The History of Humboldt Park

Humboldt Park Map, image via Wikipedia, public domain

by Alex Huizar

Alexander Von Humboldt Monument. Image via Wikipedia, public domain.


Alexander Von Humboldt was a German naturalist and geographer. He never actually visited Chicago when he went to America, but the because the first inhabitants of the neighborhood were made up in large part of German immigrants, his name was chosen in dedication to the park.

The park itself was laid out in 1869; the first people to move there (aside from the Germans) were Scandinavians of Norwegian and Danish descent.

In 1871, the Great Chicago Fire forced the city to change its building codes. Humboldt Park was technically part of the city, but it was outside the fire code limits, so many people moved to the neighborhood to take advantage of cheap properties without many rules attached to them. Waves of people began to come in over time, and slowly, the population changed. The neighborhood now is predominantly Puerto Rican, although in recent years there have been a number of white gentrifiers.

In 1958, Our Lady of the Angels School suffered a terrible fire that killed 92 students and three nuns. The fire began in the basement and climbed to the second floor; fire cut off the single escape through corridors and stairways. The fire shocked the world. Because the fire was so intense, major improvements were made to school design worldwide.


The 1966 Division Street Riots

Nineteen sixty-six was a turning point for Puerto Ricans in Humboldt Park who faced racial tension from the police and systemic oppression from the Chicago Catholic church that didn’t allow them to form their own parish.

Some white parishes wouldn’t allow Puerto Rican parishioners. Also, Puerto Ricans faced with housing and job discrimination. Ultimately, in the face of such widespread discrimination, Puerto Ricans rose up to take control of the neighborhood. Taking place from June 12 to 14, 1966, the uprising is now known as The ’66 Division Street Riots.

The riots took place the year that Chicago mayor Richard J. Daley declared the first week of June Puerto Rican Week. On June 12, 1966, Puerto Ricans celebrated the culmination of this week, and their first ethnic parade in downtown Chicago was held on June 11.

Arcelis Cruz, a young Puerto Rican man was shot in the leg by white police officer Thomas Munyon. Cruz was allegedly armed with a gun and was in a street fight according to police, but others witnessed Munyon chase 20-year-old Cruz down an alley to shoot him. Others came to help Cruz but when other police officers arrived on scene they beat up the witnesses. This resulted in pushback from the crowd of 4,000 Puerto Ricans to throw rocks and can at the police and police cars.

Eighty-one policemen with 58 squad cars were called in to respond to the riots, using tear gas and nightsticks. The National Guard was also called in, along with six K-9 units.

On the second day of the riot, clergymen and community organizations formed a rally. Organizers encouraged to end violence and police officers were present to de-escalate the conflict. Ultimately, some people involved in the riot targeted white-owned businesses by looting property and burning some buildings to the ground.

On the third day, 500 police officers patrolled division street. During the three-day riot, 16 people were injured, 49 were arrested, and 50 buildings were critically damaged.

On June 28, 1966, over 200 Puerto Ricans from the Division Street area marched five miles to City Hall to protest the city government’s negligence and police brutality and held several peaceful protests.

After a month, the community came together to form the organizations Spanish Action Committee of Chicago (SACC), and the Latin American Defense Organization (LADO).

Also, the community organized the Ruiz Belvis Cultural Center and the Juan Antonio Corretjer Puerto Rican Cultural Center; and a school, the Escuela Superior Puertorriqueña (which is now named Dr. Pedro Albizú Campos Puerto Rican High School).


Humboldt Park: Home of Greatness

Plenty of famous people have come out of Humboldt Park, and it’s been the inspiration for countless stories, songs, and poems.

Ocscar Lopez Rivera was a Puerto Rican activist and militant who was one of the leaders of  Fuerzas Armadas de Liberación Nacional Puertorriqueña (FALN).

Jesse Williams is an actor who is mainly known for his role as Dr. Jackson Avery in “Greys Anatomy.”

Gina Rodriguez born and raised in Humboldt Park is an actor mainly known for her role in “Jane the Virgin” — a show known for its satirical comedy on telenovelas and large Hispanic cast.

Shel Silverstein has deep ties to Humboldt Park and is a writer known for his cartoons, songs, and children’s books, including “The Giving Tree.”

Saul Bellow moved to Humboldt Park and was known for his literary work. Bellow was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the Nobel Prize for Literature, and the National Medal of Arts.

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