Gentrification and ChiArts

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"10th July 2015" by themostinept is licensed under Creative Commons.

by Jupiter Dandridge

When my father first took me to The Chicago High School for the Arts (ChiArts) my freshman year, he looked around and said, “Damn, we wouldn’t have been caught dead walking around here as kids.”

When you walk into Humboldt Park, where ChiArts is located, you can tell that it’s a Puerto Rican neighborhood. There’s an enormous sculptural Puerto Rican flag creating an archway indicating where the neighborhood ends and begins. The Puerto Rican community has identified strongly with this neighborhood since the 1970s; but things are starting to change.

You see people walking dogs, laughing on the phone, jogging, carrying cases of Stella Artois, touching their beards. You cannot say that this neighborhood hasn’t changed. It might be your first time in the neighborhood, and you can still tell. Something is off; the people you see walking around did not grow up here. All I seem to see are white people, doing exactly what they would do in the suburbs; only now the scenery is swept and switched with our homes in the back.

There are new buildings being made. I’m talking about condos — the kind with the all-glass front with the balcony. They’re newly designed and modern. They’re built on top of knocked-down homes.

I can only imagine what this is like. I imagine what it would be like if two buildings that were essentially skyscrapers were built to replace two houses. I imagine the sky getting darker as it is filled with moving boxes. Behind all the dust of construction, I imagine my family jetting down the road with all our things. Now the place where my house once was supports three families with flat screen TVs you can see from the window.

ChiArts was once Lafayette Elementary School. You can still see its name stenciled in rock in the center of the ChiArts building, just a few feet away from the ChiArts banner hanging on the side of the school.

Lafayette was one of the many schools in the neighborhood that Mayor Rahm Emanuel closed down back in 2013. ChiArts was funded in part by Emanuel; it moved into the Lafayette’s space that was once there. ChiArts renovated the building, built dance studios, and art studios; it hired teachers, custodians, electricians, public outreach staff, and everything that you need to run a successful school.

When the 8 a.m. bell rang on August 15 my freshman year, it signified that class was in session — but now in a new-to-us building. The racial makeup at ChiArts is 38.3 percent African American, 32.9 percent Hispanic, and 18.9 percent white. I saw a student clinching a $3.50 crumbling old-fashioned donut from a spot a block away. You can’t help but think, “Damn, we’re kinda some gentrifiers.” Or at least, we are on a boat captained by one.

When I think about ChiArts being here, I think about a man with a beard riding by on his speedy bike thinking, “Hey, wow. An art school. They just built an art school close to Spinning J. I can move my family here. I can raise a kid and they can go there when they grow up.”

They tell this to all their friends back home — the same way Columbus wrote to Queen Elizabeth first landing on what he thought was India. They grin clutching drinks with hopeful plans for the future; imagining city life and how they can best gain from it.

Humboldt Park is a bruised animal lying on its back. The heat hurts and the vultures flying above get closer wanting to know the taste. So when you are walking down the street from the school and getting on the bus, don’t ask why no one smiles at you.

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