News Column

Identity and Prosperity Together

July/August 2003, HISPANIC BUSINESS Magazine

Yolanda Perdomo

Massive steel flags proclaim the start of Paseo Boricua in the Humbolt Park region of Chicago.
Massive steel flags proclaim the start of Paseo Boricua in the Humbolt Park region of Chicago.

On a typical afternoon, students, executives, and neighborhood folk stop in at Café Colao for the lunch special: Puerto Rican–style steak with rice and beans. The café functions as a gathering place in Humboldt Park, the heart of Chicago's Puerto Rican community. But the eatery also typifies the success of cultural tourism as an entrepreneurial strategy to turn ethnic neighborhoods into magnets for tourists and their dollars.

From San Antonio and Miami to Chicago, community development advocates have found a payoff by promoting their Hispanic identity. "The goal is that the tourists leave with a better understanding of the social, economic, and cultural aspects of this community," says Carla Santos, assistant professor at the University of Illinois, Urbana-Champaign. "[They get] a better grasp of that, and have some inter-cultural exchange."

In Chicago, the identity question bears special import because of the city's Hispanic diversity. Unlike Miami's Cuban community or the strong Mexican heritage in Los Angeles, Chicago's Hispanic population has mixed roots. According to Census 2000, the city is home to about 753,000 Hispanics, of whom 530,000 are Mexican American, 113,000 are Puerto Rican, and 110,000 are of other Hispanic national origins.

Currently two Chicago neighborhoods – one Puerto Rican, the other Mexican American – are struggling with the issue of how to capitalize on their cultural assets without reverting to gentrification, which ultimately supplants the characteristics that made the neighborhood popular in the first place.

In the Humbolt Park section of the city, a six-block stretch of Division Street is nicknamed Paseo Boricua, or Puerto Rican Avenue. Each end of the district is marked by a giant 45-ton steel Puerto Rican flag, serving as a gateway to the community. More than 80 businesses ply their trades on Paseo Boricua, including eight restaurants. Four more are scheduled to open by the end of the 2003.

Eighteen businesses relocated to Paseo Boricua in the last year. On the cultural side, the area boasts an artists' space used by young Hispanics for poetry slams, open mic nights, and musical events. Later this year, Paseo Boricua will be home to a new Puerto Rican cultural center.

Enrique Salgado Jr., executive director of the Division Street Business Development Association, says the promotion of his neighborhood won't overtake the residents who live here. "Paseo Boricua is part of a larger development project for the community which involves housing to make sure Puerto Ricans can afford to live in this area," he says. "It's also a way of attracting those who have left – the Puerto Rican middle class – to come back to the community."

Solidifying ties to the neighborhood looms as a priority because of a historical pattern of displacement for Puerto Ricans in Chicago. The Puerto Rican community was once centered in the now upscale Lincoln Park area, near Chicago's Lakefront, but Puerto Rican residents were slowly pushed out as a result of gentrification.

According to Mr. Santos, what makes a neighborhood attractive to tourists can also turn it into a "hot spot" for developers. "Suddenly you have this notion that this is a hip place to be. People start moving in. Prices get raised," observes Mr. Santos. "The people from the community can no longer afford to live there. Therefore, they have to move out. What brought the people into a community, which is precisely its diversity, slowly is commodified into a product. And the people who actually made part of that diversity are driven out."

Luxury townhomes and condos are being built around the perimeter of Pilsen, the center of the Windy City's Mexican-American community. But Pilsen still has plenty of taquerias, retail shops, bogedas, and colorful murals reflecting the Mexican-American style. The Mexican Fine Arts Center Museum (MFACM) serves as the anchor to the community.

Juana Guzman, associate executive director of MFACM, sums up the balance required to turn culture into a profit stream. "You can't go into Pilsen without talking about the neighborhood, talking about the people, how they live," notes Ms. Guzman. "You have to do it in a respectful manner. You can't do it like 'these poor people,' and you can't treat them like exotica. And that's the danger of cultural tourism, or tourism in general – that it's going to stereotype a cultural group."

The solution, according to Ms. Guzman, is to make sure cultural tourism is controlled by people from the neighborhood. "The best way to ensure that it's going to be done in a sensitive manner is when you hire people who live and work here," she says. "Mexican Americans are hard-working people. …They have lost their lives in U.S. wars. They pick the grapes and the food that you put on your table. They have a culturally rich history. That's the story that I want to present."

Recently the MFACM held a large exhibit featuring works by Frida Kahlo, Diego Rivera, and other Mexican artists. The MFACM, which normally attracts 200,000 visitors a year, will get more than $100,000 in additional admissions from that exhibit alone. Ms. Guzman estimates the gift shop will bring in around $600,000, doubling its regular take. The museum has launched a marketing blitz with fliers to guide tourists to area restaurants and murals peppered throughout the neighborhood. "In this economy, our neighborhoods are struggling just to make ends meet," says Ms. Guzman. "And if cultural institutions like the museum can generate the kind of business that we're talking about, that means jobs. That means money for our neighborhood."

The establishment of bus routes is one means of driving foot traffic to ethnic neighborhoods. Last year, more than 300 people paid $30 to $50 each for a bus tour of Pilsen. Ms. Guzman also helped develop a trolley system running between Pilsen and Chicago's Chinatown as a way of giving people from both neighborhoods, and tourists from around the city, a chance to sample two different ethnic communities on one ride. Between May and September, more than 24,000 people rode the free trolley, and the success of the system encouraged a continuation of funding for this year. The $150,000 tab to run the trolley will be picked up by local merchants and national sponsors.

The success of that project gives those on Paseo Boricua hope they can duplicate it. Beautification projects include a special street-cleaning crew and sidewalk planters painted with flags from throughout Puerto Rico. The redevelopment plans call for a Paseo Boricua facelift with a rebate program for business owners who incorporate architectural elements resembling Old San Juan into their building façades. Companies undertaking the construction projects, which run from $15,000 to $30,000, are eligible for a rebate of up to 50 percent.

Alberto Vazquez personifies the optimistic vision found among the shops of Paseo Boricua. He relocated his YGO Salon to the neighborhood two years ago. "I wanted to be part of what was happening. We Puerto Ricans need to unite, and we need to have a community, a space that we can call our own. Little Italy, the Mexicans – all cultures had one except for us," says Mr. Vazquez. "What we're trying to attract is business – new business in the community, so we can stay here permanently."


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