Inside a former upholstery shop on North Avenue, a half dozen bystanders bundled in heavy winter coats jam haphazardly into narrow spaces between tables stacked with used pants, shirts, and socks. Coat racks hanging dress pants, sport coats, and winter coats line the side walls, in between shelves of shoes, infant car seats, and milk crates stacked with canned vegetables, baby formula, peanut butter, beans, soup, and other dry goods. Adorning the earth-colored brick walls above the racks and shelves, local artwork features complex superheroes and amiable robots. Towards the back of the room, a sign “Comida Gratis- Free Food” labels a refrigerator. Aluminum trays full of Mexican rice, refried beans, and chicken fajita from a taqueria across the street sit atop a table at the back of the room.
Another dozen neighbors huddle more purposefully at the front of the room, speaking exclusively in Spanish. A few are carrying bags of clothing or plastic takeout trays stuffed with the Mexican food. Eventually a woman at the front of the room looks over the group huddled around her, gestures to the haphazard group waiting patiently behind, and switches languages abruptly. “Please, help yourself. Get something to eat.”
Mountains and Beaches for the People
After about half an hour, most of the Spanish speakers in the front file out. A few, including regular volunteers Maddy, Angie, and Katie, stay behind. Everyone else pulls up chairs and assembles in a circle. As it turns out, the departing Spanish speakers and the arriving English speakers share a common purpose, if not a common language. They both gathered to discuss how well the Casa Hernandez “free store” is meeting community needs, and to share ideas for future events they’d like to see- things like art classes, language classes, Zumba. Maddy is bilingual; many of the other volunteers aspire to be.
The English portion of the gathering begins, informally, with introductions. Volunteers and would-be volunteers each state their name, their pronouns, how they found out about the event, and where they wish they could be- on vacation, or otherwise.
It’s a cold, dreary evening in Chicago, so some share dreams of faraway places. One man wants to be near a mountain.
“Have you been to the hill?” asks Katie, gesturing towards Humboldt Park a half mile to the east. Everyone laughs, knowing Katie is referring to the locally-famous Bunker Hill sledding spot.
Another volunteer is sure she has to be near a beach.
“Have you been to the…” asks Katie again, and most are all already laughing even before she gestures towards the Humboldt Park lagoon beach.
And then, Isaiah points out another of the neighborhood’s assets- its diversity. He’s thankful that this community space provides a way to meet people living near him. Angie shares the sentiment. “You meet people who live near you,” they say. “But you wouldn’t have talked to them and met them without this place.”
Connecting with Neighbors
Notably absent from the gathering was the namesake of Casa Hernandez- Nick Hernandez himself. But he returned later in the week, and his key role in setting up the collectively-managed initiative quickly became evident.
“I barely talked to my neighbors before the pandemic hit,” said Nick, who previously worked from home for Comcast XFINITY for 10 years. Nick struggles with PTSD, and has also been on short-term disability since a city van allegedly struck his vehicle. “I had a decision…should I isolate myself or go out and help? And that’s when I started talking to more of the neighbors.”
One of those neighbors is Neftalí, who with his mother runs a balloon and decorations shop just three doors down. Neftalí is “always helping people,” including Maternity BVM– a church and school one block away.
Prior to the pandemic Nick had already built a relationship with his elderly landlord, who lives on the third floor above Nick and Casa Hernandez. “It doesn’t cost me anything to go to the corner store to pick up some stuff, or just hang out with him,” mentioning his ritual of going upstairs to join him in watching Monday night wrestling.
The Humboldt Park Solidarity Network
Nick continued connecting with his neighbors. Eventually he hooked up with Northwest-side mutual aid groups distributing food and necessities from an underutilized warehouse at Pulaski and Diversey. Social services agency Lakeview Pantry and sustainable agriculture producer Urban Canopy provided an abundance of food. But Nick and others needed to deliver the food to a growing list of Humboldt Park neighbors falling on hard times. The Humboldt Park Solidarity Network was born from this need. After downstairs neighbor moved out, Nick’s landlord helped out by letting him use the ground-floor space for sorting and storing food prior to local deliveries.
The Free Store
The following spring, some new challenges threatened to undermine the early success of HP Solidarity Network. In February 2021, Chicago City Council approved a bid to set up a movie studio in the Northwest-side food distribution warehouse. As the pandemic dragged on, volunteer delivery drivers couldn’t commit long-term. And Nick’s landlord eventually had to charge rent for the sorting space in order to cover his mortgage.
HP Solidarity Network adapted. While continuing some limited onsite food distribution in the park, they began collecting donations to raise rent. To make better use of the space, they converted it into a “free store” where, neighbors could pick up food and supplies on location.
Nick’s neighbor Neftalí is amongst volunteers staffing the free store. In addition to providing Spanish-language support, he clears the sidewalk on snowy days, and raises donations for Casa Hernandez from his balloon shop. On his trips downstairs to the corner store, Nick’s landlord often stops by Casa Hernandez to hang out and witness the development of the space as a community asset.
Best Buy’s Loss is Humboldt Park’s Gain
Nick made another key connection while shopping at Best Buy for a television. There he befriended Jorge, a fellow artist painting under the moniker Nambo Paints. Eventually becoming one of over 20,000 employees laid off by Best Buy during the pandemic, Jorge was abruptly left without a job.
Nick didn’t hesitate to let Jorge share his apartment while getting back on his feet. Jorge, in turn, began to bring new life to Casa Hernandez by teaching art classes and curating art shows. Dándole Tech, an upstart local initiative aiming to improve tech skills and equipment locally, hosted some tech workshops in the space.
Can Never Have Too Many Turkeys
HP Solidarity Network’s collaborations extend to nonprofits, local politicians, and other free stores. Casa Hernandez trades goods such as clothing and pet food with People Over Profit, a free store on the opposite side of the park. Workers from La Casa Norte, a nonprofit next door supporting youth and families facing homelessness, have given them bookshelves, coat racks, shelves, sport coats, and masks. Casa Hernandez in turn occasionally sends them service referrals.
It’s difficult to control the flow of donations, but HP Solidarity Network tries to distribute almost everything they receive. In 2019 Nick helped deliver turkeys to senior homes for Delia Ramirez, the Illinois State Representative now running for Congress. The following year, Delia and Senator Aquino brought them 50 turkeys, which HP Solidarity Network delivered to neighbors. In 2021 they accepted a batch of turkeys from Casa Norte, despite not having space to store them. But Nick and Neftalí packed a shopping cart full of turkeys. Pushing the cart down North Avenue, they checked in with each storefront until they gave everything away.
The Egg Man Giveth
Despite HP Solidarity Network’s track record of helping neighbors in need, they’re careful to distinguish between charity and solidarity. “We’re not charity,” Nick emphasizes. “We’re here trying to build community.”
One of the regulars, who Nick calls the “Egg Man,” would visit every day and simply ask, “got any eggs?” The first time, Nick handed over some eggs with a smile. But three weeks of repeat visits without otherwise interacting with anyone in the store was enough to test Nick’s limits.
But then the Egg Man slowly began to open up. Nick learned that the Egg Man was bringing the eggs to his elderly mother. And, the Egg Man revealed that he had connections with a sock factory where he formerly worked. On return visits he contributed kids’ socks every week.
Community Need Never Ends
Even with strong collaboration between neighbors, nonprofits, politicians, and other community partners, the community need never ends. And it’s tough for volunteers to keep up. “People are always going to need help,“ Nick notes. He’s seen volunteers who “tend to give everything at first,” but has to remind them to “take a step back. We just need to take our time. Don’t burn yourself out.” While many volunteers haven’t been able to commit long term, the consistent effort of about a dozen core volunteers has helped keep the store running.
Angie is one such consistent volunteer, having helped out for over 13 months. They attribute their longevity to committing to “only” two hours per week, on Wednesdays. “That feels pretty manageable,” they say.
Angie, who works at a local nonprofit by day, feels energized by the informal approach at Casa Hernandez. “We don’t have to have all of that formality culture that comes with professionalism culture. You don’t have to talk a certain way, or look a certain way, or think a certain way. Anyone is welcome to join in.” They have learned that it’s “possible to work together with groups and be productive towards a shared mission, and get a lot of things done, without bureaucracy, without hierarchy.” Because of this adaptability they’re well-equipped to “just do whatever seems right in the moment.”
As an example of doing what’s right in the moment, Angie mentions a potential collaboration with the Chicago Period Project to help distribute menstrual supplies to homeless and others in need. Maddy on her part leads activities attracting a small crowd of children, some of whose parents are shopping at the free store.
HP Solidarity Network encourages volunteers to share in decision-making- in fact they are the only ones making decisions. “What’s working is definitely getting people’s perspective,” Nick reflects. They “can listen to other folks see where they’re struggling, get their opinion, and come together as a group to come up with the solution. And at the same time, it doesn’t all fall on me.”
This approach to leadership was critical last month, when Nick contracted COVID while traveling. Though he missed nearly three weeks at the store, “there’s enough people who have keys, who have access. They can bring people here and take what they want.” Without having to ask, Jorge and Neftalí took care of Nick’s cats, helped his landlord, and helped the free store stay open in his absence. “I trust my neighbors to find ways to better the neighborhood without me.”
Keeping the Neighbor in the Neighborhood
Key to bettering the neighborhoods is a belief in “people power” which the group shares with solidarity networks across the city. “You need people to come together and help each other. You need people from different backgrounds coming together,” Nick suggests, noting the neighborhood’s mix of Puerto Rican, Asian, Mexican, Honduran, Caucasian, and other ethnic identities can be part of a “Rainbow Coalition.”
But, keeping these neighbors together is just as important as bringing them together in the first place. Noting the typically adversarial vibe at local zoning meetings, the HP Solidarity Network focuses more specifically on helping people stay in the neighborhood amidst the ongoing threat of displacement. “I’m not going to pick and choose who my neighbors are,” Nick emphasizes. “Let me get to know them. And then I get surprised when I get to know someone and find out that they’re struggling.” And then he’s “going to go on my computer, I’m going to talk to some of my friends, see what resources are available. Help them out.”
How You Can Help
You, too, can help out our neighbors through the HP Solidarity Network. They could use your time, cash, goods, or solidarity.
Volunteers are always needed. Sign up here.
Cash donations support rent, fresh food, essential supplies such as shampoo, and limited cash assistance for people in need. You can donate by Venmo or Cash App. If you’re able to visit the store, you can also buy artwork- with proceeds going back to HP Solidarity Network.
Goods can be dropped off at 3519 W. North Avenue during free store hours:
- Saturday 1-3 PM
- Monday 5-7 PM
- Wednesday 5-7 PM
You can keep up with current needs at https://www.instagram.com/hpsolidaritynetwork/. Commonly needed items include:
- house cleaning products
- personal care items such as shampoo
- mens’ clothing, especially over size 32 waist
- diapers for infants and adults
- fresh food including milk, eggs, produce, bread
- dry goods
It’s also okay to just stop by. “If people do have time, they can come by, get to know other folks, get different perspectives. If you have financial stability, your perspective is way different from someone that’s struggling. Just get to know other folks, get to know other cultures,” Nick encourages.