By Lynda Lopez
Earlier this week, I went to an event at DePaul University on the history of the Young Lords and Puerto Rican displacement in Lincoln Park featuring Jose “Cha Cha” Jimenez, founder of the Young Lords, and moderated by Jacqui Lazú, associate professor of modern languages at DePaul.
I admittedly didn’t know much about the Young Lords before this event. I had heard their name mentioned in the context of anti-gentrification efforts in Lincoln Park, but was interested in learning more.
The talk started with an overview of the Young Lords in Lincoln Park and the role of DePaul University in the gentrification of Lincoln Park. The Young Lords were a gang (or not depending on who you ask) turned movement for the self-determination of Puerto Rico.
Actions in the 1960’s focused on countering DePaul’s expansion throughout the neighborhood. “The question of territory was at the heart of the resistance,” Lazú says. This didn’t strike me as surprising; universities have been and are major players in the development of neighborhoods, the University of Chicago in Hyde Park being another prominent example.
Migration was a key theme in the discussion. Puerto Ricans and other migrants were coming to a city “that already did not appreciate them and was looking to displace them.” The very origins of the Young Lords underline the racial dynamics at play in displacement. Cha Cha discussed how the Young Lords initially became a way to seek revenge against the white groups that would beat up Puerto Ricans in the neighborhood, while “urban pioneers” were leading the charge to displace the Puerto Ricans in the neighborhood through urban renewal efforts.
The city also had their hands in the displacement of Puerto Ricans. Cha Cha mentions how the city had neighborhood associations that were mostly all-white advancing dangerous ideas about community development and if they weren’t all-white, their ideas surely were. The Young Lords held actions to protest against the plans they knew were meant to displace them. One audience member recounted how the Young Lords protested at a meeting with the Department of Urban Renewal Affairs by throwing chairs as it was presenting a new plan for Lincoln Park. After their strong showing, Cha Cha says, people realized the Puerto Rican community was going to be engaged in these efforts, whether others wanted them to be or not.
After offering a look at the role of the Young Lords in Lincoln Park, a broader discussion of coalitions ensued. An audience member involved in the movement discussed how anti-displacement community groups also formed in Uptown. “Uptown was a neighborhood formed by displacement,” the audience member says. The connections of Uptown to Cha Cha run deep. Cha Cha ran for alderman in the 46th ward in 1975, but lost. His election, however, set the foundation for the election of Helen Shiller, another Cha Cha ally, as aldermen of the 46th ward, serving from 1987 to 2011. Stan McKinney of the IL Black Panthers also spoke of the alliance between the Young Lords and the Black Panthers, and how a coalition had given rise to a movement commonly referred to as the “Rainbow Coalition.”
During the Q and A portion of the night, I seized the opportunity to ask a question. “How can the Young Lords’ resistance in Lincoln Park serve as an example to continual resistance to gentrification, particularly in Humboldt Park? How are the processes we see today different and how are they the same?” I was not disappointed with Cha Cha’s response. He jumped into an overview of the city’s role in gentrification and what we need to be doing to counteract that.
Mayor Richard J. Daley was a segregationist. This is all part of a 50-year plan, says Cha Cha, to take the lakefront and the inner city. Daley wanted to cleanse neighborhoods and we need to think hard about what that means. Cleansing is segregation. “Segregation is illegal and you don’t have to prove intent,” says Cha Cha. The definition of segregation needs to be unraveled. Suburbanization is segregation. The building of highways also divided people and served to continue the displacement of people.
In order to fight back against the gentrification of the city, says Cha Cha, we need to take our struggle to city hall. “Aldermen aren’t there to look pretty. We can challenge laws and if we can’t with current laws, we need to make new laws.” For anyone still doubting the roots of segregation, racism, and displacement in our city, Cha Cha asks, “Look out the door in Lincoln Park, can you see racism?”
After the talk, I stayed back to ask a few more questions. Professor Lazú had some poignant things to say. “Our neighborhoods don’t need to be white to get better. The city can fix the problems in neighborhoods without gentrification, it just doesn’t want to.” I couldn’t agree more.