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Latino State News

SPECIAL PEOPLE:  East meets West in Humboldt Park

Spend a morning making the rounds with Keith Muhammad and you’re reminded why even the mightiest bridges – think Golden Gate, or maybe Brooklyn – rely on their smallest parts.

Muhammad is NCP organizer for Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp. and a builder of human bridges between mostly Latino East Humboldt Park and mostly African-American West Humboldt Park.Little things – nuts-and-bolts things – make the difference. On this May morning it was making sure the Kedzie, Albany, Franklin, Troy For Unity Block Club (KAFT) was getting some help mowing the grass and weeding flowerbeds in the parkway between sidewalk and street. And sure enough, Kenneth Taylor from the city’s Greencorps job training program was getting it done at the corner of Troy and Ohio streets.

KAFT helped plan, and heartily welcomed, the Harold Washington Unity Cooperatives at that corner, a subsidized development Bickerdike and partners put together few years ago. Nearly everyone agreed West Humboldt needed investment … but eyebrows were raised when Bickerdike leased half the units to Hispanic families.

This is Keith Muhammad’s bi-polar world. To the north and east is what most folks think of as the Humboldt Park – the epicenter of Puerto Rican Chicago centered on the park itself. To the south and west is predominantly African-American West Humboldt, though tellingly, a lot of folks here say they live in East Garfield Park.  The black/brown divide is more than spatial. Historically the two groups have had their own stores, their own churches, even their own neighborhood public schools. Young Latinos were warned not to go south of Augusta Boulevard and black teenagers vice-versa.

It wasn’t always this way, remembers Muhammad, who went to Orr High School at Chicago Avenue and Pulaski Road.  “But when the 80s thing happened, the neighborhood really separated.” The “80s thing,” he explained, was the advent of crack cocaine and machine pistols, and the transformation of old-fashioned street gangs into deadly businesses with sales forces consisting of teenagers with TEC-9s.

Bickerdike’s 2005 NCP quality-of-life plan specifically vowed (in Strategy 6.8) to narrow the divide with a Cultural Bridge Program “to creatively address racial and cultural relations between east and west.”

Early Action Projects brought together young white, Latino and African-American artists on the design and execution of 10 outdoor murals. A cross-cultural program called CAPE (Chicago Arts Partnerships in Education) was initiated at four neighborhood schools to explore both ethnic heritage and common interests.

Perhaps Bickerdike’s most effective move, however, was naming Keith Muhammad, a neighborhood leader active with West Humboldt Park Family and Community Development Council, as NCP organizer. According to Ald. Walter Burnett, Jr., whose 27th Ward includes much of West Humboldt: “Keith grew up here. He’s the ideal person for the job.”