HUMBOLDT PARK — The Chicago Park District has temporarily shut down the Humboldt Park Advisory Council after some members complained its recent election was unfair.
The shutdown comes after years of heated battles over gentrification, according to group members and both current and former residents involved in the group.
Some say the group, which is primarily responsible for organizing Easter egg hunts and other park events, has become so toxic in recent years that they’ve had to step away from it.
“What I think the advisory council has become is, instead of being a place where you work out things for the park, it has become gentrifiers against anti-gentrifiers,” former group member Charlie Billups said.
Billups was involved in the group for years as a resident but stopped attending meetings about eight months ago after one group member allegedly shoved him and another threatened him with a lawsuit. He said he’s been targeted because he was part of the resident coalition pushing to get Riot Fest out of Humboldt Park.
“This situation is sad. They have gone to the point where you get threatened with a lawsuit, a guy pushes you around in a meeting. That shouldn’t be,” Billups said.
Another resident involved in the group, who declined to be named for fear of repercussions, said the constant battling is taking away from the park — and the community.
“All of these people, on both sides, are vindictive and truly hate each other. Their only goals have been to fight, and win, with an occasional park accomplishment thrown in,” the resident said.
The group’s troubles came to a head Jan. 23, when the group held its most recent election. After receiving “numerous complaints from the community regarding the integrity of the election,” the Park District temporarily shut down the group, according to Park District spokeswoman Michele Lemons.
Lemons said the group isn’t allowed to hold meetings until the election results are validated and didn’t immediately provide a timeline.
The resident who spoke with Block Club under the condition of anonymity described the election meeting as pure “chaos and confusion” that devolved into shouting matches.
“Votes were counted, re-voted, recounted,” the resident said.
Residents are only able to vote in elections if they have attended at least five council meetings and some at the meeting alleged that many voters didn’t fit that criteria.
If the results stick, Jacqueline Baez will be named the new president of the group and she will oversee a new board. Baez would replace Elizabeth Rios, who has served as president for several years.
Baez denies the accusation that the election was unfair.
“What was not fair? Nobody was forced to vote for nobody. I didn’t force them. I didn’t put a gun to their head, a knife to their chest. They wrote my name and that was it,” she said.
Baez, who is of Puerto Rican descent, has worked in Humboldt Park on and off since the 1990s, but she doesn’t live in the neighborhood; she lives in Montclare. Some residents say that should disqualify her, but she doesn’t see it that way.
“I’ve always been a volunteer with the community because Humboldt Park is where Puerto Ricans identify. … Humboldt Park will always be close to my heart because it reminds me of home,” she said.
Rios, the current president, didn’t return messages seeking comment.
Baez said she hopes the Park District rules in her favor because she’s prepared to bring the group forward. She has volunteered for the group on and off since 2012.
“There’s always been conflict with the advisory council. The problem is between the Puerto Ricans and the rest. The Puerto Ricans think they own Humboldt Park and everybody’s against them if they have a different opinion. I’m not like that. I believe we should all coexist with one another,” she said.
She added: “Nobody has found a way to make both groups work together. That is why, in my opinion, this conflict will continue to happen if we don’t take the time to unite everybody.”
Billups would rather see the Park District shut down the group for a significant amount of time while the group evaluates the next steps.
“It’s no longer about the park. It’s a very unsafe place. It’s not a place where people say, Let’s organize an Easter egg hunt,” he said.
Another resident who spoke with Block Club under the condition of anonymity said one group member, an ally of Baez, is stirring up controversy and that’s largely what made her leave the group.
“When the loudest person in the room exemplifies a seemingly pro-gentrification stance and then wants a public office… well,” the resident said in a written message.
The resident said that it’s not surprising the group has become a hotbed of dissension because “there’s no consistent space for honest discussion about gentrification, displacement, and racism in the Humboldt Park community.”
But the resident also noted that the battles have gotten out of control.
“This group oversees one of the largest parks in the city. This is not OK.”
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