Academic journal article Centro Journal

Gentrification in Color and Time: White and Puerto Rican Racial Histories at Work in Humboldt Park

Academic journal article Centro Journal

Gentrification in Color and Time: White and Puerto Rican Racial Histories at Work in Humboldt Park

Article excerpt

[H]e will not permit himself to be pushed around indefinitely.

- Mayor's Committee on New Residents, from the report "Puerto Ricans in Chicago," 1960

"They're taking over, man. It's not good," says Daniel Vega,1 a Puerto Rican man in Chicago who has owned a building on Haddon Street near Paseo Boricua for a generation in Humboldt Park, where he now sees white newcomers pouring into his neighborhood. "[The police] pass through," he tells me, "not for to say 'Hi,' but to check on our houses." Humboldt Park is one of the most recognized communities in the Puerto Rican diaspora, and the center of a contentious and documented public struggle over gentrification. "I tell them, 'I think you're working for the real estate,'" he says. Why does he suspect this? Why is it a takeover? Daniel and many of his Puerto Rican neighbors read their world through a specific cultural history in Chicago.

A few blocks away lives Ken Caldwell, a white newcomer in his thirties who bought an old cottage he had been rehabbing for two years when we spoke. As Ken describes Humboldt Park to me through horror stories of gangs, drugs, fear, and violence, I ask him whether he has ever been directly attacked or threatened, and he says more than a simple "no":

What are they gonna do? They know my reaction to everything is I am going to call the police, you know?...I'm just gonna call the police, cause I'm white. I speak English and the police like to deal with people like me, not you. It's an unfortunate fact of life.

Daniel's and Ken's divergent and complimentary perceptions and imaginations inform sets of practices and ways of envisioning and occupying space that originate in the distinct racial histories of whites and Puerto Ricans in the United States-but particularly Chicago.

Gentrification in color and time

In Humboldt Park gentrification reveals divergent and intersecting racial histories, activating for Puerto Ricans memories of displacement, tropes of sovereignty, and the power of place, and conversely for whites evoking moral minimalism, avoidance, entitlement, and racial boundary-making. An ambivalent stance of Puerto Rican welcome and engagement, or defense and resistance, is rooted in histories of racial subjection and forced moves embedded in the colonial relations of the US and Puerto Rico. White newcomers mostly raised in majority white suburbs, small towns, and exurban areas largely defined by midcentury segregation in turn apprehend and act on their new neighborhood in ways consistent with the social conventions of whiteness. This article draws on two years of participant-observation, surveys, public observations, formal interviews, and twenty housing life histories of Puerto Ricans and other Latinos and white newcomers in Humboldt Park posing the question: How does gentrification reveal and construct race in Chicago? What does gentrification reveal about the history of race in organizing and designating neighborhood spaces, economic disparities, and divergent forms of political power? What does gentrification reveal about how whites and people of color perceive, experience, and imagine each other, and how these collective behavior patterns inform political economic consequences?

I build on valuable research on Puerto Rican Chicago and its racializations, claims to place, and historical displacements, in the light of white history and the legacies of separation and suburbanization and return that equally inform gentrification. I begin by explaining my approach to race from an interactional perspective, then present an overview of the Humboldt Park neighborhood, followed by a review of previous literature on the community. I then discuss the racial history of Puerto Ricans in Chicago and white racial settlement history in the contemporary era, before presenting a range of ethnographic data from observations and interviews with local Puerto Rican, Latino, and white residents. I conclude that racial histories intersect here, as Puerto Rican challenge and engagement impacts the lives and subject positions of white newcomers, who themselves seek to transform the landscape. …

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