GPLCX literacy initiative. Photo by Eduardo Cornejo.

The New Southwest Side: Young, Latinx, and Ready to Take the Reins

Though the Southwest Side changed from majority-white to majority-Latinx in the last few decades, resources and political representation haven't followed. These residents are looking to change that.

In the spring of 2018, lifelong Gage Park resident Samantha Martínez was finishing up undergrad at Roosevelt University when she started to think about her next steps. “There was the expectation of having to leave Gage Park in order to ‘make it’ in Chicago, and we didn’t want that,” Martínez says. Her twin sister Katia felt the same expectations weighing on her. 

Martínez said the idea of leaving your neighborhood to be successful is stressed to Latinx students growing up—they discussed the decision at length. Though they both loved Gage Park for its strong Latinx community and welcoming feel, it lacked the things they wanted in a neighborhood, like community centers, jobs and youth programs.  

So instead of packing up and leaving, the sisters decided to mobilize. “We started asking ourselves, how do we create an opportunity where we can work directly within our community?” Martínez says. After finding a small group of likeminded people, they helped form Gage Park Latinx Council, a grassroots, community based organization led by Latinx young people who identify as queer, femme, DACAmented, and artists. Two years on, they have already opened their own physical space in their beloved neighborhood.

And they’re not alone. 

Over the last few decades, the Southwest Side has solidified into a Latinx, immigrant enclave extending beyond the historically-known areas of Little Village and Pilsen in and near the West Side. This year Southwest Side ZIP codes, home to a large portion of essential workers, saw some of the highest COVID-19 positivity rates in the city—not to mention high-profile incidents of environmental pollution—a mixture of circumstances that have politicized more local residents to organize and demand change from the top. 

It’s also part of a gradual demographic shift that’s been building for decades. While the Southwest Side is now a Latinx stronghold, it wasn’t always the case. In 1990, Gage Park and Brighton Park were 70% and 63% white, respectively. By 2000, however, they flipped to majority Mexican (79% and 77% respectively). One of the last neighborhoods to become predominantly Latinx in the Southwest Side was West Lawn. In 1990, West Lawn was 88% white. By 2010, it was 80% Latinx. 

“A lot of these areas [in the Southwest Side] were more white working-class to white middle-class neighborhoods, and more ethnically tied to the ethnicities in Europe,” said José Acosta-Córdova who wrote the Latino Neighborhoods Report, an in-depth look at Latinx communities in Chicago. 

Acosta-Córdova, an environmental planning and research organizer at the Little Village Environmental Justice Organization, said that these shifts are similar to what areas like Bronzeville on the South Side experienced when they transitioned rapidly from white to Black within a few decades in the mid-20th century. 

“Not enough people have recognized the significance of those demographic shifts and have responded to what the needs are of these communities,” he said. 

The demographic shift to Latinx was one of the reasons the Brighton Park Neighborhood Council (BPNC) was formed in 1997. 

“There was not really a clear sense of community. People wanted to build a community,” says Patrick Brosnan, current executive director of BPNC, and employee since 1999. Latinx people were moving to Brighton Park from Pilsen, Back of the Yards, and Little Village because of reasons like gentrification, gang violence, and affordable housing, he says. 

Brosnan says that there was a recognition among the Latinx community in the late 1990s of ‘We’re new in this community and there’s nobody representing us. We need to do something about that.” 

“That really was the founding ethic of BPNC,” Brosnan says. When learning about the Gage Park Latinx Council and the Southwest Collective, he says it reminded him a lot about BPNC’s origins, to carve out a space in a community where their voices weren’t being heard. 

Andrea Ortiz, lead organizer at BPNC, recalls when her parents first moved into Brighton Park in 1995. She said by then the demographics of the neighborhood had already significantly shifted. 

“They lived in the north side by Humboldt Park for a bit and they were pushed out [by high costs] and then they moved to Back of the Yards and were there for a while, but there was a lot of gang violence,” she said. “My mom was like ‘I had heard that it was a great place to raise a family in Brighton Park, and we were ready to settle down, so that’s where we chose to go.’

“When a lot of the Latinx and undocumented folks started moving in, that’s when we saw white flight,” Ortiz said. “When my parents had bought their house in Brighton Park, we were kind of seeing the last of the white flight of our white neighbors.” 

White flight is the term used to describe the sudden and large-scale migration of white people from urban areas as they become more racially diverse. This phenomenon was observed particularly in the mid-20th century as migration to the suburbs was facilitated in the United States. 

“Along with the white flight, when they [white residents] left, so did the resources,” Ortiz said. She said she’s seen photos of what Brighton Park used to be like, where there used to be more places for recreation and a movie theater. “And once our folks came in, [the resources] were gone.” 

Brosnan emphasizes that Southwest Side communities, including Brighton Park, Archer Heights, Gage Park are “new” because of the huge demographic shift, which changed the needs in these communities and haven’t been adequately addressed by city officials. 

Ortiz echoed Brosnan’s sentiments and said it’s hard to be able to help everyone with needs, which became even more pronounced during the pandemic. “I think it’s even more important to continue to support the mutual aid groups that are not part of nonprofits,” she said. She said BPNC referred some people to the Gage Park Latinx Council mutual aid fund because the need for cash assistance has been so high. 

While BPNC’s and GPLXC’s origins happened a few decades apart, they share the common thread of coming into existence to fill the social service gaps in their communities on the Southwest Side. 

Samantha and Katia Martínez weren’t thinking specifically about demographic change when they started down the road to creating GPLXC, but they were keenly thinking about what their community needed. They put out a flyer for a casual community meet-up. “We wanted to get to know who is living in our community and who is thinking about the same issues we are,” Samantha Martínez says. 

They met a kindred spirit in Antonio Santos, a Gage Park native who had recently moved back after graduating from Loyola University.

“We started talking and really just dreaming. We’re all from the community,” says Santos, who is now director of GPLXC. “We’re all Latinx, we’re queer, we’re DACA recipients, and we have a lot of femme energy in the space.” 

For GPLXC leaders, identity is at the forefront of their work in creating a welcoming space in Gage Park. Santos said they want to be a place that’s welcoming to everybody, especially those who don’t feel visible within mainstream Latinx or American culture. 

“For the longest time, I thought I was the only queer person in Gage Park… I remember feeling like I didn’t belong, like I had to escape to be myself. As I became older, I learned that those things aren’t true,” he says. “The thing is, we don’t have much visibility or spaces to be celebrated and embraced.” 

Building community among themselves and reflecting on their common experiences was a key factor in getting to work to launch initiatives in Gage Park. 

The group began by offering free literacy and arts youth programming at the Gage Park Library early on and also advocating for more Spanish-language books and bilingual books for children, which he says were sorely lacking. Despite operating out of a “tiny storefront library,” as Santos describes it, one of their events had 60 youth in attendance.

When the stay at home order began this spring, GPLXC quickly pivoted to meet their community’s most immediate needs. Santos says they have been feeding people weekly on Tuesdays since March (now up to 300 families a week) and through a GoFundMe and a separate large donation, GPLXC has raised close to $90,000 to support undocumented Gage Park families. 

The Southwest Collective, serving the neighborhoods near the Midway area, is another group spearheading mutual aid efforts during the pandemic. Founded in 2019, they advocate for local issues (a petition on their site demands renovations to Curie Park) and connect families with resources.

“We’ve been pretty active in terms of the covid response, which includes food distributions, mask distributions, any sort of resource distribution,” says Enrique Mendoza, vice president of the group and West Lawn native. Food security has been a particularly crucial need for community members, he says, “especially for undocumented folks who don’t qualify for public benefits program.”

By day, Mendoza is a legal advocate with Legal Council for Health Justice, and through Southwest Collective he is helping residents apply for state assistance programs and public benefits like Medicaid and food stamps. But above all else, he says COVID-19 testing is the biggest need. The 60632 and 60629 ZIP codes on the Southwest Side have the highest positivity rates in the city, though the testing capacity is not reflecting this reality.

The city recently announced a new testing site at Midway Airport, which Mendoza calls a good first step, but he adds that it doesn’t address the overarching lack of health care infrastructure on the Southwest Side.

“We have a lot of families here, whether they’re mixed status or undocumented, they don’t have many places they can go to [for health care],” he says, pointing at the lack of federally qualified health centers that offer low-cost services in underserved areas. 

In this region, home to heavy industry for many years, health care is acutely tied to environmental justice. This year residents organized to demand accountability from polluters in Little Village and to oppose the conversion of the old Crawford Coal Plant into a logistics hub, which residents fear is just another avenue for a massive inflow of truck traffic and pollution. Little Village and the rest of the Southwest Side are some of the most polluted parts of the city, according to a 2018 report by the Better Government Association. 

As a student at Social Justice High School five years ago, Karina Solano was part of an AP Chemistry class that tested soil samples throughout Little Village. She was surprised at some of what they found and said they learned of the amount of pollution Black and brown communities face.

Eventually she joined Únete La Villita, a grassroots group that aims to give community residents more voice in neighborhood development. She is also part of a new community group Juntos Por La Villita, which Solano describes as vendor-led and composed of young people, retirees, and monolingual Spanish-speakers. The group has been organizing to prevent the closure of the Discount Mall in Little Village, a hub for small vendors for 30 years, amid a proposed redevelopment. 

Solano says that, along with the implosion of a smokestack at the Crawford Coal Plant this spring which infuriated residents and sent clouds of dust into the air, “It’s a combination of everything just bubbling up, you can’t sweep it under the rug anymore because it’s affecting everyone.” 

The disillusionment of government and the feeling of abandon is a refrain heard from groups on the Southwest Side.

Brosnan said the lack of resources and support from elected officials like Alderman Ed Burke of the 14th ward, whose ward spans parts of Brighton Park, Gage Park, and Archer Heights, is a common thread among local community groups.

During the pandemic, he says there were no resources offered to BPNC from the ward office. “We’ve got no outreach from their office, we’ve got no support from their office, we’ve got no PPE,” he says, “Based on our relationship, you wouldn’t know that the pandemic is even happening.” 

He says the lack of support and resources from Burke’s office is not new, but part of the systemic inequities that the Southwest Side has experienced. 

“To not have an alderman, to not have anybody who is functioning as a conduit between city government and the community, it’s tremendously difficult,” Brosnan says. “It just creates a huge hole in the way that the community organizations and community leaders have to respond to because you’re getting no cooperation.”

For Santos, GPLXC is part of a larger vision of building collective power in their community. 

“Our community has not been organized for the last 50 years, in the time we’ve had Burke as alderman,” he said. Santos and Martínez both say they feel a responsibility to use their privileged voices as college graduates to advocate for their neighbors. He said his parents had to struggle to survive and he feels a responsibility to use his privilege to help shape their community for the better. 

Santos said he feels that Gage Park residents haven’t had a say in the way their community has developed and what resources they’ve received. He said they still don’t have hearings for zoning changes or businesses coming into the community. Amazon coming to Gage Park was a surprise to him. 

“We heard Amazon was coming to Gage Park because our community members started talking about it,” Martínez said. “Then we started seeing more trucks in Gage Park.” Martínez said she is particularly worried because there are two schools nearby. In 2019, less than 2 miles from the new Amazon site, a 14-year old boy was struck and killed by a semi-truck in Gage Park. 

Freight infrastructure and the movement of goods in Chicago and its disproportionate impacts in areas in the Southwest Side, such as increased truck traffic from warehouse expansion, have become prominent issues in the last few years. 

This summer,  just over two years after forming, GPLXC opened its own space at a storefront building on 51st Street. While the pandemic has closed the doors on physical gatherings, the center is the gathering place for resource distribution for residents. Last month they launched a free community mercado where local residents can make an appointment and pick up winter clothes, hygiene products and more. 

“We hope in the future that the Gage Park Cultural Center, after COVID has gone, will be a space that the entire community feels comfortable utilizing and claiming ownership over,” Santos said. 

“Public space is very, very limited here [in Gage Park], especially public space that is meant to provide resources, education, and creativity,” Santos said. “And the space for queerness. Within the Southwest Side, it was missing, so we’re really proud to be able to do the work that we’re doing.” 

For groups like GPLXC and the Southwest Collective, placemaking is essential. Both groups have had to meet at local businesses or their own homes to get their work off the ground. 

It was the same for BPNC back in 2003. Without the capacity to open a community center, they created community centers embedded within local Brighton Park schools. Brosnan sees a lot of similarities between the new guard of Southwest Side community groups—building community power and representing the voices of residents who are frustrated with the way decisions are made in the neighborhood. He says organizations can work together if they’re able to find their common struggles and recognize and support each other.

Santos speaks with a clear vision for the future of Gage Park: “I think the sky’s the limit for the future. We’re dreaming big, we’re dreaming of an equitable community that has safety for everybody that has resources, and accessibility for everybody.” 

Spurred by the energies of younger Latinx residents, new groups and coalitions are emerging in the Southwest Side to fill gaps in resources and serve as voices for accountability in their communities.

This report was produced by City Bureau, a civic journalism lab based in Chicago. Learn more and get involved at citybureau.org.

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Lynda López is a reporting fellow with City Bureau. She is also an advocacy manager with the Active Transportation Alliance where she works on transportation equity issues in the region. She last wrote for the Weekly about the broadband access citywide referendum. You can follow her on Twitter at @lyndab08

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