Best of Gage Park 2021. Photo by Jesús Hidalgo

Best of Gage Park 2021

It’s an honor to introduce three young Gage Park visionaries at Gage Park Latinx Council, a queer, DACA, Latinx grassroots organization dedicated to strengthening identity and community in Gage Park. We joked about the summer heat before jumping into their “Best of Gage Park” locations. For them, these addresses mirror their childhoods, identities, and hopes to protect their neighborhood with honor. Gage Park has seen Jesus, Karen, and Fabian develop into their current form. Together, these three young people share what they hope for others to “see” what’s in their eyes about Gage Park.  

“If you could feel kindness [when reading this], I would like for that to be shown,” said Karen J. Dorado, a sixteen-year-old, Aries Sun rising, Mexican-American with she and her pronouns. “I want people from Gage Park to see how beautiful we really are. To see all this community, joy, kindness… [To see] how really close we could all be [by] working together. If we work together, we could help others see that as well because that’s what community is all aboutworking together, trusting each other, and helping each other out.” 

Gage Park does not deserve its disappointing media representation of being “dangerous” as a Black, Indigenous, and people-of-color working-class community. Gage Park deserves community representation of struggle and strength. Fabian Cornejo, Taurus with he and him pronouns, introduced Gage Park as home and safety for immigrant communities, cultural belonging, and an extension of México’s lands. “Literally, everybody’s hard-working for the future, and for the community,” said Fabian. “You want to see more hope, more love, and more appreciation, because there’s a lot of negative views on Gage Park. It’s not always about that.” He recognizes that people go through a lot in the community but emphasized the strength of love within families and neighborhoods that make him proud to represent Gage Park as a college freshman this fall. He encourages young people “to embrace it.”  

The rhythm of walking down the same 51st Street businesses captures Gage Park’s spirit for Jesus Hidalgo, who identifies as first generation with he and they pronouns. As it is for Karen and Fabian, Gage Park is home for Jesus. However, Jesus is concerned about gentrification and balancing people visiting the neighborhood but not moving in, especially people who are not Black, Indigenous, or people of color. For Jesus, Gage Park is knowing people who know you when you’re walking around or recognize one another. 

“I went to high school a couple blocks from here too, so it does feel a lot like home. I feel not only welcomed, but also I know a lot of people that live here and I have a lot of memories here. Those memories helped shape me into who I am today, and what I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen other people experience too,” said Jesus. 

Neighborhood captain Jocelyn Vega is a first generation Latina and hija de Enrique y Obdulia Vega. She dedicates her life to intergenerational healing and ancestral justice for past and future generations.

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Best Childhood Memories of Tacos

Taquería Jamay Jal

Photo by Jesús Hidalgo

Karen’s heart remembers moving into Gage Park at three years old. Her eyes caught a bright orange building on a sunny day but she couldn’t read what it was. She would grow to love this bright orange place with no name. Others in the group agreed that this orange building remains a childhood classic. To this day, Jesus jokes that many neighbors and friends make the evening walk, as it is one of the only late-night spots. Without saying the official name, everyone knew we were talking about Taquería Jamay Jal.   

“I don’t remember the first time I ate there, but I have memories, that late at night, talking to my father and say ‘Oh, I’m hungry. Let’s get tacos.’ We would walk there with our dog Oreo,” Karen said. At Taquería Jamay Jal, options range from breakfast tortas to legendary tacos—classics that customers can enjoy at this all day and late-night spot. “Every time I bite into los (the) taco, it’s like flashbacks to when I was little. It’s so good and the meat has stayed the same flavor and the same texture. I don’t think I’ve ever gone wrong with ordering it.” 

Jesus agreed and recommended tacos of asada (skirt steak) or pastor. They added it is also a business that is “rooted in the community” by allowing community groups to promote their events and post their flyers without question.  

Across community and memories, the group collectively titled Taquería Jamay Jal as “one of the many bellies of Gage Park” that is shared in friend groups, families, and hungry students at affordable prices. Karen said, “I still feel like a little kid walking…[with] all of those memories,” whenever she visits Taquería Jamay Jal. 

This connection to Jamay runs in the family. After a recent family trip, Karen said, “We just come back from the happiest place on earth, Disney, and the first thing we agreed on is Taquería Jamay Jal.” (Jocelyn Vega)

Taquería Jamay Jal, 2500 W 51st St. Sunday-Thursday, 9am-11pm; Friday and Saturday, 9am-1am. (773) 776-0254. Highly recommended to bring cash.

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Best Spot to Rebuild Gages Park’s Historically Disinvested Library

Empty Kedzie Kmart

Photo by Jesús Hidalgo

At the intersection of 51st and Kedzie, a 275,000-square-foot building with a large, corporate Coldwell Banker banner stares into a blocked off parking lot. Before the Kmart shut down, there was a thrift store, a buffet, and street vendors selling outside on this buzzing corner. That’s all gone. Now, even cars can’t get through the old Kmart parking lot, and the corner remains completely isolated. Kmart’s bankruptcy and the subsequent corporate real estate hogging of empty space reflects Jesus’s concerns for Gage Park as an overlooked and oversold neighborhood. 

“It’d be better to renovate that space and make it a library or even a community center,” said Jesus. “It’s something that would benefit the community because it’s so big. It’s literally an empty lot, and it’s been like that for a while. I’d rather see it be something that gives back to the community instead of being another big corporation or another big factory… I think adding a library there will help people see that we deserve better.”

In addition to economic exploitation, Gage Park faces academic and social inequities with its current library and lack of youth spaces. Gage Park youth represented 33.5 percent of the neighborhood’s total residents from 2015-2019, yet their social and emotional development is left to them to build with minimal resources. Gage Park has been historically denied community centers and public gathering spaces, such as adequate parks, community-wide youth programming, and cultural centers.

“We deserve better things than just things [that] are damaging our neighborhood,” said Jesus. He emphasized that Gage Park residents do not deserve to be exploited in heavy labor or warehouses, like Amazon’s recent neighborhood warehouse opening, just to have access to jobs. He encourages more local businesses and supporting community members to expand their own opportunities instead. 

They advocate for a community center to exist at the heart of a major intersection and commercial district. Gage Park youth are currently surrounded by several, gigantic processing centers, but not much for them to process their personal development on that scale. The under-resourced Gage Park library and corporate ownership of Kmart’s ghost hold promise for Gage Park’s youth. Until it is truly owned by the community, this corner will symbolize the community’s own intersection between disenfranchisement and the potential for its young people to belong in their own community. 

Jesus said, “Whoever has been living in Gage Park for a while just know[s] that Kmart used to be [a] spot [where] everyone would link up… When the Kmart was empty, I would go in there with my friend sometimes to just go explore too…[and] it also goes to show that we went there because there was nowhere else to go in the neighborhood.” (Jocelyn Vega)

W. 51st St. and S. Kedzie Ave.

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Best Childhood Tamal

Rosa’s Tamales

“I remember, when I was young, I would always go [to Rosa’s Tamales]. I would wake up for Christmas and then my dad will be like ‘oh let’s buy tamales,’” Fabian said. He would then put on his “little puffy coat” before walking with his father to Rosa’s. They often found a long line early in the morning. 

“We would always wait, but I mean it was worth it.” Carrying back warm tamales, Fabian and his father woke up their family to eat tamales on Christmas morning and other holidays. “We had a big family. I’m the youngest out of four brothers, so I feel like we would always get two [dozen], and then we had my mom and dad and would have our dog,” who would eat tamales. Fabian loves to pair his tamales with champurrado, a classic chocolate drink made with masa, often confused as atole, which is an ancient, Nahuatl-based word. Champurrado is distinct and a must try. 

“Because my parents back then didn’t have a lot, we won’t be able to buy a lot. We would always buy two cups [of champurrado] to split it. Always, I would want more. It was really good except that I always wished that I could get my own cup when I was little, but that never happened,” added Fabian. 

Rosa’s is a go-to for any celebration. Fabian said, “My family is really busy, so we don’t really get to eat together. We don’t really have family meals. So, I feel like the only time [that] we would was Christmas, Thanksgiving, or something like that. That’s why it was always special to me, because of the memory I have. Because that’s the only time that we have family meals.”

Rosa’s Tamales have grown into four locations in Gage Park. At Rosa’s Tamales #4, at 4617 S. Kedzie, they expanded their menu beyond tamales, ranging from the classics to Huaraches estilo DF. At Rosa’s Tamales #1, #2, and #3, they strictly offer tamales but sell menudo, carnitas estilo Michoacán, and even pozole on the weekend. However, tamales and tamales oaxaqueños remain a delicious classic that requires trying more than once. (Jocelyn Vega)

Rosa’s Tamales #1, 5632 S. Kedzie Ave. Monday-Sunday, 4am-5pm. (773) 863-0646. Highly recommended to bring cash. There are three other locations in the Chicago area.

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Best Movie Theater to Renovate for Cross-Community and Youth Programming

Colony Theater

Photo by Jesús Hidalgo

“Ever since COVID hit, the community got separated. It really hasn’t been the same ever since. I feel like if they opened a theater, it would bring everybody together again,” Fabian said. He described COVID’s impact in distancing relationships and amplifying losses across households and neighbors. According to Fabian, many people don’t greet or acknowledge each other anymore. He finds people walking past each other in a daze. 

“Nothing has been the same,” he added. He urged community members to advocate for positive change to recover from COVID as a collective by opening this theater for various communities. 

However, Gage Park was vulnerable to this social separation before COVID. Many young people lack programming opportunities. Local organizations don’t have capacity or space for physical activities or social gatherings. “There’s not much around here, and there’s not any theaters,” Fabian said. “You have to drive, and you have to drive [a] pretty decent distance to go watch a movie, or just to go enjoy stuff with your friends and family. If they opened [Colony Theater], it’s right in the middle [of several communities and across age groups] … It’d be a good idea to bring the kids together and bring the community together.” 

He envisions talent shows, dance practices, and accessible after-school activities for kids and families, not just “exclusive to performers” who can afford to rent. Fabian has never seen Colony Theater’s doors open (it’s been closed since the early 90s) but already sees its transformative potential for current and future generations.  

Fabian also imagines the theater economically linking families to continue socializing at nearby small businesses after programming or movies. “Once you’re done watching the movie, you could just walk right there and go to Betty’s Ice Cream or you could go get tacos, burgers, or Rosas Tamales because everything’s around. If they renovate that theater, it would open a lot of joy and happiness within the community, and bring us closer again,” Fabian said. (Jocelyn Vega)

Colony Theater, 5208 W. 58th St.

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Best Baseball Fields to Improve

Gage Park Baseball Field 

“My dad and I bond over baseball … We connect over that, but we can’t go to Gage Park because the field is messed up. It’s more dirt than field–more grass than field. It’s nothing, to be honest. Nobody looks after it,” said Karen. Her father, who has professional baseball experience in México, finds the field unsafe.

The field has lacked quality care from the Chicago Park District, despite their recent plan to build their headquarters 0.8 miles north in Brighton Park. Karen, Jesus, and Fabian were disappointed by the Park District’s decision to move into the area after years of neglect and racially inequitable funding of services and programming across Gage Park sites. The field remains inaccessible and quite dangerous due to uneven ground and minimal attention, as is the case for other parks and play areas in Gage Park.

Karen described her frustration attempting to practice grounders at the only park nearby her home. “Our schools always promote ‘Oh, go outside, sixty minutes of physical activity every day,’ but I don’t think what they realize is that a lot of kids don’t have access to that, because we don’t have fields to go to,” Karen added. The current situation forces her family to drive far for a decent field.

Unfortunately, many nearby schools, children and families similarly struggle to fully enjoy the parks due to other issues including an under-resourced field house and lack of seating, hydration stations, protective shading, or proper sanitation options. Like Karen, they depend on the parks to gather and engage in physical activities in a free and public space. People of all ages and potential baseball leagues are all undermined by the institutional racism that leads to inequitable parks.   

Karen hopes the field will be improved soon and calls on the Chicago Park District to improve existing parks before stomping their new footprint–their plan to build their headquarters is already raising gentrification concerns. She believes innovating the parks would be an improvement for all Gage Park residents and nearby neighbors. 

The issue expands beyond baseball for Karen. “I want to see people who don’t even know the game, and they just go and watch. It’s free, it’s public, and you’re outdoors. You just get to be there with your community, and watching this, it’s more than a game,” Karen added. 

Fabian said, “it’s a social vibe” where individuals can build relationships and new connections. Karen, Jesus, and Fabian encourage the Chicago Park District, the Cubs, and the White Sox to invest in the South Side to foster young people’s ability to play in teams and become teammates in their communities. (Jocelyn Vega)

Gage Park baseball fields, 2411 W. 55th St.

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Best Area to Build a Safe Soccer Field for Children that Play on Cement 

52nd and Rockwell 

Currently by 52nd and Rockwell, children play soccer on cement outside of Nightingale Elementary School. Their creativity has fueled competitive “retas” (informal pick-up games with different friend groups in Spanish), and they practice their skills on this imaginary stone field. Small children give her heart and determination to play “official” games, despite no boundary lines or nets. 

“It’s really dangerous,” said Karen when describing the reality of playing there. The group chuckled that you can “bust your shit there” with any misstep. Jesus advocates for a “synthetic field” that would be safer. 

“People forget how much we play soccer around here,” Jesus added. According to them, the only synthetic field is at Senka Park but it’s “busted up” and desperately needs repairs. There are no other fields for the youngest people in Gage Park to call their own either. A soccer field by Western is occupied by organized adult teams. Many elementary schools lack parks or play areas that aren’t surrounded by cement or concrete. Lack of safe play areas has undermined Gage Park youth since Jesus’s childhood.  

“When I would go to [soccer] practice, I would always go all the way to Archer Park, and I would have to walk. It was really far. Or {I had to go to} McKinley Park, but those fields were always rented and things like that. I think adding a field that’s more available to people in the neighborhood would be better.” 

According to them, opening this field would support all Gage Park youth, even its non-soccer players. Jesus envisions it as a kid-friendly spot to hang out and support their peers grow with informal team building. This vision has been part of Jesus’ heart since attending elementary school at Florence Nightingale. 

Karen and Jesus encouraged the addition of tall nets to prevent balls from flying over the fence. We joked that it’s hard to have fun if you damage someone’s car or home. This space would additionally support Nightingale’s student picnics by having a larger space for children to spread out.

For next steps, Jesus recommends that the elementary school children should actively envision this field’s design, planning, and implementation. “People could talk about how they wanted [it] to not only look like, but also how they want it to function, what hours it would be open or what other purposes that field could serve,” Jesus said. (Jocelyn Vega)

Corner of W. 52nd St. and S. Rockwell Ave.

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Best Park to Renovate before Chicago Park District Moves Into the Area

Senka (Edward “Duke”) Park

“I feel like I grew up in Senka,” Fabian said. “Well, I didn’t grow up in Senka, but I grew up in that area,” he continued as the group started laughing. “I guess I did because I have been going there since I was little,” he added. 

Like for Fabian, Senka Park is a home for many children. It sits within a block radius of an elementary, middle, and high school with additional neighborhood and charter schools less than five minutes away. It’s also home to families, community members, and neighborhood dogs who enjoy shady trees and local street vendors ranging from eloteros (street cart vendors who typically share corn and other goodies) to paleteros (ice cream cart vendors). It’s a park rooted in many childhood memories—fortunate and unfortunate ones.      

“Back then, when I was younger, I would always pull up to Senka with my friends when the field was brand new,” Fabian said. “It had nets, and the turf was still good, but over time, there was a lack of maintenance. Also, there is a big patch of grass next to it, and a lot of kids can’t even go there to play soccer or practice because there’s a lot of bumps, holes, and stuff. I remember one time I did twist my ankle, so I stopped playing.”

Growing up, he would usually find at least a dozen children playing on the field, but “it’s dead now,” he said. Many young people and soccer players have to drive miles to find a proper field that isn’t booked by local teams. Additionally, the water park, volleyball court, ditches in grass, and other aspects of the park must be updated from their “beaten up” states. 

“Overall, it’ll bring the community together, if they renovate it and they fix all that stuff,” Fabian said.“It’ll bring a lot of more kids out, and they don’t have to travel far to go play soccer, play basketball, or just be outside with their friends.”

There is also a need for open and accessible bathrooms that are not porta-potties. “I remember that I used to ride on my bike and actually go back home to use the bathroom,” Fabian said. The lack of restrooms impacts families, young children, elders, and street vendors who are discouraged from staying at the park or even visiting.       

“The cops go in there and kick people out all of the time,” Jesus said. “It happens a lot in the summer. And it’s like, ya’ll don’t want us out in the street and ya’ll don’t want us in the parks, they don’t give us a space where we can be. If we’re going to have a space where families feel safe and where people from the neighborhood feel safe to be at, then they shouldn’t be there.” For them, police cars bulldozing along Senka’s walkways is intimidating. “Don’t bring your whole car into the park or go on top of the hill and stop right there,” added Jesus. 

“Sometimes, they sit up there, and I’ll be playing soccer, and they sit up there watching us,” Fabian said. (Jocelyn Vega)

Senka (Edward Duke) Park, 5400 S. St. Louis Ave. 

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Best New and Inclusive Cafe for Local Families

Dulce Mami 

Photo by Jesús Hidalgo

“A lot of people [in Gage Park] don’t have somewhere to just get coffee, to sit down, or to do work and eat. I’m so happy that business is going well because there’s like a curse on that spot,” said Karen. Apparently, many businesses have failed at this commercial location, but this Dulce Mami’s recent launch has given Karen hope. 

Dulce Mami’s menu includes savory and sweet crepes, delicious sandwiches, and over eighty-two drink options. Their non-alcoholic mimosas have a paleta dunked in a tall glass, and their frappes are glamourized with sweet surprises. All of their breakfast combos are under $15 and will satisfy any hunger. Vegetarian options are even tempting for non-vegetarians. Additionally, it’s hard not to be selfish with their affordable desserts or buy one for the road. Dulce Mami is one of the few stand-alone coffee shops that deserves your support.  

“The employees are super, super nice. They greet you with open hands. The environment, and all of the colors is appreciated because in Gage Park, we don’t see a lot of colors,” said Karen. The murals and décor have provided a breath of fresh air for Gage Park’s youth to have an affordable hangout spot to catch up or do homework as well as be an inclusive environment across generations. 

Oftentimes, cafes isolate community members and cater to gentrifying aesthetics. However, Dulce Mami is different because it’s operated by Latinx community members and upholds a history as a welcoming space for parents, mujerxs (gender-inclusive women in Spanish), and community members in Cicero, where it has another location. 

“I like that a lot of moms and people just be going there to eat. I like seeing that,” said Jesus.  

Fabian noted that community members make up the workers at these small businesses as an additional reason to visit local spots. “There’s just a bunch of ordinary people that are just gonna make their lives work and provide for their families, just like everybody else around here,” he said. 

When you visit, Karen recommends their iced chai or agua de maracuyá (passion fruit fresh water in Spanish). “I’ve only tried the Hawaiian one, and that’s just good,” said Jesus. (Jocelyn Vega)

Dulce Mami Cafe, 2559 W. 51st St. Monday-Saturday, 7am-9pm; Sunday, 8am-8pm. (773) 498-4409. dulcemamicafe.com. Additional locations. 

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Best Retro Pizza Spot that Supports High Schoolers

Naty’s Pizza

Naty’s is a staple for generations of high schoolers across Gage Park. The combination of their affordable prices, long-distance delivery, and savory flavors has crowned it as a top spot. “I remember after high school I’ll go there with my friends and go get slices,” said Jesus. “The slices are good because the crust is made really good, like they’ll fill you up. To be honest, you only need one,” but he joked that you can get two slices if you’re motivated. 

For Jesus, a distinct memory at Naty’s was on a Friday with his friend from Little Village. They wanted to check out this location as a business that linked their neighborhoods. Naty’s staff wouldn’t mind how long they stayed around and made the restaurant a “super friendly space” for students, according to Jesus.

This contrasts experiences they had at other businesses which would kick students out for not buying more. Jesus was thankful to Naty’s patience towards students. Staff wouldn’t criticize their friends who couldn’t afford to buy something or were going half on a single pizza slice.   

When visiting, Jesus recommends a next-level pizza order that involves pineapple and ham. Fabian highlighted the “supreme” pizza as a must. “I had [the supreme pizza] memorized when I was working there actually,” he said. “I think it has shrimp, sausage, pepperoni, olives, and green peppers. It’s pretty good.” The pepperoni and jalapeño pizza is another crowd favorite. Karen always requests special orders for Super Bowl Sundays and a heart-shaped pizza on Valentine’s Day. The group also recommends the wings, gyros, and checking out other menu items for any occasion or hangout.           

“Something cool about the spot is that it has a retro feel to it. The way the tables are set up and everything like that. It’s like how you would see it in the movies. How it was back then,” said Jesus. (Jocelyn Vega)

Naty’s Pizza, 5129 S. Kedzie Ave. Monday-Thursday, 10am-12am; Friday, 10am-1am; Saturday, 11am-1am; Sunday, 11am-12am. (773) 434-1555. 

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Best Youth-Driven Center and ‘Reclaiming our Roots Chicago’ Jardín 

Gage Park Latinx Council

‘I think I have one more spot left,” Fabian said as we neared the end of the conversation: Gage Park Latinx Council (GPLX). “They do a lot for the community, they always have events for the youth and for kids and stuff like that. I remember growing up I don’t really have any of that,” he added. This past summer, GPLX hosted game and movie nights as well as ongoing art programming for Gage Park’s youngest members. On Wednesdays, youth lead a food pantry for all community members.  

Fabian shared the importance of GPLX after growing up with minimal enrichment activities or enriching spaces to independently play. Finding this center has been “welcoming and relaxing” for Fabian’s routine waking up at 5:30am for work. 

“They would just let me be. If I needed to rest, they would let me rest. If I needed someone to talk to, I could talk to them. They were just very welcoming and gave that home vibe. That’s what I liked,” said Fabian. 

Jesus described GPLX as a space that often doesn’t exist for young people today, and it didn’t during their childhood. They recently invited their baby brother to the space. “He just loved being here. He was like, ‘oh, when can we go again!’ Even though he was playing around, he still liked being here. He just felt more free…The thing that I like about here is when young people enter this space, they are not policed or anything like that in what they’re doing, how they act, or how they dress. It’s very open and very accepting. I think that’s hard to find in a lot of spaces,” said Jesus. 

The key to GPLX is its current leadership and community involvement. “It’s brought up by people who were born here and not by random people who just came here,” Karen said when describing the deep sense of security and belonging at GPLX. 

Additionally, “Reclaiming Our Roots Chicago” is GPLX’s new community jardín (garden in Spanish), at 53rd and Homan. A once-empty lot is currently thriving with community members and neighbors planting and harvesting together. Youth from GPLX, including Karen, Jesus, and Fabian, have organized art exhibits and additional programming to honor Gage Park’s ancestral history on that land.

“A lot of people in our neighborhood, if you give them a piece of land, they know how to tend to it and that goes back to our roots,” Jesus said. “How a lot of us, like our previous ancestors and people from our family, have just been working on land, like México or like other countries in Latin America.” The jardín is GPLX’s latest project to amplify the interconnections of generations, land, and community. 

GPLX is actively accepting donations, resources, and support to continue their mission. Community members are invited to check out any space and follow them on social media to learn about upcoming events. (Jocelyn Vega) 

Gage Park Latinx Council, 2711 W. 51st St. Monday-Wednesday and Friday, 10am-4pm; Thursday, 10am-7:30pm. (708) 872-8798. gplxc.org

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