Stranded by gentrification: The German navigating a changing neighborhood
Author: Carina Koerner
Program of Study: Master of Arts Program in the Social Sciences (MAPSS), Division of the Social Sciences (SSD)
The first thing visitors encounter walking into Humboldt Park, one of the largest public green spaces in Chicago, might most likely be a group of Puerto Ricans playing Bomba, having a barbecue, or a family gathering on one of the benches. Humboldt Park, as well as the surrounding neighborhood named after it, is the symbolic nucleus of the Puerto Rican community in Chicago. Division Street (La División, in local parlance) leads straight from the park into the Puerto Rican residential area and is packed with Puerto Rican restaurants, stores and also the Puerto Rican Cultural Center is situated there.
Yet, Humboldt Park is changing. Black and white middle-class people are moving in who refuse to or cannot afford to live in already fully gentrified neighborhoods such as Wicker Park and Logan Square. Thus, Humboldt Park is one of Chicago’s currently most rapidly gentrifying neighborhoods, causing real estate prices for several months in 2018 to increase with threefold speed than in other areas of the town. (1) The local Puerto Rican community is afraid of this change that threatens their living conditions. Sometimes it happens that Puerto Ricans shout at white pedestrians slogans like “Yo Soy Boricua!“ (I am Puerto Rican!) which implies that they see Humboldt Park as their neighborhood. (2) Hence, since Humboldt Park, once prairie land at the periphery of Chicago, was annexed to the city in 1896, the neighborhood has undergone several changes. Right at the northwest corner of the park in Humboldt Park is a building, bearing big red neon letters forming a typically German name: “Roeser’s.” It’s a family-run bakery, that was founded more than a century ago that is one of the last reminders of the time before Puerto Ricans came to Humboldt Park. It has witnessed the change the neighborhood has undergone over the last century.
John Roeser steps out of the bakehouse, a man in his mid 60’s with a firm stature, grey hair and a well-trimmed mustache. “If our family business hadn’t adapted to changes, we wouldn’t be here anymore,” Roeser states. When the family business opened up in 1911, the bakery’s largest display used to be stuffed with coffee cookies and shelves with rye bread, that both are wildly popular in Germany, Roeser explains. Today, cookies are located in a dinky glass cabinet hardly to spot, cakes and tortes fill most of the space and the white long bread is so soft that it bends over the shelf. According to Roeser, “That’s how Puerto Ricans like it.” What reminds customers of the German tradition are not really the goods, but some pictures on the wall. They show John Roeser’s father and his grandfather at a baking convention, a horse-drawn vehicle that at the time the bakery was founded, was used to deliver baking goods, as well as John Roeser when he was a kid.
A century ago, Humboldt Park was a neighborhood, where many Germans lived. The rapid growth of the city in the mid-nineteenth century coincided with the acceleration of Germans immigrating to the United States. And as the downtown business districts expanded, many of them settled at the former urban fringe. (3) Humboldt Park even bears its name from the German naturalist, Alexander Humboldt who was at that time what would one today call a celebrity. In 1896, when Humboldt Park was founded, thousands of people all around the globe honored the scientist ten years after his death, with festivities in New York, Berlin, Mexico City and countless others. (4) All over the world, neighborhoods, streets and parks were named after the German scientist–and so was Humboldt Park. The German immigrants even erected a lifesize effigy of Humboldt in the park, even though Humboldt had never been to Chicago. Germans were one of the major groups in Humboldt Park from the neighborhoods time of creation until the 50’s, but then Puerto Ricans began to move in. “Societies change and you have to adapt,” Roeser says. He says that the store next door used to sell pickled herrings, but that this is not what Puerto Ricans tend to eat.
Roeser says he could understand the Puerto Ricans who fear that they might be displaced. “If you move only one block, nobody knows you anymore.” That was the reason why he and the family business stayed. Even when the neighborhood started to become poorer when his customers started to pay with food stamps instead of money and finally gangs began to form, Roeser didn’t think of moving away. Finally, Roeser was the only German left in Humboldt Park. As time went on, every shop around Roeser’s soon was protected with bars at the windows and doors, but Roeser didn’t want to lattice the bakery. The Roesers removed every gang tag on the walls of the bakery immediately. As bakers, they arrived in the middle of the night, even before members of other gangs could see the message. The gang method of communication didn’t work on the bakery’s walls. Roeser, more and more integrated into the new social structure of the neighborhood. Not only were his customers poor Puerto Ricans, and some of them might have been gang members, Roeser also recruited his employees from the neighborhood. Roeser says, he was never robbed nor was the bakery attacked. To a certain degree, he felt even protected by the gangs, Roeser says, because he was baking their bread. Staying for Roeser meant not only to change the baking goods he sold, but also to adapt socially and to personally integrate into a new community.
Today, next to stucco decorated houses which Humboldt Park is famous for and that were popular between 1900 and 1920, more and more apartment buildings with glass facades, brick walls and large balconies pop up. In the evenings, the new residents with well-trained bodies, shrouded in brand new sportswear, walk their muscular, prim and proper dogs through the park. Roeser passed the bakery to his son, two years ago. “He has to figure out now, how to adapt again,” hence Roeser is confident that his son will handle the challenge “Millennials have a thing for handmade stuff from earlier times.” However, Roeser doesn’t really speak German anymore. And likewise, the receipts he uses have changed. Even the “German chocolate torte” is something that neither his father nor his grandfather might have ever tasted–and that definitely nobody in Germany has ever eaten.
(1) Dennis Rodkin, “Home prices spike in Humboldt Park,” Crain’s Chicago Business, August 21, 2018, https://www.chicagobusiness.com/residential-real-estate/home-prices-spike-humboldt-park
(2) Rachel Rinaldo, “Space of Resistance: The Puerto Rican Cultural Center and Humboldt Park,” Cultural Critique 50, Winter (2002): 145.
(3) David A. Badillo, “Humboldt Park,” in Encyclopedia of Chicago, eds. Janice L. Reiff, Ann Durkin Keating, and James R. Grossman (Chicago: Historical Society, 2005). http://www.encyclopedia.chicagohistory.org/pages/617.html.
(4) Andrea Wulf, The invention of nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s new world (New York: Vintage, 2016), 333.