Culture

A New Incubator Is Opening Up In Chicago’s ‘La Villita’ And Will Embrace The Neighborhood’s Mexican Heritage

At 10 years old, Anayasin Vazquez, now 60, moved to Little Village, affectionately called La Villita, with her family. The predominantly Mexican neighborhood is only 15 minutes Southwest of the Loop in Chicago, but entering its non-physical borders can feel like a passport is required. Billboard advertisements change from English to Spanish, the skin and hair color of people darkens and the image of La Virgen de Guadalupe can be seen on nearly every block.

Anayasin Vazquez’s memories of her childhood in La Villita are of bustling businesses, like La Chiquita grocery store.

Credit: junf_ga / Instagram

Vasquez recalls families eating at La Justicia, sweet smells emanating from El Nopal bakery and grocery trips to La Chiquita.

“That was a time when I saw Little Village thriving,” she recalls. She moved out of the area at 18 years old, and 20 years passed before she moved back. When she did, the neighborhood had changed.

But, over time, Vasquez saw changes to the community she loves, some of which are positive.

Credit: Google Maps

“Buildings deteriorated, businesses were leaving and it no longer had the vibrancy I remembered,” says Vazquez. “People were negatively affected by these changes. It led to crime. And that’s why I’m excited about Xquina. Because maybe it can help us get back to what Little Village was.”

Vazquez is referring to Xquina Cafe.

Credit: Google Maps

The recently announced hybrid coffee shop and entrepreneurial incubator, expected to fill the empty storefront located at 3534 W. 26th St., in Spring 2019. Jaime di Paulo, former executive director of the local chamber of commerce, now President & CEO of the Illinois Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, spearheaded the project and describes it as a learning center with cultural relevance. In late July, the Mayor’s office announced it was the recipient of a $250,000 Neighborhood Opportunity Grant. Another $350,000 is needed to fully fund the project.

The two-story, 6,000-square-foot building, is described as an eyesore by locals. It sits along the main corridor of the neighborhood’s shopping district, which to date, has lacked any businesses of this kind. The facility, partially owned by the chamber, will be designed as a hub for ideas and business meetings. Expect free wi-fi, classes for entrepreneurs, co-working spaces and private offices. 

Di Paulo was aided in his bid by Juan Saldana, associate director of the chamber’s Small Business Development Center. The two brokered a deal with Carlos Halwaji, its initial purchaser, for 25 percent ownership of the building. Halwaji is a chiropractor who has practiced in Little Village for the last 20 years. 

The facility shares tech incubator DNA, but will incorporate the neighborhood’s Mexican identity.

Credit: DesignBridgeLtd

Classes will be offered in both English and Spanish; and the coffee operator and second anchor tenant will be carefully scrutinized by select members of the chamber, in order to ensure a shared vision of empowering the people in the area.

“Gentrification is a real issue,” says di Paulo. “We want to be very selective of the vendors we use. New amenities to a community is sometimes confused as gentrification. This isn’t that. We are building something for the people of Little Village.” 

It’s not the first time a local organization purchased and built out a physical space in order to better the lives, and preserve the culture, of people in the district. Universidad Popular is a non-profit which provides support services to Latinos. Founded in 1972, the organization offers an array of classes and resources ranging from health and wellness topics, to digital literacy. 

Originally located in Lakeview, the organization bounced from Humboldt Park to Pilsen, due to rising rent. In an effort to combat gentrification, the organization purchased a 12,000 square foot banquet hall in Little Village. The renovation costs, estimated at upwards of $1M, almost kept the organization from moving forward with their plans. However, with the help of its working class neighborhood—plumbers, carpenters, housekeepers and electricians—they managed to transform the dilapidated building into a vital part of the community that continues to thrive. 

Xquina is the younger sibling to this concept. It’s a place primarily designed for the 33 percent of residents under the age of 35.

“Most people have to leave the neighborhood if they need a quiet place to work or study,” says di Paulo. “We don’t want that, so we’re working to fit the needs and demands of the people. There’s currently nothing like this in Little Village.“

A feasibility study done by the chamber, showed 90 percent of people deemed this initiative important and critical to the area. Especially the free internet. A common asset in the Loop and Northside, but a scarce resource in the neighborhood says Vazquez.

With a clear need and desire for this concept, it can appear as if support was garnered overnight. However, the process began five years ago when di Paulo started his position, and inherited a $50,000 deficit.

Over time, he turned the business around and earned the trust of the people by funneling resources into the neighborhood. Such as the establishment of a small business development center last fall. With that addition to the neighborhood, came Salgado. 

The two walked the streets, knocked on doors and got to know residents. Their grassroots efforts led to their small business center being one of the most successful on record. Money allocated for businesses in Little Village reached more than $1M in less than a year. 

When the times come, a vendor RFP will be posted where a committee of four to five members from the area will be formed to select the two anchor tenants. 

“Hopefully someone from the neighborhood steps up,” says Salgado when asked about the ideal candidate.

This optimism and investment in the community drives the concept. Salgado and di Paulo both speak of this project as a way to combat gentrification and minimize brain drain happening among young people who feel their needs are not being met. 

“The idea is, we don’t have all the answers,” says Salgado. “We’re looking to the community to help us. We want to bring in the right people who can help create jobs. We want to be a catalyst for growth.”

And judging by the support for Xquina Cafe, it’s clear Salgado is not the only hopeful one.

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This Chicago Man Used His Wrongful Conviction Settlement Money to Open a Barber College With His Former Prison Guard

Things That Matter

This Chicago Man Used His Wrongful Conviction Settlement Money to Open a Barber College With His Former Prison Guard

Screenshot via YouTube

Some people are dealt a tough hand in life and, for whatever reason, aren’t able to cope with it. They might spiral into bad lifestyles choices or other unhelpful coping mechanisms. However, other people are able to rise above adversity. Like Juan Rivera, a man who spent 20 years behind bars for a crime he didn’t commit.

After he was wrongly convicted of murder, 48-year-old Juan Rivera used his settlement money to open up a barber college with his former prison guard.

Juan Rivera went to jail for the rape and murder of 11-year-old Holly Staker in 1992. Chicago police used unlawful psychological mind games over the course of a four-day interrogation to coerce Rivera to admitting to the crime. The Chicago police also destroyed DNA evidence and lied to the prosecution team. Juan Rivera spent 20 years in Stateville Correctional Center.

While he was in prison, Juan Rivera became friends with prison guard and barbershop coordinator, Bobby Mattison. Mattison knew that some prisoners just needed the right opportunities to make better life choices. After a lot of hard work, Mattison opened up the first licensed barber college in a maximum security prison. Rivera was one of his students.

“We lock them up well, but what do we do to help them get back on their feet?” Mattison told Block Club Chicago. “I see these guys coming in and out. I knew I wanted to do something to help them.

It was through Mattison that Rivera began to change his attitude and outlook on life. When Rivera left prison, the city of Chicago awarded him $20 million in a wrongful conviction suit. Rivera knew exactly what he was going to do with the settlement money: give back to his community.

Together, Rivera and Mattison founded Legacy Barber College. Legacy Barber College recruits students from inner-city Chicago who are in danger of getting caught up in a life of crime. The barber college partners with high schools, community colleges, and career day fairs to show kids that “they can find a good career even if college isn’t an option.”

“This started, believe it or not, in prison,” Juan Rivera said. “I saw a need. We want to help the less fortunate. Because once they get out, they usually have nothing to fall back on.”

Legacy Barber College’s 32 current enrollees are also college or high school students. At the school, students can earn their barber’s license, but they also learn “financial literacy, customer service and running a business.”

But Legacy Barber College’s services aren’t limited to teaching. They also, naturally, give haircuts. “We want the community to know it’s theirs, not mine,” Juan Rivera said. “We want people to feel welcome and comfortable taking their kids and family here.”

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Retired Detective Rafael Tovar Recalls Working John Wayne Gacy Case In New Peacock Docuseries

Entertainment

Retired Detective Rafael Tovar Recalls Working John Wayne Gacy Case In New Peacock Docuseries

John Wayne Gacy shocked the world with is violent and terrifying crimes. The serial killer operated in the Chicago suburbs and killed at least 33 people. “John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise” digs deep into the story that true crime enthusiasts think they know.

Peacock is releasing a new true-crime docuseries “John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise.”

NBC News Studios is bringing a new true-crime docuseries to the streaming world with “John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise.” The documentary promises to take even those who know the story of John Wayne Gacy through parts of the case and serial killer that few know.

The docuseries relies on interviews from law enforcement, neighbors, victims, and family members affected by the murders. Retired Detective Rafael Tovar and Executive Producer Alexa Danner spoke with mitú about working the the case and creating the docuseries.

Tovar was the first Spanish-speaking police officer in the Chicago suburbs in 1970. Eight years later, Tovar was helping to unravel the horrific murders committed by John Wayne Gacy.

“It was a phase into the case because when we first started, we were working on a missing person report for one person, never figuring that it was going to turn out to be what it turned out to be,” Tovar recalls about the case. “It was something new every day until we started digging that’s when everything broke loose, and it became the case of a lifetime for a police officer.”

The former Des Plaines detective remembers the moment that case was going to be much more than anticipated. Around December 21, when the officers executed a second warrant on John Wayne Gacy’s suburban home, Tovar and other authorities made gruesome discoveries. Tovar remembers digging under the house with an evidence technician when they discover three left femurs. The bones were too decayed to belong to the last victim, Robert Piest.

“The John Wayne Gacy story has certainly been told multiple times over the year and I think that there is a sense that there’s a narrative out there that is known and accepted,” Alexa Danner, an executive producer on the docuseries says. “What we really found as we began to produce this documentary was that there are a lot of questions that remain about the case. There’s a lot of mystery still surrounding it.”

Danner promises that even those who think they know the John Wayne Gacy story well will learn new things about the crimes. “John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise” talks to people never interviewed before and takes a hard look at the case like never before.

The investigation into John Wayne Gacy changed law enforcement practices drastically. Procedures were adjusted to better assist with missing persons reports, especially children. Tovar also shared that John Wayne Gacy himself claimed to have had other victims.

“I was transferring him from our police lockup to the county lockup. Just in conversation, I asked him, ‘John. There are a lot of numbers going around. How many people did you kill?’ and he said, ‘Well, I’ve said this, I’ve said that, but 45 sounds like a good number.’ So I asked him, ‘Well, where are they?’ He said, ‘No. That’s your job to find out,’” Tovar recalls about that conversation. “He was the type of guy that knew that you knew something or that you were going to find out, he’d be totally honest with you. If he didn’t think that you were going to find out, he liked to play mind games with you. I believe him. Everything else he told me was true, so I believe that there are more out there.”

The show will take people through Gacy’s life before the violent attacks he became known for after his arrest. It will show people the life he had in Iowa that might have been a warning sign of things to come. The docuseries explores lingering questions about his mother’s ignorance about her son’s dealings and questions about the real body count.

Danner recalls a psychiatric report done on Gacy after his arrest that should have given everyone pause.

“It essentially said that this man would not stop behaving like this. There’s no known way to stop his behavior or change it,” Danner says. “To look back ten years before he’s arrested for all of these killing and know that he was already being assessed that way or diagnosed that way is really troubling and horrible.”

“John Wayne Gacy: Devil in Disguise” will be available for streaming March 25 on Peacock.

READ: New Netflix Docuseries Explores The Summer The Night Stalker Terrorized Los Angeles

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