HUMBOLDT PARK — When it comes to Chicago’s most celebrated civic art, the enormous steel flags that bookend the stretch of Division Street known as Paseo Boricua rank near the top of the list.
The Puerto Rican flags, standing nearly 60 feet tall and made to look like they’re blowing in the wind, are so evocative and so embedded in Humboldt Park’s culture it almost feels like they’ve always been there.
Of course, that’s not true. The flags were erected in 1995 and this year they’re celebrating a milestone: 25 years.
A 25th anniversary parade is set for 3-6 p.m. Monday. It’s being thrown by Humboldt Park leaders as part of the neighborhood’s Three Kings Day, or Día de los Reyes Magos, celebration.
Humboldt Park’s identity as a Puerto Rican enclave stretches back to the mid-1950s when thousands of Puerto Ricans migrated from the island to the Chicago neighborhood.
Many years later, in 1995, then-26th Ward Ald. Billy Ocasio teamed up with local leaders to get massive Puerto Rican flags erected on either end of Paseo Boricua, the half-mile stretch of Division Street between California and Western avenues, the center of the neighborhood’s Puerto Rican community.
At the time the flags were built, about 75 to 80 percent of the people living in the surrounding area were of Puerto Rican descent.
Jose Lopez, executive director of the Puerto Rican Cultural Center, was one of the community members who pushed to get the flags installed.
Lopez has vivid memories of June 6, 1995: He said a portion of I-290 had to be shut down in the middle of the night so trucks carrying giant pieces of the steel flags could get to the installation sites.
The day itself was “extremely cold,” Lopez said.
“And those flags created such an impact that even on a very cold, dreary, snowy day, hundreds and hundreds of people showed up to dedicate those flags,” he said.
“It was an incredible sense of achievement, an incredible sense of jubilation, an incredible sense of celebration.”
The flags were designed by local architecture firm DeStefano & Partners to serve as “welcoming gateways.”
Architect John Adam Dix said of the design process: “We used computers extensively to work out the calculations and stresses. We probably couldn’t have done it any other way.”
“The design followed the computer. The word kept coming back, ‘Make it thinner.’ We kept doing that, but it’s perfectly safe.”
DeStefano & Partners used steel to honor the first wave of Puerto Rican migrants who worked at steel mills when they arrived in Humboldt Park in the mid-1940s to mid-1960s.
The firm also used steel pipeline to honor the Puerto Ricans who came to Chicago to work in the steel pipeline industry and welded the materials together to honor the Puerto Ricans who came to work in the welding industry, according to Ald. Roberto Maldonado (26th).
Maldonado, who is of Puerto Rican descent, passed a resolution in City Council in mid-December to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the flags.
“The Puerto Rican steel flags serve as a vivid memory of the Puerto Rican presence and persistence in the city,” Maldonado wrote in the resolution.
Lopez agreed, adding that the flags hold an even deeper meaning because Humboldt Park is gentrifying.
“It’s also miraculous that from the very beginning people said the flags were going to come down [as] Realtors begin to see the area as high investment and 25 years later … they’re still standing,” Lopez said.
Lopez’s Puerto Rican Cultural Center and the alderman’s office are teaming up to throw Monday’s celebration.
Three Kings Day, which occurs 12 days after Christmas, celebrates the Feast of the Epiphany on the church calendar, when the Gospel of Matthew says the Magi arrived bearing gifts for the baby Jesus.
This year’s celebration will kick off at 3 p.m. at Division Street and Artesian Avenue. The parade will start at 3:30 p.m. and end at the Humboldt Park Field House, where folks will be giving out thousands of toys to kids.
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