Albany Park: A legacy under pressure

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Albany Park

illustration by Andrew Skwish

Albany Park

With two youngsters in tow, Pedro Mendoza and Veronica Solis moved from Mexico City to Albany Park in the early 1990s, part of a surge in foreign-born residents that led to a 17 percent increase in the neighborhood’s population between 1990 and 2000. Here, they started a business hawking boiled maize from a street cart seven days a week.

Now with five children, the Mendozas are a quintessential Albany Park family. Like some 30,000 other immigrants, they came to the nation’s third most diverse area for its ethnic shops, affordable housing, good public transportation and extended family connections.

But the working-class, global legacy is under assault. A condo boom and rising real estate prices are eating away at the supply of affordable housing.

“The wallet is just getting smaller,” Solis says in Spanish. Her street-cart sales, once averaging around $400 a week, have been cut in half.

The average price for a single-family home here has jumped 190 percent since 1994, according to the Multiple Listing Service of Northern Illinois. Condominium construction increased nearly 14-fold between 1989 and 2004, according to a study by Loyola University researchers.

The changes are displacing the large, immigrant families whose children fill up neighborhood schools, heating up competition for a dwindling pool of students.

“A sign goes up [for a condominium conversion], and we know we’re losing students,” says Roger Johnson, principal at Volta Elementary.

Schools such as Volta compete for students as the district opens more “schools of choice”—charters, magnets and selective schools that draw enrollment from neighborhood schools.

A school construction boom that followed the 1990s population surge has left plenty of seats to fill; several building additions and two new schools opened.

Reacting to these pressures, the neighborhood schools have banded together to align curricula and boost community engagement. The grassroots organization wants to improve schools before the district begins closing those that perform poorly, says Jenny Arwade, executive director of the Albany Park Neighborhood Council.

But the effort took a hit in August when Gov. Rod Blagojevich, who lives in the ritzy southeast corner of Albany Park known as Ravenswood Manor, cut funding for the council’s tutoring and parent workshop programs, key components in the efforts to bolster neighborhood schools. Other grants to neighborhood outfits such as CeaseFire were axed. The anti-violence program had been working to stem gang violence in Albany Park since 2001.

Kurt Lewis, who ran the CeaseFire program through the Albany Park Community Center, says shootings fell to zero during the program’s tenure. He also credits increased police presence, after a new area police station was built in 2003, with easing residents’ safety concerns, despite strained relations over the status of undocumented workers.

Still, the area remains rich in immigrant services and, consequently, is still a point of entry to the United States. As Lewis puts it: “It may not remain this way for much longer, but for now it is.”