By Andrew J. Fernández
Back in the day when I lived in Brighton Park as a young person, I delivered the newspaper on 40th Place from Albany to California Avenue. Every morning at 5am, I would wake up, prepare my route orders, and deliver to customers. I had the second largest route in the neighborhood. I was able to do this all the way through high school. Not great pay, but it helped with what my family could not provide for me.
Soon after high school, I was hired at an Amoco full-serve gas station pumping gas, cleaning windows, checking oil, and tire pressure at $3.50 an hour. I worked anywhere from 30 to 50 hours a week. The need was always there and it was local, walking distance from my home.
Many of the customers that stopped by to get gas worked in the neighborhood. In the 80’s, Brighton Park had approximately 10,000 manufacturing jobs. If you lived in the neighborhood, there were plenty of opportunities within a 10-mile radius: manufacturing, bottling companies, steel mills, railroad companies, warehouses, etc.
The Amoco station is gone. Paper routes, I don’t think even exist anymore, and those manufacturing industry jobs, gone as well. There are limited employment opportunities in Brighton Park today for a much larger and younger population. Brighton Park has unfortunately lost much of its infrastructure as well. Catholic schools, which were a great resource to many residents in Brighton Park, especially youth, have all but disappeared. At one time there were five parishes in Brighton Park and now only two remain. That resource and anchor has not been replaced.
Times have changed significantly, but not in the way we can call ‘progress’. Opportunities have not increased in the community they have decreased. Now more than ever, organizations, businesses, and community residents need to invest in the future—our children and youth. Investment means time, resources, a new vision, and yes, money!
Brighton Park’s demographics have changed considerably over the past 20 years as well. The Latino population is currently at 95%. It is a very young population, the median age being approximately 25 years old with children under 5. Thus the needs for parents, early childhood development services, and education is ever increasing.
However, there are some opportunities popping up: opportunities through the arts. At SGA’s Brighton Park location, we are thrilled to partner with ElevArte Community Studio who has committed resources and begun to introduce new projects to the neighborhood. Summer will not only bring warm air but new color, two of ElevArte’s teaching artists will lead Walls of Hope, an apprenticeship program with After School Matters. Youth participants will learn about neighborhood history while transforming community spaces with murals.
If we believe that our children and youth should be a reflection of us in a new and improved form, we have work to do. And here is the opportunity to take advantage of that moment in a time when we can say, “We saw it coming and we united to be proactive for our children and youth.”
Let’s take a step back and be accountable for what can be done now. It’s time to build again, not only bridges, highways or buildings, but our children. We need opportunities for youth in Brighton Park, like Walls of Hope, so that they prepare our youth to build our future communities one bridge, one highway, and one building at a time.
Andrew J. Fernández has lived in Chicago his entire life. A former resident of Brighton Park and a current resident of Humboldt Park, Fernández has worked as a public servant for 28 years. He has worked for both non-for-profit organizations and city government. His career includes services to people with disabilities, youth and youth serving agencies, employment services, and building capacity in local communities. He has worked in several communities in Chicago and the suburbs. Mr. Fernández graduated from Roosevelt University with a Bachelor’s in General Studies and a Master’s in History. He currently works for SGA Youth and Family Services as a Regional Director.