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Puerto Rican Days

Lincoln Park's forgotten history spills out of boxes in Carlos Flores's apartment.


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The photo looks east from the el onto Armitage Avenue in Lincoln Park. In the distance, a lone high-rise pokes up into an overcast sky. Below, a guy is crossing the street, which seems too wide and too empty to be Armitage. You can see the Armitage Hardware sign, a little larger and less discreet than it is today, but otherwise the scene is foreign: no cars, no boutiques, no Starbucks, no rehabs. It's the late 1960s or early '70s, a moment snapped into suspended animation. It's a place and a feeling, the romance of Puerto Rican Lincoln Park, that exists only in pictures and in the memories of the people who were there.

Over the last 30 years Carlos Flores has lived through and photographed the migration of Chicago's Puerto Rican community as urban renewal and gentrification have moved it from Lincoln Park to Wicker Park to Humboldt Park and beyond. His apartment could be the base of a community historical society: there are thousands of neatly stacked LPs, hundreds of CDs and books, a treasure trove of baseball cards (his favorite is Kansas City A's first baseman Vic Power), and, of course, photographs. Flores with Tito Puente, pianist Chucho Valdes, Harold Washington, and Willie Colon. A guy with a cigarette hanging from his mouth, sitting in a car with two attractive women. Activist Jose "Cha Cha" Jiminez in a horrible 70s checked suit. A teenage dude on a fire escape with a gargantuan shirt collar and a perfect Afro. A piragua man pouring syrup for a woman wearing sneakers and a short skirt. The ghosts of Lincoln Park.

Flores grew up on Armitage. He likes to say his family were the last Puerto Ricans to leave Lincoln Park. Now he lives in Wicker Park, in an airy, expansive apartment that he shares with three dogs rescued from the street. For the second time in his life, his neighborhood is changing in a way that sometimes infuriates him. Last Christmas he double-parked in front of his house, leaving his girlfriend and her kids in the car. When he got back downstairs a few minutes later, the police had arrived. They told Flores that someone had reported a suspicious couple loitering in front of the building. Flores replied that the only thing suspicious was his skin color. There have been occasions, he says, when passersby--his neighbors--have seen him standing in front of the building and asked if he's the handyman or the janitor. "No," he tells them bluntly. "I'm the owner."

He's a bouncy man in his 50s, stocky and bald, with hands that move around as he speaks. He looks like a prizefighter. And he has seen his share of fights, first as a teenager on the streets of Lincoln Park in the 60s, then as a member of the Young Lords, the revolutionary group devoted to empowering the Puerto Rican community, and later as a campaigner on Mayor Harold Washington's Latino task force.

Today he lives mostly off his building, a two-flat with a coach house, and occupies himself with a variety of community and cultural pursuits. He was a founding member of the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance and has organized an annual cuatro festival in Chicago since 1998. (A cuatro is a Puerto Rican string instrument much like a guitar.) He produced a documentary film about the 1998 Havana Jazz Festival. He interviews older Puerto Ricans in a sort of ad hoc oral history project. He has exhibited his photos at the Old Town School of Folk Music, at Malcolm X College, and in an old horse stable in Humboldt Park, where the Puerto Rican Arts Alliance hopes to establish a museum. He is building a Web site at For three years in the mid-90s he ran Project Kalinda at Columbia College's Center for Black Music Research, a program that explored the connections between Latin, Caribbean, and African-American music. He plays the vibraphone and is an occasional contributor to WBEZ.

Four or five times a year he teaches a course on gentrification to college kids from rural areas of the midwest through the Urban Life Center in Hyde Park. In one exercise he sends students to Lincoln Park as reporters. When they return with their observations, Flores pulls out his photos of the neighborhood 30 years ago. This, he says, is a way of helping the younger generation understand gentrification and empathize with people of color. When he hears Lincoln Park residents described as DINKS--double income, no kids--he retorts, "We're NIMKS--no income, many kids."

He smiles often, just like the ten-year-old kid whose father would take him to Comiskey Park to see Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, and Yogi Berra. "For sure you're going to live and die," he says. "In between you've got a million and one experiences to explore. And I've tried to have as many as possible."

A little boy of five or six holds a Puerto Rican flag. The Chicago Puerto Rican Day Parade is going by, but he can't see it. He's standing behind tall adults who line the street and looking back at the photographer. He's dressed like a little man, in a crisp white shirt and vest. He's the perfect picture of Puerto Ricanness--free, playful, and holding on to his flag.

The best thing that happened to Flores in his youth was being expelled from high school for the second time. The expulsions were his beginning. As a 17-year-old senior at Saint Michael's, neatly dressed in white shirt and tie, Flores was the picture of a good Catholic schoolboy. But the vinegar of the streets had already filled his veins.

He remembers sock hops at Saint Michael's. He and his friends would pay a wino to buy them some Thunderbird. The nuns would come up to him and ask demurely, "Carlito, are you OK? Are you behaving?" He'd try to straighten up, saying "Sister, I'm OK," hiding how bombed he was.

His gang, the Continentals, wore red, white, and blue sweaters with a red emblem and their names over their chests. They played softball and mixed it up with the Italian kids in the neighborhood, who used to hang out at Roma's Pizzeria on Webster. (Today it's a restaurant called Tomato Head.) Flores was full of testosterone and attitude. A shove, a step on a sneaker, or a sideways look could provoke a fight. But when two guys fought, it was face to face. There were no drive-by shootings, no anonymous deaths.

There was a kid at Saint Michael's who always got picked on. One day Flores was having a little fun with him, and a rival gang member interceded. "I'm going to see you when we go out for lunch tomorrow," Flores told him. The other kid threatened to blow Flores's head off. That night, Flores told his friends in the Continentals, and the next day 15 or 20 guys showed up hungry for a fight.

The kid who'd threatened Flores never came to school. But Flores couldn't control the angry itch of his compadres, who stood at the door of Saint Michael's, punching and kicking anyone who came out for lunch. A few nuns got slapped around. Flores quietly slipped away from the melee. The next day one of the brothers told Flores he was lucky he didn't call the police; he was out of Saint Michael's for good.

Two years earlier he had been kicked out of Waller High School for truancy. Now his family sent him to work at the paper plant where his uncle Tony was a supervisor. Flores's mother told her brother, who lived with the family at the time, to give him the worst job in the factory. Soon he was packing boxes and doing other grunt work. His uncle had been a sergeant in the army and gave him not a moment of peace. He'd wake Flores at 5 AM, and at work he would interrupt his bathroom breaks with a sharp knock at the door. "You're taking too long!" Flores knew he had to get his act together or he'd be stuck in a dead-end job for good.

Argonne National Laboratory had a work-study program for minority students, and a lot of his gang friends had gone there to get their GEDs. Flores followed them. He ended up choosing photography lab as his vocational specialty. "It must have been some divine intervention," Flores says. "I was just taking pictures and people were comfortable with me."

He liked Argonne so much that he thought he'd like to go to college. In 1977 he earned a bachelor's degree in education from the University of Illinois at Chicago; in 1990 he earned his master's in criminal justice. He was a private investigator for a time. He has worked for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, the Office for Civil Rights, the Chicago Public Schools, and the Illinois Department of Public Aid. But he never earned his living taking pictures; that he did purely for pleasure.

Nine kids pose against a brick wall. They've been playing ball and a couple are holding bats. One is holding a dog. Short and tall, some without shirts, some without shoes. Flores thought they looked like a Puerto Rican version of the Our Gang kids.

Flores is sitting in his car, a dark blue '88 Honda, looking up at a large caramel-colored condo building at the corner of Cleveland and Eugenie, the former site of Saint Michael's school. His hands are pressed against the steering wheel and his lips are pursed. He is more pensive now than bouncy. "The church is still there but the school is gone," he complains. "Nothing is sacred." His parents still go to services there. "My folks, they're loyal." He shrugs and moves on.

He steers the Honda toward the intersection of Elston and Cortland, where kids used to drag race when he was young. Traffic is heavy this Tuesday in June; now BMWs and SUVs race from the expressway to Best Buy. "Man, I used to love this neighborhood. It was the hood," Flores says in a slow, exacting cadence that picks up as he gets excited. "Everywhere you went there were people you knew. It was a real nice way of growing up. There were boys clubs, playgrounds, things to do. You actually felt like you were at home."

Heading east on Armitage, he passes Clifton, where he snapped the photo of the "Our Gang" kids. He passes Consign Design antiques at 1128 W. Armitage, which used to be his parents' home. It's the same building, but it's been rehabbed and has a deck on the top floor. He passes Adams Park, which has a water slide; in Flores's day it was just a lot with a baseball diamond. He passes what used to be La Bodega de Luis; now it's the Fortunate Discoveries clothing store.

Under the el is where he used to hang out. "This was our strip, all the way down to Racine [on one end] and Halsted [on the other]." He swings north on Dayton, where sky and sun are blotted out by trees. He stops the car in front of the Greater Little Rock the Lord's Church. It was a Methodist church in the 60s; then the Young Lords took it over, renamed it the People's Church, installed their national headquarters, and adorned it with a mural of Che Guevara. Flores has the photo to prove it.

Three people walking by stop to see what Flores is looking at. "Just a little history," he tells them. "I grew up in this neighborhood." A car honks twice behind him. He flicks his arm and hand, "All right, shit, asshole!" He wedges his car forward so the other car can pass. "Come on, if you can't get through there, get off the phone."

Two young men wait on the el platform. One stands behind a conga drum, wearing black leather and a wide-brimmed hat close to his eyes. The other's in a trench coat and black sneakers; a curl dips down the middle of his forehead. These are two of Flores's old neighborhood buddies, Jose Garcia (everyone called him "Priest") and Johnny Betancourt. "I just thought that it was kind of great," Flores remembers, "catching the train with these brothers downtown early in the morning. Everyone had briefcases and we had congas."

It's the Fourth of July in Ukrain-ian Village. The Flores family has been camped out in Smith Park, near the intersection of Ohio and Campbell, since 8 AM. Flores's two sisters, his girlfriend Desiree Maurer, and his parents, Matilde and Charlie, are here, along with assorted cousins, nieces, and nephews. They're cooking burgers, hot dogs, chicken on a stick. Mrs. Flores has brought a pot of vegetables and rice.

Charlie sits on a copy of the Sun-Times. His corns are giving him trouble. He wears a tan guayabera, dark brown pants, discolored white socks, a black and green baseball cap. He was a cafeteria employee at Western Electric for 38 years and is supported by his pension. He's 74 years old.

Matilde's dressed in bright, roomy pants, black sneakers, and a sleeveless polka-dot blouse. Her gray hair is pulled straight back. From the way she sits in her chair, directing traffic, in control of the food, there is no mistaking that she is the Flores family matriarch.

Carlos says he tried to play baseball in the park earlier but his body wouldn't follow his mind's commands. Now he's dancing around to Afro-Caribbean tunes, showing off for Desiree. "We're taking it back to the basics," he says. He dances with a jerky move; his ass sticks out and his legs pop up.

It was Carlos, Matilde remembers, who inadvertently financed the family homestead. Charlie came to the United States in 1949, the same year Carlos was born. Matilde and the rest of the family followed five years later. They first lived near LaSalle and Superior; it was skid row at the time, and many Puerto Rican families lived there. In 1959 Carlos, playing baseball in the street, was hit by a car and broke his leg. With the accident settlement, his parents bought their first house, at 1128 W. Armitage, for $27,000. They lived in that house until the late 90s.

Matilde does not share Carlos's attitude toward gentrification. She wanted the streets improved, and she welcomed the changes that came to Lincoln Park. "I'm glad they cleaned that place up. It was full of gangs and drugs," she says. "Kids were getting hooked hanging out under the el." Those kids included her youngest son, who started using heroin when he was in his teens, she explains.

Still, she would have kept the family in Lincoln Park if it weren't for an apartment building that went up next door, on what had previously been a parking lot. The new building hovered over the Flores home, giving them a brick-wall view from their kitchen window. The air stopped circulating properly, and exhaust from the building constantly put out their furnace's pilot light. Charlie and Matilde sold their home in 1997 for half a million dollars. Now they own a house in Bucktown, a few blocks from Carlos's place in Wicker Park.

Five guys hang out on Armitage, across the street from the Old Town School of Folk Music. They're congregated around a big convertible; a sixth guy lounges in the passenger seat, his leg stretched out onto the open door. This is just a couple blocks from where Flores grew up. To him, there is a short distance between taking a picture and being in it.

Flores is driving around Humboldt Park, on his way to see a friend from the old neighborhood. Large RVs roam the park, their insides converted into fast-food stands selling Puerto Rican foods like arroz con gandules (rice and pigeon peas), bacalao (codfish), fried plantains, and rellenos de papa (potatoes filled with chopped meat). On the grass, men set up goals for soccer; the tinny song of an ice cream truck plays somewhere nearby.

Homes at the edge of this neighborhood show decay. Some are boarded up. Folks hang out on their porches. A group of guys are yelling at a black SUV blocking traffic.

This is the Chicago neighborhood that comes closest to the Lincoln Park of Flores's memory. His eyes move around like a camera searching for a moment to capture. He knows it won't last. At California and Armitage, factories are being converted into lofts. "They're inching in little by little," Flores says. "The writing's on the wall--even Ray Charles can see that shit."

His favorite restaurant, Marta's, at California and Division, has lost its lease. Marta wants to buy the building and upgrade for the new clientele. Flores shrugs, shakes it off, and rolls his eyes. It's Lincoln Park all over again, he says.

"Even with the neighborhood where I live now, it's only a place to live, to be honest with you. You begin to learn there's no such thing as your neighborhood. Whoever has the money to come in and buy changes the face of the neighborhood. You have sentimental feelings about it; there were a lot of great people. You possibly met your girlfriend, your wife, had kids, and so forth. But that's as far as it goes. There's really no sense of ownership. From one day to the other it changes. Every time I look at my pictures that's the one thing they bring back to me--a lot of the memories."

Kids are playing stickball in the alley behind a row of three-flats on Clifton near Armitage. The alley is wide and the sky is clear: these buildings are the tallest ones around. Laundry hangs on a couple of the rickety wooden porches, and garbage drums are lined up. The scene recalls a question once asked by Langston Hughes: why was his neighborhood called a ghetto? To him it was just home. The kids' backs are to the photographer; they must be watching their ball sail toward the garbage drums. Closest to the camera stands the kid with the bat, a lefty to judge from his follow-through. He watches too, admiring his achievement, a slugger frozen at the end of his swing. Forever this game, this alley, this home, this life, is captured with light, paper, and camera. Forever this young man hits a home run.


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