After nine years of struggle to save one of Chicago’s largest and oldest murals, the Puerto Rican community of Humboldt Park is closer to wining the right to the contentious adjacent lot. On Wednesday, September 27th, Raul Echevarria, Deputy Director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, received word that the Chicago City Council Committee on Real Estate approved a two-year lease of the lot. The lease will now go before the full City Council for a vote in October. “Once the lease is approved we can begin development of the lot into a garden with GreenCor, a group assigned by the City to develop the landscape elements to the lot”, said Echevarria. If all goes as planed the garden could be completed by mid November, weather permitting. According to Echevarria, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center will hold title of the lease. “During the two year period of the lease, the City will begin a process of officially transferring title of the lot to the Puerto Rican Cultural Center”, Echevarria stated.
Back in 2001, after completing plans to restore the mural and develop the adjacent lot, a committee made up of various community organizations (including the Near Northwest Neighborhood Network, Architreasures, the Puerto Rican Cultural Center) and residents attempted to negotiate with the developer who owned the lot, to sell it to the committee. The developer had laid a foundation to build a condominium that would block sight of the mural. By 2003, negotiations had failed and the deve
loper started construction of the condo. This sparked highly publicized protests by the community members that included the involvement of the then Alderman of the 26th Ward Billy Ocasio. Subsequently, the protesters stopped construction on three occasions. Finally, the City was able to gain control of the site in 2007. Yet restoration could not begin until the City was able to settle the question of stewardship of the property that would insure that the project would be completed and maintained.
“I remember being ten years old, driving with my father and we would always pass that mural. It was kind of creepy”, recalls John Vergar, “especially that guy (Muños Marin), who is stabbing Jesus (Albizu Campos), with what looked to me like a pool stick”.
Artist John Vergara (37), who is best known in the community for creating the Paseo Boricua/Humboldt Park (Coat Of Arms) mural on the corner of Campbell and Division, as well as, his now famous flag (with the Coat of Arms), was assigned to be the lead artist of the restoration. “I would have never thought that I would be involved in the restoration of this mural”, says Vergara.
John Pitman Weber, a veteran Chicago muralist and professor of art at Elmhurst College, was hired as a consultant for the project. He provided technical assistance to Vergara who had never restored a mural before. Along with various volunteers, the goal was to complete the restoration in one week. Restoration began on August 28th and by September 4th the mural was 85 % complete. “I didn’t think it was going to be possible to complete this in such a short time,” says Mario Galan. Artist Mario Galan had designed the mural in 1971 as a founding member of the Puerto Rican Arts Association. “I was surprised to see that he (Vergara) was dedicated. When someone is dedicated, you tend to put a little more into it and it turned out right,” says Mario.
Mario Galan was one of many volunteers who helped in the restoration of the mural. Although Mario is surprised that the mural has lasted this long, his memories are still vivid of when he first painted the mural. “I thought about the people that worked under me when I first did the mural, like Hector Rosario who was instrumental in getting me the information I needed.” Says Mario.
John Vergara was pleased to have the opportunity to work with one of the original ar
tists. “I had one of the original muralist, Mario Galan, assisting me which was the best part of the experience”, says Vergara. “Someone like me, from the “streets” to be given an opportunity to restore a historic mural. I feel truly honored.”
An entire generation of Humboldt Park residents has grown up seeing the mural as part of this neighborhood. Now with the restoration of the mural a new generation of residents can now enjoy it’s aesthetic with a new park and garden. Just in time for the 40th Anniversary of the mural next year. “I see it as a victory for all of us”,
by Eduardo Arocho