Views from the city
Growing up amidst urban poverty led me to ask all the right questions
By Pedro A. Regalado (BA '13)
On weekend mornings, I’d stare out of my fifth-floor tenement window in the Washington Heights neighborhood of New York City. My view was unlike those I noticed on my television set, which usually had front lawns, white fences, even a city skyline in the distance. Instead, I looked out through my fire escape and scanned the interior courtyard where other tenements disposed of their garbage. Bricks, cement, and one lone tree dominated my vantage point.
The New York City of the mid-1990s was not unlike my childhood view from my apartment window. Poverty and violence were daily realities that made it difficult to look far into the future. My parents made my world bigger though. Their strenuous labor and unyielding love became an ultimate necessary recipe of persistence for my older brothers and I. My curiosity also played a key role in my development—as a child, when I held my father’s hand I’d often look up at the tenements. They struck me with awe and inspired so many questions. When were they built? Who built them?
As the years passed, financial hardship continued to plague my family, spurring what seemed like an endless migration. It began when I was 5 years old, as we moved from the Dominican Republic to New York City. Once there, we continued to bounce around from apartment to apartment.
When I was 18 we moved again, this time to Philadelphia, where I continued to wonder about the built environment of low-income neighborhoods around me. My desire to learn drove me to seek a college degree, but given my family’s financial constraints, attending a four-year university wasn’t going to be an option. Instead, I began my college career at the Community College of Philadelphia, where I began to study history. After graduating from community college—and thanks to a financial aid package that included an invaluable transfer scholarship—I was able to continue my journey at Loyola.
I arrived at Loyola in January 2012, and when I did, my life took a new turn. The questions that drove me to study history at community college found support in a department that is home to some of the premier urban historians in the country. The City of Big Shoulders also provided an engaging site for my studies, one that differed from New York and Philadelphia in terms of urban culture, race relations, and the built environment. Chicago inspired me to continue my search for what made cities function as they did.
My professors at Loyola opened my eyes to new opportunities and ways of thinking. Elizabeth Shermer revealed to me the rigorous craft of writing. Kyle Roberts trained me in how to direct those skills while embarking upon the journey of the research paper, showing me that writing history is a communal process. Yet, it was Michelle Nickerson’s seminar “Rebels and Reformers” that instilled in me a passion for thinking with historical perspective.
Professor Nickerson masterfully demonstrated history’s deeply contingent nature, rarely obvious and always volatile. My research on the city of Camden, New Jersey, which grew out that seminar, was guided by these perspectives. Along my journey of conducting oral histories, scanning decades-old newspapers, and attempting to piece my sources together to tell a compelling story, Professor Nickerson’s mentorship was essential. She taught me—and still does—the broad definitions of justice, and I owe any success in the future to her.
Loyola had helped me take the next step, and with the integral guidance of the McNair Scholars Program I explored the possibility of going even farther by pursuing my PhD. In the spring of 2014 I received a phone call telling me that my journey, which had begun back in those tenements of Washington Heights, would next take me to the Ivy League as a doctoral candidate at Yale University.
Today, I use the tools that I learned at Loyola to understand the history of urban places. Loyola’s historians helped me to historicize my life’s own twists and turns, and to learn how to make a positive change in the world. My road to Yale wasn’t easy, but with the lessons I learned at Loyola, I now realize the skyline in those television images I remember seeing as a child really was us.
“Go forth and set the world on fire;” I have not taken that call lightly. I now dedicate my days to telling stories of power, immigration, and capitalism with the most-marginalized groups at its center.
I could not do that without Loyola and their investment in the success of low-income urban communities—both in Chicago and beyond.
About the author
Pedro Regalado (BA ’13) graduated magna cum laude in History from Loyola and is currently pursuing his PhD in American Studies at Yale University. He is interested in late 20thcentury urban history with a specific focus on questions surrounding race, poverty, housing, and migration.
Do you have a story to tell? We're looking for alumni who are interested in writing first-person essays about their experiences at Loyola and beyond. E-mail us to submit an idea.