Credit: Kelly Garcia

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On a humid summer afternoon at the playground near 19th and California, 67-year-old Ernie Alvarez sat serenely under the blazing sun. The longtime youth soccer coach reminisced about his beloved Little Village, the neighborhood he’s called home for more than half a century. His soft eyes were fixed on the damaged soccer field before him. 

Next to Alvarez was his teal road bike. His neon orange safety vest hung over his shoulders. Every once in a while he’d wipe beads of sweat from his forehead with a napkin. As we talked, I watched as his gaze wandered back to his younger days at Douglass Park. 

Alvarez was born in a small rural town in Texas in 1955. When he was ten years old, his parents, like many other Mexican immigrants in the mid-1960s, relocated to Chicago in search of jobs. They settled in what was known then as South Lawndale. 

South Lawndale was mostly Czech and Polish immigrants who worked manufacturing jobs at the nearby large factories. Steadily, the growing Mexican population—forced out of neighboring Pilsen because of Mayor Richard J. Daley’s plans to expand the University of Illinois at Chicago (UIC) campus—began moving in. 

Meanwhile, across the BNSF railroad embankment that separates the two communities, Black residents in North Lawndale were replacing the predominantly Jewish population. At the time, it was one of the few neighborhoods in the city where Black people were allowed to buy homes—through exploitative contracts. The neighborhood underwent financial collapse, the effects of which are still evident today. 

South Lawndale’s white ethnic residents renamed the neighborhood Little Village because they didn’t want to be associated with the growing Black community next door. 

For Alvarez, growing up amid such volatility was a culture shock. He was frequently getting into fights at his new school. After two days, he refused to go back, so his parents placed him in Catholic school. He eventually made some friends and started playing in a Mexican baseball league at Douglass Park. He distinctly remembers the name of the team he used to play for: the Chicanos.  

Once every few weeks, the teams would gather at the baseball field in Douglass Park to play (the baseball diamond is no longer there). Other weeks they would go up north to Humboldt Park or down to Piotrowski Park. Alvarez’s favorite memory was playing against a tall Puerto Rican kid who was sent by another group of kids to beat him up. 

“He ended up liking me though, and we became friends,” he said, laughing. 

Alvarez has plenty of fond memories of the park, but he also recalled some troubled moments. During his youth, racial tension was high between the Mexican people in Little Village and the Black people in North Lawndale. Over time, Douglass Park, which splits evenly down Ogden Avenue, became the front lines of a turf war between gangs. Some of that tension still lingers today.

“There was a lot of that when I was younger,” Alvarez said, pointing at red police tape blocking off a portion of the park yards away. Just hours before near the playground, a young man was shot and killed while waiting in his car for his mom to finish her doctor’s appointment. The reason behind the shooting is still unclear. 

In 2001, Alvarez took a buyout from his job at a management company where he worked as an in-house auditor. After some time off, he decided to become an ESL instructor for parents. That’s where he learned about an opportunity to become a youth soccer coach. 

“The guy they originally hired for the job couldn’t handle the kids,” Alvarez recalled. “So they asked me to do it and I said I’d only do it for one season.” 

Alvarez didn’t know what he was in for. He remembers coaching his first group of fifth-graders and realizing that none of them could read. So, he vowed to teach them. The deal was that if the kids practiced writing something every week, he’d take them to play soccer at Douglass Park on Fridays. 

Over time, their reading levels improved. He started challenging his students to get creative with their writing and soon enough they were entering poetry slams. The first year was tough: none of his students came back with trophies. He was shocked to hear the kids refer to themselves as a “bunch of losers from Little Village.”

He decided to return the next year—and the year after. 

Sixteen years later, Alvarez is still the youth soccer coach. Through a wide grin, he boasts about the seven youth poets who’ve won the national poetry slam. He’s mentored hundreds of kids, including the children of kids he mentored years before. Some have even grown up to teach alongside him. 

“I’m so proud of them,” he said, wiping tears away from his cheeks. “They’re the ones who’ve grounded me. They gave me a purpose. I have to keep my promise to them.” 

Through no fault of Alvarez, that promise is getting harder and harder to keep. Across the playground, the soccer field at Douglass Park is crisscrossed by muddy tire tracks and pockmarked with bald, dry patches. The damaged condition of the field means players are prone to twisting their ankles in the muddy divots or suffering abrasions from sliding on the dry patches. 

Muddy tire ruts and dry patches at a soccer field in Douglass Park. CREDIT: Kelly Garcia

It’s been a week since the first music festival of the summer took place and it’s only a matter of days before crews begin setting up for the next one. In late May, it became clear to Alvarez that his young soccer players would not be able to use the park this summer. 

Now they’re forced to play at ChiTown, a private indoor sports facility in Pilsen. Alvarez helps cover the program’s registration fees so long as his students keep writing. The kids, he said, are just happy they have somewhere to play in the summer. 

During his free time, Alvarez stays up-to-date with any actions taking place to save Douglass Park. In 2015, when the first music festival, Riot Fest, moved in, Alvarez was not shy to voice his concerns. His supervisor connected him to a group of residents who were beginning to organize against the music festival. 

Since then, he’s been one of many members of Concerned Citizens of Riot Fest in Douglass Park. The original purpose of the group was to fight against one summer music festival moving into their neighborhood and now, seven years later, the park is the site of three, including Summer Smash in early June and Heatwave last weekend. The organizers argue that aside from the damage the music festivals cause to the park, the money they make from selling tickets (and, allegedly, parking spots) doesn’t get back into the hands of the community. Instead it stays in the pocket of the local alderpeople. 

Alvarez joins the community meetings when he can. He believes change is on the horizon. In May, Alderperson Michael Scott of North Lawndale abruptly resigned from his post (only to be replaced by his sister). Alderperson George Cardenas, who represents Little Village, recently won the democratic primary race for Cook County Board of Review. For the first time in over two decades, the neighborhoods surrounding Douglass Park will be electing new council members to represent their interests. 

Though he’s angered by the damage done to the park and the lack of attention from city officials, Alvarez remains hopeful that his young soccer players will once again be able to play at Douglass Park. 

“It’s not going to happen overnight,” Alvarez said. “It’s not going to be easy, but we’re going to need everyone.”

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