Located on the Northwest side of Chicago, Humboldt Park is a community that has been defined by its strong cultural presence throughout the ages. In a city known for its cultural and ethnic diversity, Humboldt Park stands out as the center of Puerto Rican culture in both Chicago and the American Midwest. The Humboldt Park community was named after naturalist and geographer Alexander von Humboldt (1759-1859) in 1869. Interestingly, the one time that Alexander von Humboldt visited the United States, he did not travel to Chicago. The community was annexed into Chicago the same year as its naming, following the creation of the West Park System (which also includes Douglass and Garfield Park). These three parks––connected by the Boulevard Park System––were established to provide Chicago residents with some relief from the congested landscape of the city. Settlement and development increased after the Great Chicago Fire*. Additionally, with the establishment and construction of the park, public transit began to expand into the neighborhood in the 1880s, increasing access to the community and further accelerating the settlement of the neighborhood.
The first waves of immigration to Humboldt Park saw an influx of Germans, Scandinavians (mostly Danish and Norwegian), Poles, Ukrainians, Italians, and European Jews. Humboldt Park served as a neighborhood that preserved and pushed forward the cultures of its residents. The park itself often served as an example of these efforts of cultural preservation. Many statues were erected in Humboldt Park as tributes to culturally relevant figures, including the statues of Alexander von Humboldt for the Germans, Leif Erikson for the Scandinavians, and Thaddeus Kosciuszko for the Poles. The community’s status as a cultural hub continued as the demographics shifted. Between 1950-1965, Puerto Ricans began migrating to Humboldt Park in large numbers. Having been displaced from their previous neighborhoods farther north due to gentrification, early Puerto Rican communities in Chicago were forced to move farther west. Additionally, many of the Puerto Ricans settling in Humboldt Park came directly from the island itself. The influx of Puerto Ricans coincided with the majority of the European population moving out of the community.
Due to the systemic oppression that the Puerto Rican community faced (and continues to face), Humboldt Park became and remains a neighborhood that strives to address and combat social justice issues. In 1966, during a parade on Division Street that celebrated the culmination of Puerto Rican Week, an altercation broke out between the police and parade-goers. As a result of this altercation, a young Puerto Rican man named Arcelis Cruz was shot and injured by police officers. This conflict incited riots and protests that lasted for three days. The 1966 Division Street riots captured the power struggle that existed between Humboldt Park’s Puerto Rican/Latino community and law enforcement, where a heavily militarized police force often over-policed the residents of the community. Since the 1970s, Humboldt Park has been the center of a prominent Puerto Rican community. Every year, the neighborhood holds a festival celebrating the culture, arts, and values of the Puerto Rican community. While Humboldt Park is typically associated with its strong Latino community, the neighborhood remains a diverse community where a variety of cultures blend together.
One of the current issues that legacy residents are fighting against today is gentrification. While gentrification does increase property values and brings resources into a neighborhood, it does so in a manner that isolates, excludes, and eventually crowds out previous residents of lower socioeconomic statuses. When this happens, not only does the culture of the neighborhood change, but the residents who call the neighborhood home are displaced, making it difficult to preserve and reform that cultural center. Despite the socio-economic and human rights issues that Humboldt Park has faced since the demographics shifted from being primarily European, the neighborhood has seen rich activity in the area of social justice advocacy, with different groups and organizations working to affirm the experiences of residents and improve living conditions for all residents. Additionally, Humboldt Park has served as a center for culture-affirming art for over half a century. The Paseo Boricua, along with several other streets in the neighborhood, is lined with beautiful murals that tell the history of the community. Many of the murals date back to the 1970s and some are the oldest public art murals still in existence in the country. Many of the murals tell the stories of struggle, survival, and equality. Since the 1990s community leaders and residents have banded together on several occasions to save many of the murals and restore them to their original glory.
Today, Humboldt Park remains a neighborhood with a strong cultural identity with ongoing activism and community engagement.