East Village’s quiet history
President’s Message by John Scheer
Longtime East Village residents have a wealth of knowledge and history about the neighborhood that has never been captured. These pioneers have added their own characteristics to the current culture of the East Village. This month’s message is a snapshot of one family that moved to the East Village, stayed through its evolution and became part of its fabric.
This is a story about Louie Topacio, son of Luis Topacio. Luis moved to East Village in 1971. He worked as a nurse at two jobs, St. Elizabeth Hospital and Cook County Hospital, to support his wife and family. Many of the nine sons and four daughters were adults but the family was still a top priority for the Topacios. Soon after arriving in East Village, Luis bought a modest two-flat on the same block where he was renting. Ten years later, Louie (one of the sons) and his wife Linda relocated to East Village and moved into the two flat with Luis.
Jane Byrne was mayor in the early 1980s when they moved in and the neighborhood was rough. There were very few businesses on Division Street, many vacant storefronts and a lot of vacant lots. Louie and Linda focused on working and raising a family. Louie worked at Norwegian American Hospital as an engineer while Linda worked in a clinic downtown. Within a year, they bought the two-flat next door and expanded the family presence.
Louie and Linda did their own improvements, such as replacing space heaters with a boiler and radiators. They stripped wallpaper and patched plaster to make this two-flat their home. They have raised four daughters, all of whom attended Andersen School, Holy Family and later Lane Tech. They first attended St Helen Church and later switched to St. Stephen King of Hungary, always keeping local and putting a priority on their family and neighborhood.
Gang activity was dominant and blatant. Louie’s style was to integrate into a mixed neighborhood while keeping close ties with other Filipino families. He developed friendships with many neighbors within a block or more. He sometimes visited the local taverns, including the Inner Town Pub. And he fostered a certain friendship with the gang-bangers who ran their own business his block and alley. In the early days, Louie would find bangers sitting on his front porch. When asked what they were doing there, they would answer, "Just hangin' out." So Louie would wave goodbye and recommend, "Don’t get in any trouble."
When Louie’s uncle died, he gave his third-hand car to the gang-banger who hung out across the street. After that, the family and their visitors were protected. Periodically, cars parked on the street would have their windows smashed, but not theirs. They did experience close calls, including stray bullets flying past their windows and a car burned in the vacant lot next door with some limited fire damage to their garage. Sometimes, the police confronted Louie and his family with guns drawn as they drove down their alley towards their garage.
During the Harold Washington administration, in the mid-1980s, the city offered lots for sale, so the family purchased the vacant lot next door for $300. They erected a security fence around the property and installed a large sliding gate so they could park their cars in part of the lot. And they gave the back half to his father for a garden. Cousins and relatives started to relocate from the Philippines to this home in East Village. These relatives would settle in with Louie and Linda, get jobs, get married and within a couple of years move to their choice of neighborhood. And the cycle would start again.
Louie always kept close ties with these relatives and friends. They would have an annual get-together in their house, which included roasting a whole pig. They would share the garden oasis that his father had built. It contained a center gazebo, a Madonna, roses and a trellis growing a Filipino favorite, upo, a squash that grows up to 3 feet long. There were many other family gatherings for birthdays, weddings and holidays.
The father, Luis, had been a stage director and scriptwriter in the Philippines. And he continued to write and direct plays for the family’s enjoyment. Sometimes they were performed at their home, other times he would rent a hall for larger productions, such as the Three Kings and Nativity stories at Christmas. He wrote a play about Louie when he was a child still living in the Philippines. Louie is still very proud of his father’s work, as everything written in his play has come true.
Louie and Linda are still living in their East Village home. They are happy that they were led to this neighborhood and are happy that they have stayed. They created a positive influence on the East Village and developed close friendships with a diverse set of neighbors. The multiple generations of their family have created a chapter in East Village history.