For more than two decades the famous two-sided Centenario clock in Chicago’s Little Village neighborhood didn’t actually tell time except for the two times a day its paralyzed hands were bound to be right. It finally started working two years ago after major repairs.
But it’s still not quite there yet, running 11 minutes fast compared with my smartphone.
“It’s better than not working at all,” says Little Village Community Council President August Sallas, who saved the clock from its demise in 2013.
Sallas says this fix should be easier and less expensive than the $3,000 it cost the last time when his community group paid to cover labor, airfare and lodging for a technician from the Relojes Centenario company to travel from Puebla, Mexico, to fix it. That technician, Luis Alberto Olvera, told me by phone this repair should be easy and he could guide an electrician through the steps by phone.
Two years ago Sallas went up against the neighborhood’s chamber of commerce, which wanted to remove the clock that is mounted in the distinctive Little Village Arch that stretches across 26th Street and welcomes visitors in Spanish to the Mexican neighborhood’s long stretch of businesses.
It seemed then that no one but Sallas wanted the repair, not until he started requesting donations from businesses in the community. His words about the clock’s value as a landmark and its sentimental history resonated with many.
The clock was a gift from the Mexican government, presented to Chicago’s Mexican community in 1991 by then-President Carlos Salinas de Gortari during a visit to Chicago. Its manufacturer, Relojes Centenario, is a famous nearly 100-year-old company that has produced clocks for plazas and town squares throughout Mexico and Latin America. Olvera, the technician who worked on the clock, is the grandson of Centenario’s founder.
It has been said that Chicago’s Centenario clock was the company’s only one in the U.S., but Olvera told me there are probably a few others. To function during Chicago winters, this one needed a heater that he installed.
Jaime di Paulo became the Little Village Chamber of Commerce executive director after the clock was repaired and missed out on the contentious back-and-forth between Sallas and some chamber members. But he is glad it survived and says the chamber has funds to update old wiring in the arch, repairs he says could run about $7,000.
“The chamber dropped the ball on that,” di Paulo said of the effort to remove the clock. “It was a foolish statement, to say, ‘Replace it.’ It was a gift and it should remain there. The arch, nothing compares to what it is. You’d be surprised how many people take pictures in front of it.”
In a sense the clock doesn’t belong to the chamber, the community council or Little Village, Sallas said.
“It belongs to Mexicans of the city of Chicago,” he said. “We are so lucky to have it. It’s an iconic symbol.”
There is talk about installing LED lights so the clock can be bright at night and maybe adding chimes, depending on how nearby businesses feel about it, Sallas said.
For now, though, I’m hoping they tweak it so that it’s right on time.
Follow Marlen Garcia on Twitter: @MarlenGarcia777