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"Que Viva!"

The great Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata battled for 10 years (1909-1919) to win liberty and land reform for his country’s poor … but he never did live to see his dream fully achieved.

One got the impression, however, that the spirit of Zapata was alive and in good

Photo: Gordon Walek

"My heart is pounding," said Alfredo Rodriguez in both English and Spanish, thinking back on the organizing work of himself and many others in support of Bickerdike's and LSNA's efforts. 

voice on Sept. 13, as hundreds of latter-day Zapatistas gathered on Armitage Avenue to celebrate a major victory in their battle for affordable housing.

At the groundbreaking there was a mariachi band, a troupe of young Mexican-style dancers and more than 300 area residents and dignitaries who, at one point, held up oranges in their hands while chanting “Que viva!”

 “Zapata Apartments is a hard-won victory for our community and for all of us,” declared Joy Aruguete, executive director of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp., NCP lead agency in the Humboldt Park neighborhood.

For the better part of five years Bickerdike and its sister NCP group to the north—the Logan Square Neighborhood Association (LSNA) – struggled against a bad economy and a small group of “not-in-my-backyard” opponents of affordable housing. The economy still is bad, to be sure, and the NIMBY group still has a lawsuit on appeal, but Bickerdike and LSNA would not be denied. At one point, the two NCP groups collected 3,123 signatures on a petition for a needed zoning change.

Many partners
Then again, Bickerdike and LSNA had a lot of help pulling together a $25 million deal that will see 61 affordable rental units constructed on what have been, for years, four vacant lots at or near the corner of Armitage and North St. Louis avenues.

Photo: Gordon Walek

"Que Viva!" shouted the crowd of 300 area residents and dignitaries while holding oranges in their hands, in response to Rodriguez's exhortations.

Mayors Richard M. Daley and successor Rahm Emanuel both backed the project, as have Ald. Rey Colon (35th) and Roberto Maldonado (26th). Besides the zoning change, the city recently came through with $4.6 million in tax increment funds, which helped lock in the rest of the financing.

 Aruguete described it as a many-layered “lasagna” financing: Harris Bank provided construction and take-out loans; the Illinois departments of Commerce and Economic Opportunity and Capital Fund provided grants; the state’s housing development authority allocated low-income housing tax credits that were purchased through the National Equity Fund.

LISC/Chicago was there from the beginning, with an initial $1 million loan to help finance purchase of the four lots … then later with a $3.6 million loan for construction purposes.

Power of a plan
What made the groundbreaking especially satisfying for LISC, though, is that Zapata was first proposed in quality-of-life plans drafted during 2004-05 by LSNA and Bickerdike as part of their participation in NCP. 

Photo: Gordon Walek

Alejandro Molina, social media manager at ASPIRA of Illinois, shakes hands with Barbara Beck, director of financial services and underwriting at LISC/Chicago, while talking with Susana Vasquez, the new executive director of LISC/Chicago, who previously led NCP.

LSNA’s plan, titled “A place to stay, a place to grow,” specifically called for a “school-to-school housing and retail redevelopment along Armitage Avenue” to be undertaken in partnership with Bickerdike. It was to be a “3-fer”:  revitalize the decaying Armitage commercial strip; provide badly-needed affordable housing; and in so doing, help stabilize enrollment at nearby Ames, Funston, Mozart and Yates public schools, where gentrification has caused severe student turnover.

“This proves once again that grassroots planning makes a difference,” said Susana Vasquez, who this summer replaced Andrew Mooney as LISC/Chicago’s executive director. Mooney is now commissioner of the city’s Department of Housing and Economic Development.

Aruguete also credited NCP for bringing Bickerdike and LSNA together on the project, which technically lies two blocks north of Humboldt Park in LSNA’s service area. So although Bickerdike took on financing and construction, it was LSNA that fielded many of the community organizers who gathered petition signatures and made sure pro-Zapata families turned out for public hearings.

Jobs, jobs, jobs
Housing affordability is one thing, but without good-paying jobs Zapata tenants will be hard-pressed to pay even “affordable” rents. Exact rent schedules have yet to be posted, but families there will need to earn from $22,800 to $44,000 annually to qualify.

Photo: John McCarron

This mariachi band added to the Zapatista spirit of the day.

Jobs being key, Bickerdike’s own Humboldt Construction Company has been chosen as general contractor for all four Zapata sites.

Antonio Santiago, general foreman for Humboldt, said the company will use its core staff of 45 skilled tradesmen and laborers, most of them men and women who live in the area and who gained their skills on previous Bickerdike projects such as the Rosa Parks Apartments. When all the sub-contractors, drivers and vendor reps are included, Santiago predicted, as many as 500 workers will be involved. The plan is also to “buy local” whenever possible.

“We always try to use both people and material from the neighborhood,” said Santiago. “It’s part of what we bring to every project.”

Besides the 30 apartments-over-storefronts at the southeast corner of Armitage and St. Louis, where the groundbreaking was held, Zapata will produce 12 apartments at 3230 W. Armitage, three at 3503 W. Armitage and 16 at 3734 W. Cortland St.  All four buildings have been designed by the Chicago architectural firm of Lisec & Biederman, Ltd.

Fruitful effort
There was no shortage of enthusiasm at the groundbreaking, and not all the foot-stomping was during the performance by the western-dressed dance troupe from McAuliffe School.

Photo: John McCarron

This troupe from McAuliffe School entertains the crowd with western wear and Mexican dancing.

State Rep. Iris Martinez (D-Chicago) drew cheers chiding NIMBY opponents (who were nowhere in sight) by saying: “I don’t know how people can think that empty lots are better than what we’re going to build here. … These are not ‘the projects’ [like some people think about public housing]. This is going to provide decent housing for hard-working families.”

Lissette Castaneda, a housing leader at LSNA, recalled Zapata’s origins in the NCP planning process and singled out staff and volunteers who went the extra mile to get it done.

“We have worked hard,” Castaneda said, and must continue to work hard “for the next 61 families” who need affordable housing. In that struggle, she said “we can look back to this shining light, so we will never have to doubt our power—the power of justice—ever again.”

And the raised oranges?  They were summoned by Alfredo Rodriguez, a Bickerdike supporter who for 36 years has lived down the block from one of the Zapata sites, and who stood up for the zoning change at public hearings.

“My heart is pounding,” Rodriguez said in both English and Spanish. And then, knowing many in the audience had oranges in their complimentary snack bags, he asked everyone to stand up and hold out “the fruit of our labors.” 

“Que viva!” he called out. To which the orange-fisted crowd responded: “Que viva! Que viva!”

More information: Andrea Traudt, Bickerdike, 773-278-5669 or


Photo: Gordon Walek

The project came together with many-layered "lasagna" financing, according to Joy Aruguete of Bickerdike Redevelopment Corp.; LISC/Chicago provided $4.6 million in loans.


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