It’s easy to think of the decorations and twinkling lights brightening so many of our city blocks right now simply as seasonal celebrating.
Jeannie Oquendo knows it’s more than that.
That’s why after a recent windy spell destroyed her inflatable Christmas figures she promptly bought replacements to stand in the side yard of her West Humboldt Park home.
Oquendo, a bilingual educator for the YWCA of Metropolitan Chicago, sees the holiday displays in the same way she does her maiden effort at gardening here last summer and the Saturday block cleanups she and her neighbors do in warmer weather. They’re all things that show how much she and the other folks on her street care not only about their homes but their block.
Their activities put a smile on the faces of those passing through and reflect their belief in the place. They’re proof that the residents are invested in their block, their community. Certainly in her case, Oquendo says it shows she is here to stay.
This is Oquendo’s second Christmas in the home she purchased through the city’s Micro Market Recovery Program. Instead of pinpointing individual homes, the program concentrates on stabilizing entire blocks. Local Initiatives Support Corporation (LISC) Chicago works with community organizations – in Oquendo’s case, Neighborhood Housing Services of Chicago – on the South and West Sides to pinpoint blocks that could be stabilized by finding first-time owners for vacant housing and improving troubled properties.
The hope is that once steadied, these blocks will have a “ripple effect” in strengthening other parts of their communities, according to Jack Swenson, program officer at LISC.
The property Oquendo purchased had long been vacant and needed a major rehab. Though the process of gaining ownership took time and renovations suffered many a setback, Oquendo wasn’t discouraged. This way she was able to create her home just as she wanted it.
She’d always hoped she could find a place with a vacant lot next door that she also could purchase and that’s just what she got here for herself and her two younger sons. This year she and her boys produced a garden full of tomatoes, jalapenos, green peppers and cucumbers. A strawberry patch will be added next summer.
That they can be a positive impact on their community isn’t lost on her sons, either. After doing the outside (as well as indoors) up big last year and now this, one of her boys noticed a house on the block that hadn’t been decorated before but now was.
“We started something,” he told Oquendo with pride.
People always want to hear about the famous people I’ve met. I try to remember names, but the people who’ve impressed me most are everyday folks doing extraordinary things like Jeannie Oquendo.
I like going to meet them – often in neighborhoods given a bad rap – and watching their faces as they excitedly tell me about their projects. I love seeing the passion they have for their causes, even if the odds are stacked against them.
That’s what I am going to miss. Today is my last column for the Chicago Sun-Times, something I’ve been doing for 21 years. Kinda happened by accident, but I sure am glad it did.
It’s been an honor to write about amazing Chicagoans. I’ve also made it my business to write about issues impacting Latinos, women and girls because very few columnists were, especially when I started. I think it’s important to look at pop culture and pay attention to how it’s impacting our lives, so I’ve done that too.
Sometimes the issues — particularly immigration — and my stand on them have brought an avalanche of negativity. (And then there was that guy with the gun, but who left me his phone number …) Oh, well. Standing up against the practices of the Catholic Church — my own faith — never was easy. However, that was my responsibility as a columnist.
You don’t write a column to be popular, or at least I have not.
It’s hard to believe 33 years have passed since I first came to work at the Chicago Sun-Times. What an adventure. We’ll see what happens next.
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