HUMBOLDT PARK — State Sen. Iris Martinez, who has been vocal in the fight to save La Casa Puertorriqueña, is livid the beloved Puerto Rican community center is now facing the wrecking ball.
According to Martinez, the plan all along was to save the community center at 1237 N. California Ave. and build affordable housing around it.
“He’s deceitful. He lied to the community,” Martinez said of Paul Roldan, president of Hispanic Housing Development Corporation, the nonprofit developer redeveloping the site, adding, “[He] destroyed our icon.”
“Yesterday was very emotional. I cried. … I’m just livid with the disrespect he has shown our community.”
Roldan, who didn’t respond to multiple requests for comment, has never said publicly the community center would be saved.
Asked about the fate of the community center after the court-ordered sale last year, he told Block Club: “It’s an important question we need to figure out with the rest of the community.” Roldan told the Tribune it’s an “iconic location. It’s not an iconic building.”
From the beginning, Roldan’s plan was to build an affordable housing complex with apartments geared toward seniors and families. But, according to Martinez and others involved in the fight to save La Casa, there was a plan to save La Casa going on behind the scenes.
Martinez said she and the new Puerto Rican parade oversight group were working on coming up with the funding to buy the building back from Roldan, rehab the building and reopen the community center — and Roldan appeared to be on board.
“We’ve been going back and forth in emails saying the money is secured, give us a contract, and then overnight this man very maliciously came and demolished our building,” Martinez said.
Block Club wasn’t able to independently verify that claim. Martinez didn’t provide emails. Miguel Vazquez, who is on the board of trustees of the new Puerto Rican parade oversight group, couldn’t immediately provide emails either, but said they’d be released at a Friday morning press conference in front of La Casa.
Martinez said the reason they didn’t bid on the property in court is because they didn’t have the financing in place at the time.
“We knew, financially, they were the right group,” Martinez said of Hispanic Housing. “[Paul] knew all along that our intent was to create the oversight board, find investors and get rehab money and present that to the court to save the building.”
Demolition crews on Tuesday began tearing down the community center that for years brought the Puerto Rican community together through games, music and food.
Casa regulars told Block Club they were sad to see the building go, but hopeful a new community center would be built in its place.
But Martinez said she fears Roldan will only open an office for the Puerto Rican parade oversight group in the new complex — and the community center won’t be replaced.
Up until the court-ordered sale, the Puerto Rican Parade Committee of Chicago owned the building. The group was essentially forced to sell the building after landing in bankruptcy court.
“We don’t want a simple office,” Martinez said. “We want our community center where our seniors can have their crochet parties, their domino parties, all their family parties.”
According to Martinez and Vazquez, the building didn’t have serious structural problems and therefore didn’t need to be demolished — it just “needed some love.”
The building failed building inspections from 2013 to 2019 for violations like failure to maintain exterior walls, parapet walls and the roof, according to city records.
Both Martinez and Vazquez have personal connections to the community center. Martinez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, was born and raised in Humboldt Park.
“I live across the street from Humboldt Park. My mom was one of those people every year she’d buy a [parade] T-shirt,” the state lawmaker said, adding that she helped fix the sidewalks in front of La Casa back when she worked for then-26th Ward Ald. Luis Gutierrez.
“Even though it’s not part of my district, my roots are there and I will always come back to Humboldt Park.”
Vazquez, a lifelong Humboldt Parker who is also of Puerto Rican descent, said his late mother was a Casa regular.
“This was her second house,” he said.
“I just lost my mom in April and that was her stomping ground,” Vazquez said of the community center. “As I stood there watching the bulldozer, it just broke my heart.”
Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th) didn’t respond to a request for comment.
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