Two years ago, Jose Rodriguez and his three daughters left their home in Ibague, Colombia, a city of about half a million people in the slopes of the Andes Mountains, 80 miles west of Bogota, the capital city, and headed north for Champaign.
They followed the girls’ mother, from whom Rodriguez is separated. She came to Champaign a decade earlier after finding work in the area, eventually becoming a U.S. citizen and sponsoring Rodriguez, 38, and their daughters, ages 15, 12 and 7. Like their mother before them, the girls and Rodriguez have settled in the Shadow Wood Mobile Home Park on the 1600 block of North Market Street in Champaign.
“I like that it’s very comfortable here,” Rodriguez said, speaking through a translator on a recent afternoon at Suds City, the park’s on-site Laundromat.
Driving in or out of Champaign on North Market Street, it’s easy to overlook the 265-unit mobile home park, tucked between Market and the Canadian National Railway, just south of Interstate 74.
In the past two decades, this out-of-the-way neighborhood has undergone dramatic changes. It has gone from having a rough reputation to being a place that, residents, employees and police say, is relatively quiet and safe. Over the past decade, its poverty rate has risen to 41 percent, according to the most recent U.S. Census Bureau estimates.
But perhaps the most noticeable change is the wave of Hispanic residents, including Rodriguez and his daughters, who have moved into the park during the past 20 years.
In 1990, out of more than 600 residents in the Shadow area only about a dozen were Hispanic, according to the U.S. Census Bureau. Today, there are 850 residents in the area, and about 600 of them – more than 70 percent of the population – are of Hispanic origin, according to new data from the 2010 census.
The increase has been particularly dramatic over the past decade. While the neighborhood’s overall population increased by less than 50 percent from 2000 to 2010, the Hispanic population more than quadrupled, according to census data.
The Shadow Wood area now accounts for about 12 percent of the Hispanic population in the city of Champaign and about 6 percent in Champaign County. In 2000, it made up about 5 percent of the city’s Hispanic population and about 3 percent of the county’s. (See an interactive graphic of the neighborhood’s population at the end of the story.)
Despite its improvements, Shadow Wood still faces a number of challenges.
In recent years, the percentage of area residents living below the poverty line appears to be on the rise, according to census estimates.
Many Shadow Wood residents are also isolated from their neighbors in the surrounding community by language barriers and a lack of public facilities in the area, said the Rev. Eugene Barnes, who runs Metanoia Centers, a community organization based a few blocks south of the mobile home park.
“It’s not that there’s a self-imposed exilic attitude from Shadow Wood,” Barnes said. “They would love to be a part of what’s going on in the community.”
The lack of public facilities, such as a community center, is one of the issues addressed in Champaign’s recently adopted long-term plan to revitalize the Bristol Park neighborhood, which includes Shadow Wood and the adjacent areas of Bristol Place and Garwood.
Mary Blue, Shadow Wood’s office manager since 2002, said many working-class Hispanics have been attracted to the community in recent years because it safe and affordable. Residents purchase their homes and rent the lots on which they sit for $222 per month.
Heidi Zavaleta and her family were among the early part of this influx.
Zavaleta, 31, moved to Shadow Wood 10 years ago and has worked in the park’s office for the past three years. She and her husband Juan Ramos, who works as a cook at the Champaign Country Club, decided to move there because it is an affordable place to live and own a home.
“I wanted to own my own place,” said Zavaleta, a Mexico City native and mother of two. “I like the park . . . It’s a nice neighborhood.”
The exponential increase in Shadow Wood’s Hispanic population is largely the result of word-of-mouth referrals. When homes are up for sale, residents tell their family, friends and co-workers who are looking for a place to live, Blue said.
Marc Lofman, who bought the park in 2004 for $3 million from longtime owner Warren Huddleston, said that’s the way he likes to see things work.
“I believe we’re doing a good job if we’re getting a lot of referrals,” Lofman, who is based in Chicago, said.
Sometimes, families or individuals who are new to the area will stay with someone they know until a mobile home becomes available.
When Rodriguez and his daughters first arrived, they stayed with another Colombian family who lives in the park. A few months later, a three-bedroom mobile home became available, and Rodriguez began the process of buying it.
Lofman, who has been in the manufactured-housing business since 1995, said he decided to purchase Shadow Wood because he saw it as an
Safety issues in the past
That wasn’t always the case, however.
Edward “Zig” Isaac, a former resident who is now in charge of maintenance for Shadow Wood, said that when he moved there in the late 1980s, many residents didn’t feel safe leaving their windows open at night.
A short time later, Huddleston, who bought the park with Bud Parkhill in 1976 and became the sole owner 10 years later, took a more active role in the day-to-day operations, and things began to improve.
Shadow Wood historyHuddleston began kicking out residents who were more than a year behind on their payments and replacing dilapidated homes with newer models. The park began attracting a “better clientele,” Isaac said.
Huddleston died in June 2005, about a year after selling the park to Lofman.
Currently, there are only a handful of residents who regularly fail to pay their lot rent and other bills, Blue said.
Shadow Wood now runs criminal background checks on everyone who applies to live there and doesn’t allow convicted felons to move into the community.
Lt. Jon Swenson, commander of the Champaign Police Department’s north district, which includes the park, said this policy helps maintain a safe neighborhood.
“Mary and the employees up there do a good job pre-screening their tenants,” Swenson said. “That’s about as much as I can ask for.”
From 2000 to 2010, Shadow Wood had fewer police incidents per resident than the adjacent neighborhoods of Bristol Place and Garwood, according to Champaign Police Department data.
“A lot of what we get called up there for is what I would call disorderly type behavior rather than criminal behavior,” Swenson said. “No neighborhood is immune from crime.”
Catherine Hobbs, 77, a longtime resident, said the area has been much safer since the late ’90s, when the city demolished a nearby apartment complex that was a hotbed for drug sales.
“Problems usually came from the outside,” she said.
The Green Apartments, formerly at 1311 and 1404 N. Market St., were “the focal point for criminal activity in the area, generating a significant amount of narcotics trafficking,” according to city documents. The city purchased the properties in June 1998 and razed them a few months later.
These changes are part of what convinced Lester Berrio, 45, and her husband Max Abandja, 40, to purchase a home in Shadow Wood in 2004 after marrying the previous year.
They both have lived in Champaign for more than 20 years. Berrio, a native of Colombia, came to the area with her ex-husband, who had enrolled at the University of Illinois. Abandja also came to study at the UI, but didn’t finish his degree because political unrest in Gabon, his family’s West African nation, caused his scholarship funding to be cut off, he said.
Berrio and Abandja both used to think of Shadow Wood as an unsafe place. But when they began visiting Hispanic families in the neighborhood for church outreach, they noticed things had changed.
“Shadow Wood is not what it used to be like,” Berrio said.
When a friend was looking to sell her home there, they decided to move in. They bought the home for $1,000 and put in a lot of work.
“The only thing that worked was the heater,” said Berrio, whose son William from her first marriage has since moved into the park as well.
Berrio and Abandja work as translators for Carle Foundation Hospital and the Carle Clinic Association, and they also own a janitorial-services company. Much of their business involves cleaning apartment buildings on and around the UI campus between tenants during the summer months.
Poverty still a problem
While the character of the neighborhood is improving, many of its residents still live in poverty, and that number appears to be increasing.
About 30 percent of Shadow Wood area residents were living below the poverty level at the time of the 2000 U.S. census, compared to about 22 percent citywide.
More recently, from 2005 through 2009, about 41 percent of area residents, on average, were living below the poverty line, compared to about 27 percent citywide, according to the most recent estimates from the Census Bureau.
Many of the park’s residents work at local restaurants, hotels, stores and factories.
Rodriguez, the recent immigrant from Colombia, works full time at the Walmart in Savoy, cleaning the store on the overnight shift. He started out at $7.25 an hour and has worked his way up to earning about $10 an hour.
It is an improvement over his situation in Colombia, where he worked 14-hour days at a factory for Fleischmann’s, the maker of yeast and other food products, he said.
“I like my job,” he said.
In recent years, several organizations have stepped in to help meet the needs of Shadow Wood residents. Various groups have offered homework help for children and taught English classes for adults in a central unit owned by the park and commonly referred to as town hall.
More than a dozen kids who live in Shadow Wood participate in an after-school program at Champaign’s Booker T. Washington Elementary School that pairs them with volunteer tutors from the UI. A professor in the Graduate School of Library and Information Science started the program in 2006 after parents from the mobile home park expressed concerns that their children were falling behind in school.
While the program, called Student Opportunities for After-School Resources, or SOAR, is now open to students throughout Washington School, Shadow Wood residents still make up about a third of its participants, said Lila Moore, volunteer program coordinator for the UI’s Center for Education in Small Urban Communities.
Barnes, of Metanoia Centers, has helped bring mobile food pantries to the neighborhood and organized a back-to-school program to provide school supplies to children whose families could not afford them.
The city’s Bristol Park neighborhood plan also addresses some of the need.
One of the long-term goals identified in the plan is the creation of a family resource center, which would provide after-school programs, job training and other services for residents of Shadow Wood, Bristol Place and Garwood.
One of the short-term goals is establishing block-watch groups in the three communities that can help monitor public safety in the area. So far, the idea hasn’t generated a lot of interest from Shadow Wood residents, said Greg Skaggs, a community development specialist for the city who helped create the neighborhood plan.
“It’s been a challenge,” Skaggs said. “People tend to keep to themselves.”
Over the years, the East Central Illinois Refugee Mutual Assistance Center has helped more than 100 families who live in Shadow Wood. The group began in the early 1980s to help refugees from Vietnam and other parts of Southeast Asia, some of whom moved to the mobile home park. The group has since expanded its mission to assist immigrants who are not refugees.
Guadalupe Abreu, a bilingual outreach counselor who has been with the refugee center for 12 years, said some Hispanic families who live in the park sometimes have conflicts with the management because they are unfamiliar with the rules.
“To live in a mobile park is always different because you live under their rules, even though you think you own your own home,” Abreau said.
A common complaint is that the park issues tickets to residents if someone who is coming to visit them is seen speeding through the park’s private streets, she said
Language can be an issue
Because residents rent the lots on which their trailers sit, they are bound by the terms of their leases. Abreau said she encourages Spanish-speaking residents who move into Shadow Wood to bring their leases to the refugee center for translation so that they can be clear on all the rules.
Some Hispanic residents feel as though they are not treated equally but are afraid to voice their complaints for fear of raising questions about their immigration status, she said.
Rodriguez, who is a legal permanent resident, said this has not been his experience. A few times, management has mistakenly sent him a letter saying he missed a payment, but when he shows his receipts, they promptly correct the error.
“They listen to us,” he said.
Residents said they are generally happy with Shadow Wood because of its affordability and its location near the commercial centers of North Prospect Avenue and North Neil Street. But they said they do see some opportunities for improvement.
Several residents said they wish the park had a larger playground for kids and some type of community center that could be rented out for parties or other events. The lack of lighting at night is also a concern, residents said.
But one of the major concerns is the lack of emergency shelter during tornadoes and other severe weather. (For more on this issue, see Shadow Wood: Storm shelters scarce for local neighborhood.)
Lofman, the owner, said he also would like to install more street lights but doing so would be expensive. Because the park is private property, the city can’t pick up any of the bill for lights as it could in other neighborhoods.
While he’s happy in Shadow Wood for now, Rodriguez said he doesn’t want to stay forever. He’s seen other Colombian families move out of the park to bigger homes, and that’s the path he wants to follow.
Although it will take him about five more years to finish paying for his mobile home, he tries to set aside money for a down payment on a house somewhere in Champaign.
“There’s always a little bit left,” he said. “I don’t know how long it will take, but, as soon as I can, I will buy a house.”
He is currently taking English classes at St. John’s Catholic Newman Center on the UI campus. By learning English, he hopes to earn a promotion at Walmart and eventually become a U.S. citizen, he said.
“We have done really well here for two years,” Rodriguez said. “There are a lot of people who come here and think it’s going to be really easy. We have worked very hard.”
Jose Diaz contributed translation for this story.