A drive down the 5700 block of West Belmont Avenue, the hub of the Northwest Side community of Belmont Cragin, is like a scene from another era. Stores such as Dom & Ksiazki Polish Bookstore, Gene’s Old World Sausage Shop and Staropolska’s Restaurant dot almost every corner.

A dense commercial thoroughfare, the street is crammed with mom-and-pop storefronts proud to display their hand-made signs, written in Polish and English, enticing customers with their daily specials or the week’s bargain buy.

This is an immigrant community of working-class families, explained the Rev. Stephen Kanonik, who grew up in the neighborhood and is now pastor of nearby St. Ladislaus Roman Catholic Church, at 5345 W. Roscoe St. “People [here] aren’t goofy enough to spend four bucks on a cup of coffee,” Kanonik said.

Belmont Cragin was once known as a haven for white ethnic families. But the area near Belmont and Central avenues is now one of their few remaining enclaves in the neighborhood.

The rest of Belmont Cragin is filled with scenes like the one about a mile southeast, where retail shops offer trips to Mexico City and restaurants advertise weekend specials on Menudo soup with signs in Spanish and English.

“This is where that –˜American Dream’ plays itself out for some Latinos who try to do better,” said the Rev. Carmelo Méndez of St. James Catholic Church, 5730 W. Fullerton Ave. “This is the second neighborhood [Hispanics] move into–”it’s the area where those who have saved up enough and are doing financially better move.”

In the last decade, Belmont Cragin has undergone a quiet but dramatic change. Once mostly made up of Polish Americans, it is now a predominantly Latino neighborhood. Leaders say many of the new residents have moved from older, more established Hispanic communities like Humboldt Park and Pilsen.

Residents say the transition has gone smoothly, unlike in Chicago neighborhoods that shifted–”often violently–”from white to black in the 1960s and 1970s. Property values in Belmont Cragin have not plummeted. Commercial districts continue to thrive. And, with median household income above the citywide figure, the area remains stable.

But beneath the surface are signs of the racial tensions that typically mark a community in transition.

“There are a few people who can’t let go. –¦ [Others] move because they are afraid. I encourage people to stay,” 30th Ward Democratic Committeeman Michael Wojcik said of the area’s white ethnic residents. The 30th Ward includes parts of Belmont Cragin.

“I want to keep the stability,” Wojcik said. “Stability engenders safe schools, low crime, jobs and political participation.”

Wojcik, who is Polish American, served as 35th Ward alderman from 1991 to 1994 and 30th Ward alderman from 1995 until April. After a remap left the 30th Ward majority Latino, Wojcik and the Chicago-based Polish National Alliance filed a lawsuit, which is still pending, and Wojcik chose not to run for re-election. In February, voters elected Ariel E. Reboyras to be their first Latino alderman.

In 1980, most of Belmont Cragin’s residents were Polish, with significant numbers of Greeks, Germans and Italians, census data show. Only 6 percent were Hispanic.

But by 1990, Latinos represented 30 percent of the community’s population; by 2000, they made up 65 percent. The white population dropped 27 percent in the 1980s and 41 percent in the 1990s, according to the census.

“I don’t care who moves into the neighborhood. I just want the area kept nice, –¦ [as] a place where families can raise their children,” said Robert Pietryka, 35, a longtime resident who is of Polish descent.

But some residents are upset that single-family homes have been illegally converted into apartments and rooms for low-income renters. They also worry about neighborhood crime and associate it with young people who have moved into the area–”though they say it is not a racial or ethnic issue.

“A lot of it is the way you look at it,” said Arthur D. Felgenhauer, secretary of the Belmont-Central Chamber of Commerce. “You see something happen, and your mind goes off, –˜Well, see, there are robberies all over now.'” Even if it’s not true, he said, “people want to associate them with all the change that’s going on.”

Most Latinos say they’re not concerned about whites leaving Belmont Cragin. Instead, they are focused on getting the schools to perform better, reducing crime and maintaining a high quality of life in the neighborhood.

“Latino residents feel comfortable living here,” Méndez said. “Latino families are very active in neighborhood organizations, and they vigorously advocate for better schools and safer neighborhoods.”

Bungalow Belt
A quiet community 11 miles northwest of the Loop, Belmont Cragin has seldom attracted front-page news. After a surge in the development of single-family brick bungalows in the early 20th century, first- and second-generation Europeans populated the area.

But today the only part of the neighborhood that houses a majority-white population is its northwest tip, according to census data. And communities such as Portage Park, Dunning and Montclare that skirt Belmont Cragin to the north and west remain at least 70 percent white, while, to the south and east, the Hermosa and Humboldt Park areas are largely Latino.

For white residents, “it speaks to familiarity: They don’t know their [Hispanic] neighbors, they don’t know their culture and they don’t know their customs,” said John Gaudette, executive director of the Northwest Neighborhood Federation, which works with residents on community issues.

Many of the white residents who have remained in Belmont Cragin are 62 years old or older. Almost half of the 7,612 seniors in the community reside in that northwest corner, an area that accounts for 35 percent of Belmont Cragin’s total population, according to the census.

Seniors are now “seeing fewer and fewer folks like themselves, and [they] wonder if it’s worth staying,” Gaudette said. “They become more and more isolated.”

Belmont Cragin’s younger white residents are on the move. “I’m the last guy to stay from my old neighborhood,” said Pietryka, owner of the Pietryka-De Nicolo Funeral Home at 5734 W. Diversey Ave.

Pietryka said people he grew up with have moved to other neighborhoods like Wicker Park and Lincoln Park, or to the suburbs–”areas that they see offering more restaurants, bars and coffeehouses. “They move because they see Belmont Cragin as their parents’ old neighborhood,” he said. “Now, as adults, there just isn’t enough to keep them here.”

The Rev. Anthony Dziorek, who for 16 years has served as pastor of St. Stanislaus Bishop and Martyr Catholic Church, 5352 W. Belden Ave., said the neighborhood change has been smooth.

“We just coexist,” said Dziorek, 52, who was born in Poland and moved to Chicago in 1981. “Latinos want a nice neighborhood, and the remaining Poles, mostly aging Polish Americans now, just want to be able to live out their remaining days here.”

St. Stanislaus has mostly served Polish parishioners since it was founded in 1893, he said. “The parish was like a staple, an anchor to the community. People were coming to the church because they lived around the neighborhood.”

Now, though, only about 10 percent of its parishioners live in the neighborhood. Most of the others are from other areas in Chicago and northwest suburbs such as River Grove, Schiller Park, Norridge and Niles. But they come because Polish customs and traditions are incorporated into St. Stanislaus masses, especially on holidays, Dziorek said. The church has six masses every Sunday, three offered in Polish and three in English.

At the same time, the church has attracted some Latino families, and almost two-thirds of the 216 students enrolled in its elementary school are Hispanic, according to the Catholic Archdiocese of Chicago. In 1995, 64 percent of its 415 pupils were white.

Dziorek said he has been working to get a priest who can lead a mass in Spanish at the church, and he is learning to speak Spanish himself.

“The whole neighborhood within the boundary of our church is Latino,” he said, and St. Stanislaus should “be able to provide the kind of customs [and traditions] we would like to offer for Spanish-speaking people.”

Méndez, an associate pastor at St. James parish, said Hispanic residents may not always feel comfortable attending or seeking help from some of the local churches because staff and administrators are mostly Polish. But pastors of these neighborhood churches want to help bridge those gaps, he said.

“The one barrier is obvious: language,” said Méndez. “But there is also a culture difference, and we will have to work on melding those differences.”

Neighborhood Flux
Police data show that the area’s crime has remained relatively steady over the last five years. In 2001, Belmont Cragin residents reported 4,039 index crimes–”serious offenses such as murders, assaults and auto thefts–”which ranked 18th among the city’s 77 community areas, according to police data. In 2002, the community recorded 4,089 index crimes. But residents maintain that crime has become an increasing problem.

In July, Maria Poznanski and her husband, Greg, attended their first Chicago Alternative Policing Strategy (CAPS) meeting after growing concerned about neighborhood crime. The Poznanskis live on North Mango Avenue, in the house where Maria has lived since moving there with her parents in 1967, when she was 5 years old.

“We would notice things like more garage break-ins, questionable people walking around the neighborhood, more [parked cars] on our streets –¦ and loud parties,” she said. She added that they also started seeing more stories about crime in their neighborhood newspaper.

Poznanski noted that the neighborhood has changed “dramatically.” And “it wouldn’t matter what kind of people come into the neighborhood–”they just have to care about the neighborhood,” she said.

Crime is also a major complaint among Latino residents. Carmen Martinez, who moved to Belmont Cragin in 1990, doesn’t want to see the quality of life decline there.

“Latinos like myself and my neighbors, who were here when the area was quiet and stable, want to maintain that,” she said. “We are trying to get the new people who have come into our neighborhoods to realize that –˜You moved here because you liked the area. You have a responsibility to keep it that way.'”

Michael McCotter, commander of the Grand Central Police District, said crime in the area “has gotten tougher” in recent years. The district includes Belmont Cragin and parts of several adjacent communities.

McCotter said gentrification in the Wicker Park and Humboldt Park neighborhoods to the southeast had pushed criminal activity into Belmont Cragin. He said his district has set up task forces to reduce these offenses.

“We’re holding our own, trying to crack down on the problem spots and keep it from getting out of control,” he said.

Gang activity–”including recruitment in and around schools and graffiti with gang markings–”has increased due to the community’s population growth, especially among young people, McCotter said. Census data show that Belmont Cragin’s population of youth 17 years old and younger has nearly doubled since 1990, to 23,298. It now makes up about 30 percent of the area’s total.

Martha Roman, 59, who is Puerto Rican, has lived on the 4800 block of West Medill Avenue for eight years. She said she and her husband have decided to move out of state, in part because they have grown tired of seeing young people selling drugs.

“I don’t want to deal with these young punks,” she said.

Property Values
Many in Belmont Cragin also worry that residents will not maintain their property and that the neighborhood will physically deteriorate in the next few years.

Jackie Pledger and her husband, Arthur Skwerski, rent out a three-flat on the 2300 block of North Lockwood Avenue. Pledger, who grew up in Belmont Cragin and now lives in Oak Park, still takes her 100-year-old mother, Gladys, to the Community Savings Bank near the corner of West Belmont and North Cicero avenues. Her mother has banked there for more than 60 years.

Parts of the neighborhood near Fullerton and Central “have been completely abandoned by whites,” said Pledger, 66. “The homes aren’t as kept up, and the area is considered by the elder Poles to be unsafe.” In order to preserve the community, residents have to take a vested interest and keep up their property, she said.

Poznanski said not enough people attend CAPS meetings or are involved in the community. Some newer residents, she said, “don’t care as much as the older people who have been living here. All they want is four walls and a roof. –¦ They’re not interested in things you need to be interested in –¦ to be part of a community. We need more people who care.”

Still, housing prices in Belmont Cragin have gone up, said Larry R. Lynch, a managing broker at Century 21 Beaulieu Real Estate, 5341 W. Belmont Ave. Houses that sold for $40,000 or $50,000 in the late 1970s now sell for $220,000 and more, according to Lynch, who’s worked at the realty company for 18 years. According to the census, Belmont Cragin’s median household income is $43,159.

It’s much harder than it used to be for a family to buy a home, he said, because the area “really had a tremendous amount of people that came in the past six years.” In some instances, several family members or even different families have purchased a house together, Lynch said.

In other cases, owners have illegally converted homes into apartments or rented out rooms to those who couldn’t afford anything else, according to both police and realtors. Police say the conversions have left the houses dangerously overcrowded, caused a parking shortage on the streets and raised the ire of neighbors.

Police frequently receive tips about illegal conversions, or discover them when officers visit homes on routine calls, said police Officer Cathy Sandow.

“We’d go into the house and we’d see that it was chopped up [illegally converted],” Sandow said. Residents “don’t know who their neighbors are because these houses have 10 or 15 people just renting a mattress in the basement. –¦ It’s a serious concern. –¦ And with our present economy, it’s going to get worse before it gets better.”

Police turn the information over to the city, Sandow said. Since 2000, the Chicago Department of Buildings has received 1,110 complaints about illegal conversions from residents of the 30th and 31st wards, which together make up most of Belmont Cragin, according to department spokeswoman Breelyn Pete.

Many residents note that houses have been illegally converted since the first influx of European immigrants into Belmont Cragin. But longtime residents say things are different now.

“Back then it was always the spinster aunt or the quiet uncle who had a room in the attic. Now I have residents who complain that there are two or three families living in a house,” said Pietryka, who leads CAPS meetings as a beat facilitator. “And they have loud parties and have at least three cars that need to be parked on the streets.”

But not everyone identifies conversions as a problem. Méndez said some neighborhood Latinos are willing to let family members and others stay in their homes as a way to do “something good.”

“A lot of the Latino families who immigrated came in under the same situation. And now they [want] to help in some way because they went through the same experience themselves,” he said. People who haven’t had this kind of experience might “see it as something weird or different: –˜How can they share a house with three or four families?'”

Roman said conversions have been less of a concern since residents banded together and complained to city officials. She added: “It’s not a race thing.”

Holding On
Both white and Latino residents are concerned about overcrowding in the area’s public schools. Constantine P. Kiamos, principal for 19 years at Charles P. Steinmetz Academic Centre High School, 3030 N. Mobile Ave., said school officials are doing their best to alleviate the problem. Some schools have built annexes or added trailers, Kiamos said.

He believes the neighborhood is going through a cycle. “For a long time these homes were inhabited by couples whose children had left –¦ [or] grown older and moved out. And these homes are now being inhabited by younger people with families.”

The student population at Steinmetz has increased by a third since 1997, to about 3,000. White students made up 34 percent of the enrollment in 1997; by last year, the number was down to 26 percent, Chicago Public Schools data show. Latinos make up 48 percent of the student body, up from 39 percent. The school’s black population has remained steady at about 23 percent.

Last winter, snow-flecked yard signs supporting Ariel E. Reboyras for alderman were posted in the frozen lawns in the 30th Ward. Four years ago, similar eye-catching red, white and blue signs carried Wojcik’s name.

Reboyras, 49, who moved into the neighborhood 16 years ago, is of Puerto Rican descent. Noting that he has Polish neighbors, he said the area still has a very strong Polish community and that he wants to help preserve it.

Reboyras pledged to bring Latinos and whites together to fight crime and maintain “stability.”

“The community will be more stable if it’s integrated,” Reboyras said. “There is a balance that has to be met. –¦ Getting both groups involved is the key, and letting them know that these streets are [both of] theirs.”

But most Belmont Cragin residents recognize that their area is changing. And many predict that by 2010 the community will be almost completely Latino.

Kiamos, the Steinmetz principal, isn’t concerned. “I see people investing good dollars into nice homes,” he said. “And I don’t see the associated negatives coming in with what people perceive as a neighborhood in change.”

Others–”both Latinos and whites–”are more ambivalent. “It’s doesn’t concern me so much that whites are moving out,” Roman said. But, she added, many new residents don’t seem to be helping to keep up the neighborhood, “and that’s what bothers me.”

“In 10 years, if we don’t have some major changes–”with more police and more people in the community interested–”I don’t see it [going] well,” said Poznanski. “This is a big neighborhood. We need more people who care.”

Fernando Dí­az helped research this article.