future, symbolized by children carrying roses. A woman crying from the window of a burning building refers to the arson-for-profit fires that ravaged the neighborhood in the 1970s.
Weber and a team restored the mural in 2013, a redo funded by the Latin United Community Housing Association, which owns the building, and the Chicago Public Art Group, earlier known as the Chicago Mural Group. (Disclosure: As a neighborhood volunteer, this reporter worked for about a day on each of Weber’s mural rehabs.)
Community groups donated funds to Mario Galán and Puerto Rican Art Association members to create “The Crucifixion of Don Pedro Albizu Campos,” which has since become one of the most iconic symbols of Boricua Chicago.
“It has a lot of imagery of the independence movement and all the people that sacrificed themselves for that cause, which is still an issue,” Arocho says.
But the mural didn’t survive without a drawn-out struggle. Beginning in 2001, activists campaigned to save the mural from being blocked by the construction of a condominium on the adjacent lot. The protests stopped walls from being built three times, according to news reports. Finally, developers were forced to remove bricks after a land swap arranged by the city.
By 2011, the mural had been restored, and the lot had become a garden.
“Beyond all hope, we were successful,” notes Arocho, “Nobody would say that was possible.”
According to Arocho, there are plans to restore the mural and renew the garden again by September.
That’s when the community will celebrate the three murals’ 50th anniversaries.