Julio "Cesi" Castro stands behind an archaic gray cash register at the Caribe Grocery on the near West side, ringing up cigarettes and soda pop and the occasional Latino newspaper. From this spot over the past 32 years, Castro has watched neighborhood businesses close and customers move away.
"The neighborhood's been going down," he says with a lingering Puerto Rican accent. "When we started in this corner, the whole block on both sides was (residential) multi-units. Now I am the only building left. I joke with a friend of mine that soon I'll be able to see Parma from here."
Castro would like nothing more than to believe that business leaders and politicos have resurrected a long-floundering plan for a Hispanic Village that would truly revitalize the neighborhood. Inspired by Mayor Michael White's promise earlier this year to devote $5 million to the West Side Market area, neighborhood leaders have made it a top priority. In its most recent incarnation, Hispanic Village would transform the neighborhood surrounding Clark and West 25th Street into a Hispanic version of a Little Italy or a Slavic Village.
"New energy. New focus," says Frank Johanek, executive director of Clark Metro Development Corporation. "The time is now."
But can it really happen? The Hispanic Village idea has been floating around for about a decade. Every time it surfaced, it quickly sank. Supporters say there has never been enough money, enough leadership, or enough cooperation among Hispanic leaders. Moreover, with the high crime rate, low household incomes, and many strip clubs, fast-food restaurants, and pager businesses, the neighborhood is hardly a tourist draw.
The first Hispanic Village, as proposed by the Hispanic Business Association, was limited to a two-story, 100,000-square-foot building filled with Latino-themed restaurants, clothing shops, and import-export stores. Many of the problems that hindered the plans for that version remain. Despite coming up with a formal design and budget figures in 1991 and revisiting the plan in 1996, the HBA never pursued the city for money to bring it to fruition, says Executive Director Angel Guzman. He says that the organization decided the crime-infested, low-income neighborhood had to be stabilized before an economic development initiative of this magnitude could be successfully implemented.
"Why would someone want to invest in an area that's not safe?" Guzman asks. "Why would a tourist go into an area that's not safe?"
Clark Metro and a handful of community service agencies focused instead on building and improving housing in the area--an effort that is ongoing. Clark Metro is currently pushing for 15 to 25 new homes north of Clark to help buoy the neighborhood.
Meanwhile, the groundwork for the new Hispanic Village is being laid from I-90 to Althen on West 25th and from 25th to 38th streets on Clark. Travel agency owner George Torres plans to build a Hispanic-themed mini-mall on a stretch of property he owns on West 25th near I-90. Three buildings in or near the intersection of West 25th and Clark will be renovated, including the F.L. Thompson building. And Clark Metro is trying to buy the Paris Art Theatre and turn it into a community center.
While details are still being discussed, Hispanic Village promoters all agree on one thing: They're going to need the city's blessing--and money--to make this plan a success. They're nowhere near getting it. The plan is no further along with City Hall than it was in 1996.
"We have not received any formal request," says Linda M. Hudecek, director of the city's Department of Community Development. Furthermore, Hudecek stresses that the neighborhood shouldn't expect a "trickle-down" of the West Side Market money into its neighborhood.
In the meantime, supporters must make the community aware of the plan, assess its interest, and gauge its support. Outreach is being done right now to attract business owners to a neighborhood meeting scheduled for April 22--not an easy task. Because the plan calls for the neighborhood to build on its Hispanic identity--Hispanics make up about 35 percent of the neighborhood's residents--the owners of existing non-Hispanic-themed businesses in the area are already wary.
Tee Khatib, who has owned a transmission shop on Clark for eighteen years, says he asked the city for a permit to build a light auto repair shop next to his business. After being turned down, Khatib, a Syrian American, called Nelson Cintron, the neighborhood's councilman, for assistance. But it was Johanek who visited his shop to talk to him.
"He said, 'Don't do anything right now. We don't know what we're going to do with the neighborhood,'" Khatib recalls. "He says he could get me good money for my property. I asked him, 'Are you going to push me out little by little, until I'm out on the street?'"
Johanek says no business will be forced out of the neighborhood because of Hispanic Village. But organizers will encourage new development that fits with the Hispanic theme.
"The Hispanic theme is to encourage Hispanics in the area to reinvest, not to chase people away," Cintron says.
To accomplish that, promoters have a lot of convincing to do, even to those who want to see the plan succeed the most. Torres has high hopes for the Hispanic Village project, but he can only speak confidently about his component.
"They've been talking about it and talking about it," Torres says. "We've not been talking about it. We're going to do it."
To grocery owner Castro, Hispanic Village would help the local economy as well as celebrate the Latino heritage. He is supportive and hopeful, but skeptical. His store used to bring in about $300,000 a year. Now it makes about half that much. Castro says he can't compete with the Finast down the street. And forget about attracting customers from his nearest neighbors. No one lives at Ramos Auto Sales ("We Finance") and the garbage-strewn Summer Sprout Community Garden.
Castro says he has only been able to stay in business because he does not rely on the grocery as his sole source of income. So much about the neighborhood has deteriorated that he has delayed a badly needed renovation on the outside of the store. More talk about Hispanic Village doesn't make him feel secure enough to start on those plans.
"If I rebuild and put all my money into this, I'm scared no one will come," he says.
Jacqueline Marino may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.