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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.

NCP organizer Keith Muhammad (left) of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp. checks out the progress of local artist Brandon Hudson, who's whitewashing the Metra retaining wall to prepare for a mural painted this summer by a mixed-race group of high school students.


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.

“You had a lot of suspicion at first, even some resentment,” remembers Muhammad. “But when you bring folks together – maybe planting a garden, maybe doing a sports program, maybe painting a wall mural – the differences kind of melt away.”

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.

Bridging the “80s thing”

Antwon Christmas waters the community garden at Kedzie Avenue and the Metra overpass.

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.”

Drive-by organizing

So folks wave when Muhammad drives past Kells Park, where Bickerdike works with CeaseFire West on violence prevention. When he pulls up to the Cob Connection community garden at Kedzie Avenue and the Metra overpass, young Antwon Christmas looks up from his watering hose with a greeting nod.

A family enjoys a summer day in Humboldt Park, where the East-West divide comes together.

Christmas is also helping Brandon Hudson, a local artist, whitewash the Metra retaining wall, to prepare for a huge mural painted this summer by a mixed-race group from Orr and Westinghouse high schools.

Then it’s off to Kelly Hall YMCA on North Hamlin, where Muhammad checks out the computer lab that’s to be part of the joint city-LISC/Chicago Smart Communities program. Then into Kelly Y’s full-court gym, where African-American teams from West Humboldt play Latino teams from the Logan Square Y.

“We make it so a kid from Logan Square or East Humboldt will feel safe here,” said Bryant White, a Kelly staffer who credits the Y for his straight start in life, and who works now with its anti-gang Street Intervention Program. 

\It’s another small but important part of the east-west bridge, a span that Ald. Burnett credits with connecting Humboldt Park as never before. “You had organizations that didn’t communicate. Now they are. Bickerdike and the NCP have really helped with that.”

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Arts, Parks/Recreation, Youth , Planning process, Race, Community Building

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