Thursday, January 3, 2019

National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture - Chicago

New York City may be home to the largest population of Puerto Ricans on the Mainland, but Chicago’s Puerto Ricans have worked together to create the National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture (NMPRAC). The Museo del Barrio in New York has changed its mission to become a pan-Latino museum, but the NMPRAC has grown to be the primary institute dedicated to celebrating Puerto Rican artists from the island and mainland.

The NMPRAC was founded in 2000 by members of the Puerto Rican community in Chicago. It is housed in a beautiful building in Humboldt Park, that was built during the 1890’s as the Stable and Receptory. The building was partially destroyed by fire in 1992. It has been fully restored and renovated, creating three large galleries, and also classroom space. There is also a permanent exhibit dedicated to the history of the building and Humboldt Park in what was the office of the original superintendent of the park, Jen Jensen. The building is an architectural jewel, and city landmark. It serves as a unique home for the museum.

On out visit, we visited the three exhibitions on display. In the large first floor gallery was Expresión de Barrio, Paintings by Reynaldo GuAracibo Rodriguez. Mr. Rodriguez was born in Puerto Rico and moved to Chicago during the 1990’s. He has worked with many community organizations, creating public art in the neighborhood, and teaching workshops for local youth. In this exhibit he presents larger than life portraits of bomberos, musicians and dancers in the Bomba community in Chicago and Puerto Rico. His paintings are vibrant and beautiful, capturing the life force and joy of his subjects. Painted on large pieces of burlap, they also include hand written statements from each subject, describing the importance of bomba in their lives. (Through Spring 2019).

Maestro Roberto Cepeda and Gloria López de Cepeda

Evaristo GuAracibo Rodriguez and Traditional Bombera Dress

El Buleador: Marcos Ríos

The second-floor gallery housed Art in Service of the People, an exhibit of historical posters, films and books produced by Puerto Rico’s Division of Community Education (DIVEDCO). From 1949 until 1990, DIVEDCO was tasked with educating Puerto Rico’s poor and rural populations on topics ranging from literacy to health to democracy, with a decidedly populist point of view. They brought together artists, authors, and filmmakers. Together they worked to educate the people, and create a sense of pride in Puerto Rican culture in the face of attempts to “Americanize” the island during the first half of the 20th Century. (Through Spring 2019).

There is a third Gallery, also on the first floor of the museum. During our visit it was hosting Circo de Ausencia (Circus of Absence). Created by the collective Y no había Luz, this collection of circus acts represents the effects on Puerto Rico brought about by the disasters of PROMESA and Hurricanes Irma and Maria in 2017. They highlight the forced movement of Puerto Ricans from the island to mainland. (Through Jan 2019).

The National Museum of Puerto Rican Arts and Culture is not in the main tourist area of Chicago. But an afternoon visit, along with a walk on Paseo Boricua, is a great way to explore a part of the city that most visitors never get to see.

Getting There:
Take the Red or the Blue El train their Division Street station. Take the #70 bus west bound, towards Austin. Exit at Humboldt Park – California Ave.

Wednesday, December 26, 2018

Paseo Boricua, Chicago's Puerto Rican Heart

Living in New York City can sometimes lead a parochial view of the country. One example is looking at the history of Puerto Rican migration to the main land. New York City was the landing place and home for the largest group of Puerto Ricans from the island, but not always the final destination. Chicago was also a place the attracted many people from the island.

Much of the Puerto Rican movement to Chicago during the middle of the 20th century was secondary migration. Families came to New York City first, and then moved on to Chicago. There were also a large number recruited from the island by agencies promising jobs at a time where Operation Bootstrap was causing deep poverty. Puerto Ricans came to Chicago to work in factories and in the service industry, especially in hotels. During the 1960’s gentrification and urban renewal forced many families to move from Chicago’s South Side north to the Humboldt Park area. Today, this area is still the heart of the Puerto Rican community in Chicago.

Learning from the African American community, Chicago became a center of the fight of Puerto Rican civil rights. In 1966, after a police shooting, the Puerto Rican community rose up in rebellion. For three days people took to the streets against police brutality, racism and segregation in housing. While 16 people were injured and 49 were arrested, many things were won, such as the development of several Latino-American organizations. These included ASPIRA and the Young Lords.

Today, things are much calmer along Division Street. The section between Western and California Avenues is now called Paseo Boricua. It is home to many cultural and community organizations. One of these is the Puerto Rican Cultural Center. The Center has several offices along Paseo Boricua that offer cultural activities as well as family counseling, AIDS counseling and other community services.

Walking along Division Street you will find a wonderful collection of street art created by local artists. Block after block has a wall mural or a doorway painted to represent some aspect of Puerto Rican culture. The local businesses and building owners have spent time and money supporting local artists and their work.

Paseo Boricua is also home to several Puerto Rican restaurants. If you visit mid-day, I strongly suggest Nellie’s. The food is excellent down-home Puerto Rican cooking. The Sopa de Salchichas (sausage soup) is really a steaming bowl of spaghetti, sausages and tomato sauce. The bisteak encebollado (steak with onions) is a delicious cube steak covered with a pile of sautéed onions. The Pechuga a la parilla (grilled chicken breast) is well seasoned and moist. Their Café con Leche is excellent, but don’t ask for Tres Leches cake. As I was told, it is a Dominican cake, and not available at Nellie’s.

I always say that the best way to get to know a city is to get away from the tourist areas. Coming to Paseo Boricua is a great way to visit a part of Chicago that most out-of-towners never see.

Getting There:
You can drive to Division Street, near Humboldt Park, there is plenty of parking available. By mass transit, take the Blue Line or the Red Line to their Division Street stop, and transfer to the #70 bus west bound towards Austin.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

The High Line Park, New York City

34th Street Entrance

New York City used to be a center of manufacturing and shipping, and the part of Manhattan known as Chelsea played a key role in all of it. Situated along the piers of the Hudson River, its warehouses and factories were well placed. Today, most of the buildings are used for other purposes, but they left behind something that has been turned into a jewel - The High Line.

Chelsea takes its name from the estate of Thomas Clarke, a retired British general, who bought the land there in 1750, and named it after the Royal Hospital Chelsea a home for retired soldiers in London. Clarke is probably best known as the grandfather of Clement Clarke Moore, who wrote A Visit From St. Nicholas, and who was born and lived in the area. As the neighborhood was developed during the early 1800’s, warehouses were constructed along the new piers that were being built on the Hudson River. By 1860, Chelsea was home to distilleries of turpentine and camphene, and a huge complex that converted coal to gas. To service these businesses, the Hudson River Railroad built freight tracks from 35th street south to Spring Street, in between 10th and 11th Avenues.

UnknownUnknown author [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Chelsea continued to grow, both as an industrial area and as a home to working people. The street level right-of way became more and more dangerous. In 1929, New York City decided to construct an elevated rail line, along with the elevated West Side Highway. The line was built through the center of the blocks, and this allowed trains to pull up directly to the buildings to load and unload materials, keeping traffic off of the local streets. The tracks were in use from 1933 until they were closed by Conrail in 1980 and the right of way was abandoned at that time. In true New York fashion, its future was mired in court cases for 12 years after it closed. While southernmost section had been demolished in 1960, and several more blocks came down in 1991, the tracks still stretched from 35th Street south to Gansevoort Street. During that time, while it was officially closed to the public, nature began to reassert itself. Wild grasses, shrubs and trees grew along and among the tracks. It also became a place where “urban explorers” walked among the flora and fauna during the day, and raves took place at night.

Old Tracks
During the 1990’s, Mayor Rudy Giuliani, at the behest of real estate interests, pushed to demolish the rail line. In 1999 local residents formed The Friends of the Highline. They began to organize to have the rail line, which was still structurally sound, to be repurposed as a park/greenway, similar to the Promenade Planteé in Paris. The group received a huge boost when Diane von Furstenberg and her husband Barry Diller, threw their support behind the effort, and also from the photography project by Joel Sternfield, who spent a year documenting the resurgent growth of nature along the structure. They movement was able to hold off the developers until 2004, Michael Bloomberg, who was elected mayor in 2002, committed $50 million to help create the park. Altogether Friends of the Highline raised $150 million for this project.

The first section of the Highline Park opened in 2009, from Gansevoort Street north to 20th street. Today it spans the entire length of the rail line, 1.5 miles north to 35th street. It offers a unique view of the city, as passes between, among and sometimes through the old industrial buildings of Chelsea. Visitors can also walk by some of the newest buildings in NYC, as the construction boom along New York’s West Side continues. In building the park, the designers left much of the natural growth in place. They built a path that weaves through the grasses, trees, and the original rail lines.

West Side Railyard and The Vessel

The Vessel and The Shed

Even though it can get crowded at times, this is New York City after all, I really enjoy walking the Highline. It offers everything I love about the city. It is a great place to people watch, especially at the spots offer seats or overlook 10th Ave. Visitors become engrossed in watching the traffic below. To me this is a great chance to take photos of people who are lost in their own world. The Highline also provides the opportunity to see the working sides of architecture. The park takes you past the sides of building that were meant to be hidden from public, and designed for to function as a part of industries they supported. Finally, the Highline also gives a hint to just how quickly the natural world undo the work that humanity put in covering it up.

Head over to the far, west side of the Chelsea neighborhood of Manhattan. Climb (or take an elevator) up to The Highline. It is not an escape from the city, but it offers a fresh view of what surrounds us.

Getting There:
The Highline has many entrances along its length. Its northern end is on 34th street between 11th and 12th Ave. Take the #7 train to the 34th Street Hudson Yards Station. Walk west 1 block along 34th Street. Its southern end is at Gansevoort Street and Washington Street. Take the #A, C, E to 14th street. Walk west to Washington Street, turn right and walk south to Gansevoort (about 0.5 miles).