‘It’s not transient like most neighborhoods’ Portage Park: a community united through collaboration

On the North West side of the city lies a large, community oriented and tight-knit neighborhood called Portage Park. Within it resides bustling small business, glittering greenspace and noteworthy neighbors.

According to the Portage Park Chamber of Commerce, in the 18th and 19th centuries, Native American Tribes would use what is now Irving Park as a portage between the Des Plaines and Chicago river. A portage is an area of land that folks can carry or drag  their canoes along.

At the time, the Portage Park area was not good for settlement, but it had an abundance of wildlife. 

When urban sprawl started in Chicago in the 1860s, the Jefferson Park Township made up what is now Portage Park. In 1912, the Portage Park District was formed to develop the park itself. It later became the name for the whole neighborhood. 

John Arena was the 45th Ward Alderman from 2011 to 2019. He was reelected in 2015 for his second term as Alderman. The 45th Ward consists of Portage Park, Gladstone Park, Mayfair, Edgebrook, Forest Glen and Jefferson Park.

“I can’t over impress, like how much just amazing stuff you get,” Arena said. “You get exposed to when you’re in a little bit of a third largest city in the country.”

Arena has always been an advocate for community improvement, before, during, and after his time as alderman. 

“I mean, we got hooked on improving the place, and there were enough people around us that were wanting the same thing to happen,” Arena said. “And that is what I like. It was all about the neighborhood. 

Portage Park resident, Linda sits with her daughter in front of community pool. (Jonah Weber)

When Arena, his wife, and two kids first moved to Portage, they were the youngest family on their block.

“It was all about how we get to a place where we can do more stuff,” Arena said. “And when you’re aldermen, and something needs to get done that you’d normally have to call the city. And you know, yeah, you’re like get in line buddy. The aldermen could make change.” 

The community of Portage Park and the park itself are two huge highlights of the neighborhood. As the weather has warmed up, the park is filled with dogs running around, children playing sports and residents enjoying the greenery. 

Beth Guzman was a resident of the Portage Park neighborhood for over a decade. She lived in an apartment and a bungalow. A bungalow is usually a single story home, sometimes there is a second story, with a sloping roof. Bungalows are a classic piece of Chicago architecture, and Portage Park is full of them. 

“Once you pass Western, then it’s all the people who you know are born and raised many generations in Chicago and then immigrants, so it’s a really really different feeling,” Guzman said. 

According to the Chicago Metropolitan Agency for Planning, Portage Park in 2016 to 2020 was 47% white and 42.5% Hispanic. 

Guzman described the neighborhood as very community oriented, with neighbors being very involved with one another and what is happening on their block. For DePaul students moving from small communities, this may make them feel just at home. 

“It’s not transient like most neighborhoods,” Guzman said. 

Ariel Parrella-Aureli has been a full-time reporter for Block Club Chicago for the past two years, covering stories on the far Northwest Side. While working this beat, Aureli has covered topics such as policing, affordable housing, politics, local businesses and the community.

From reporting on this beat in Portage Park, Aureli shared some of her takeaways on the community. 

“People seem very willing to work together for the most part to find the solution even though there may be differing opinions,” Aureli said.

The Northwest side is home to many first responders and is often considered one of the safest areas of the city due to this. Although, some citywide disparities of police activity have been noticed based on where a majority of police live. 

“People love to support officers and also realize that they need more support,” Aureli said. “So I think that’s something we’ve heard, and I’m sure that you’re aware of that we have heard all over the Northwest Side and even the Southwest Side with more neighborhoods that have more first responders that live there, of course, like the support is stronger, but also that means that people do realize there needs to be more resources available to them.” 

Despite differing opinions at times, as Aureli said, the community still often works together. One instance she shared had to do with the development of a butterfly garden.

“This butterfly garden on Beartau in Portage Park that the lady who runs it is just so amazing, and she’s retired and so she just has a lot of free time,” Aureli said.

Ruta Lietuvninkas created the Berteau Butterfly Garden. It has become a neighborhood highlight in Portage Park and has brought visitors from all over the city.  

“And a lot of neighbors around her banded together to help her with the garden and expand it to her whole block. And I helped give some more press to that because not a lot of people knew that they could start a butterfly garden and like a pollinator garden on their block.” Aureli said. 

Portage Park is a classic Chicago neighborhood that is well worth a visit. The park is beautiful and rich with history, and one is bound to run into kind neighbors. The Patio Theater in Portage Park hosts many events, in May you can catch Rico Nasty performing there.