Bienvenido a Pilsen: discovering Pilsen

In this southwest neighborhood of Chicago the city’s reputation as an immigrant city is seen through the history of Pilsen to present day. Once belonging to Czechs, the neighborhood became home to many European immigrants such as Croatians, Italians, Lithuanians, and Poles. The neighborhood attracted these immigrants during the 1930s because many industrial jobs here offered them jobs and the cost of living was low.



Pilsen highlighted in red. [1]

The neighborhood’s current residents, primarily hispanics and predominantly Mexican immigrants and their families, came to Pilsen increasingly in 1960. The Mexican population in the area increased dramatically: from “7,000 to more than 83,000” in just twenty years. This influx was due largely to the new construction of the UIC campus and Eisenhower Expressway. Both construction projects displaced the families that lived in their paths, including many of the Mexican families currently in Pilsen. Now that generations have settled and lived and grew up in the neighborhood, it has a lot of Mexican culture present today.

Unfortunately, gentrification threatens their neighborhood that holds all the good things immigrants brought with them from Mexico. Low housing costs and the way Mexican culture is valued as a commodity has increased interest by outside parties to invest in the neighborhood. While it sounds like a great opportunity, it is hidden by the ugly reality that gentrification often results in the removal of low-income families and small businesses.

While researching Pilsen, you will likely find hostility towards “hipsters” and upper class business people interested in gentrifying the neighborhood. In fact, The Pilsen Alliance is an organization that is fighting gentrification in their neighborhood and working to improve multiple things to help support low-income families living there.


Pilsen Alliance [2]

The fight for Pilsen has three investors: local developers who want to profit by making Pilsen attractive to consumers, the City of Chicago Office of Tourism that seeks to use the neighborhood for advertisement means, and the residents of Pilsen themselves [1].

A sociologist at University of Chicago Terry Clark explains that the way these developers and the City of Chicago Office of Tourism want to portray Pilsen is a “globalization power tool” that would create “taste cultures” for the consumers. The developers would promote Pilsen as a Mexican jewel of the city. However, the developers would not advertise the culture that already exists. No, the developers would “appropriate these cultural symbols into a redevelopment scheme designed to attract middle-class consumers to partake in the ‘local culture'”[1]. The parades and festivals and murals already there for/by the residents would be valuable to the consumers and developers, but much of it would be redesigned to be just the right amount of culture and fun. Kathryn calls this the “Commodification of Culture”.

Their culture should be shared and enjoyed, but it should not be used by outsiders as an avenue for profit.

As we arrived off the pink line to Ashland in Pilsen, immediately you see murals – just like you heard about before you get there, because anyone who has been will tell you they are everywhere! Beautiful, bright colors that remind you of The Road to El Dorado and depict famous Mexican men and women greet you at the station.

Why murals? In Mexican history, many were illiterate until the 1940s. Therefore the movements of the times or passing of information was expressed and explained through murals, which everyone could understand.

The neighborhood was very quiet, everyone already at work by mid morning. It seemed very residential, with a strip of restaurants and shops lining two streets sort of marking the business center. Everywhere you walked, you could find a mural or colorful decorations marking the neighborhood as its own.

Many of the murals have Mexican culture expressed through them, with images of education, family, community, and the heritage of the Mexican residents painted throughout.

The National Museum of Mexican Art is proudly hosted in Pilsen. Here, you can learn more about the Mexican culture through the art it has created. The walls in the museum show off bright colors and boast the beauty of Mexico. There are several beautiful exhibits. The larger exhibit that you walk through leads you through the history with pieces before Spanish and English invasion of Central America.

As we walked around the neighborhood, you could still find hints of past residents. A somewhat-famous attraction in Pilsen is the “Ghost Church“. This church is not a Mexican Catholic church. In fact, it is a German Lutheran church that was destroyed in a fire and left without everything but its front. Thus giving the Zion Evangelical Lutheran Church at 19th and Peoria the nickname Ghost Church.


Ghost Church [3]

Chicago is truly special thanks to its neighborhoods. Pilsen certainly adds to the charm, however the commodification of the neighborhood’s identity will likely remove any authentic beauty. Should we visit this neighborhood to go to a theatrical, forced Mexican cultural center? Or should we visit the neighborhood and experience dining at a restaurant where your waitress barely speaks English and you laugh together as you try to order from a Spanish menu? Who will work in these restaurants when the locals are forced to move due to higher rent resulting from gentrification?

As property taxes go up, the residents are at greater risk of losing their cultural center (again)! From what I have read, the locals are worried that gentrification will do this to their neighborhoods. New businesses that resemble gentrification, such as the fairly new coffee shop Bow Truss, have received large amounts of resentment from the community and even graffiti.

Gentrification of a neighborhood can bring improved municipal services, new business, enhanced police patrols, and greater political influence. The balance is ensuring that the city’s government is not building the neighborhood for “the interests of visitors rather than the concerns of residents”. This could lead to “increased social division and conflict” within the neighborhood and damage residents more.

As Chicago’s government considers the future of Pilsen, I fear the residents have to repeat the cries from the 1960s:  “Respeten nuestros hogares” (Respect our homes).



Photo Resources:



  1. Selling Chicago as a Global City: Redevelopment and Ethnic Neighborhoods by Kathryn Saclarides
  2. Swept from their homes, Chicago’s Latinos built new community by Chip Mitchell
  3. New Anti-Gentrification Signs Demand, ‘White People Out of Pilsen’ by  Stephanie Lulay
  • For other information about movements in Pilsen check out The Pilsen Alliance
  • Want to explore Pilsen? Check out the Mural Locator to find some the neighborhood’s artwork!

Chicago: swamp to global city.

Taking this class, I knew I would be exposed to the history of this “foreign” city and many things I simply never noticed. I call it foreign, because I truly never thought of the Midwest, growing up in Texas, and I certainly did not expect to attend college here. So when I learned Chicago was once a putrid swamp, I was amazed! Hard to believe, isn’t it?

I laughed as we read about it and discussed it in class. I thought, “how [U.S.] American of us.” We competed with the British and the French for this swampy, cold land. We let the Native Americans take us there, so we could claim it for ourselves.

I’d like to focus on how we made Chicago happen. Chicago didn’t have many attributes, but it did have one powerful enough to make three countries swoon: it could connect the East to the Mississippi. This passageway wasn’t actually desirable. It wasn’t a beautiful, flowing river welcoming us to pass on by to the Mississippi. It was a portage, always changing with the seasons. Travelers would have to carry supplies and the boat they traveled in, until they reached deeper water.

But that didn’t stop us, it didn’t stop the founders of “The City with Broad Shoulders”.

Today, Chicago is ranked 7th in A.T. Kearney’s Global Cities 2015 and 9th in a report from the Economist Intelligence Unit Hot spots 2025: Benchmarking competitiveness the future of cities. Amazing how we built up a city from swamp, to a muddy town, to a polluted cow town, to a revived city, and now a Global City.

Richard Florida is an American urban studies theorist who focuses on social and economic theories. He defines, “today’s three major classes [as] the shrinking middle [class] of blue-collar workers; the rising ranks of the knowledge, professional, and creative class; and the even larger and faster-growing ranks of lower-paid, service workers [class]”. Three classes to sum up our cities: the service class, the working class, and the creative class. Based on his definitions, it is hard to give a strict explanation of the creative class. However, I think by process-of-elimination through the service and working classes, you can get an idea of who is in the creative class.

The service class are workers who do routine labor for low wages. Richard gives the examples “food service and preparation, retail sales, and clerical and administrative positions” and claims this class is the largest of the three in Chicago.

The working class are workers who wear uniformed service shirts, sometimes literally blue-collared. Richard says they are employed in jobs like, “factory jobs as well as transportation and construction”. According to him, “The City of Big Shoulders” is losing their once prized class.

So, what is the creative class? I did say process of elimination. However, I’m sure it is easy to find workers who could fit in two class types. Through his definition, the creative class are “people who work in science and technology, business and management, arts, culture, media, and entertainment, law, and healthcare professions”. This class doesn’t leave much out, right?

Now that we have simply defined our elaborate, complex city into just three types of workers, what does it take for us to become a Global City? Richard would tell you a successful city needs three things, the three T’s to success: Technology, Talent, and Tolerance.

You may be reading this thinking, “Duh!” You wouldn’t be wrong either. However, many cities that get left behind, like Detroit, were left behind because they focused on industry. Richard Florida would say something like they didn’t invest in talent or technology. Why would a creative class person go to Detroit?

There is the answer. How does Chicago maintain or improve its global ranking? Bring in the creative class! The creative class needs technology, so a city should have many quality universities to study and improve technology. Chicago is home to so many universities. There is plenty of opportunity here to study and grow in this city!

The city will need jobs to employ these creative people. What is truly important, is that the creative class needs to be welcomed and comfortable in your city. That is why tolerance is one of the three T’s to success. Creative people aren’t always conventional- and they shouldn’t be.

Once the creative class is established in your city, they will offer the service class jobs. Creative class people are active in the economy, which is beneficial to the city, but also means the city needs music centers, restaurants, and other places service class can work.

Richard Florida may have the trick to retaining and inviting citizens to your city, but if only U.S. citizens are investing in your city, is it a global city? The Hot Spots 2025 study, “assessed 32 indicators across eight thematic categories: economic strength, physical capital, financial maturity, institutional character, social and cultural character, human capital, environment and natural hazards and global appeal” for each city involved in their global city study. In their study, social and cultural character only contributed 5% to a city’s ranking, and human capital only 15%. Economic strength leads the categories at 30%, however I believe that if a city invests in gl0bal appeal (10%), that city will become more economically sound.

Chicago is not a destination city. Tourists from around the world go to other cities in the U.S. before they come to this matured cow-town. How can we retain our global status if we do not bring in more business and people from around the world? The city has recognized this issue, and we are trying to attract more businesses and tourism. It will take time to change the image of “America’s most dangerous city”. Many nations still think of us that way. The city has a lot to offer: beautiful lakefront property, mild summers, port access, and a large international airport. According to an article (about a study done by the Economic Intelligence Unit) written by Nick Timiraos in the Wall Street Journal called The Most Expensive Cities in the World to Live, Chicago is relatively cheap to live here, considering it is ranked 21st of the U.S. cities and New York is ranked 7th.

I believe there is hope for Chicago. The city is moving in the right directions to encourage creative people to invest here, following the three T’s of technology, tolerance, and talent. The city is also investing globally, encouraging others to plant their overseas businesses here and visit our many festivals or historical sites. Hot Spots 2025 would agree, as we are projected to move up 3 spots in their Overall 2025 City Competitiveness rankings table.

Chicago may have been built by broad shoulders and overcome many obstacles, but the city must keep looking forward and keep improving in order to compete with cities around the world. I think the city’s history and roots are desirable traits for a rising Global City.



Photo Resources:

  1. Settlers
  2. Old Chicago
  3. Loyola Ramblers
  4. Illinois Tech
  5. Northwestern U
  6. UIC
  7. Booth
  8. Skyline


  1. Florida, Richard. “Class-Divided Cities: Chicago Edition.” CityLab. The Atlantic Monthly Group, 4 Feb. 2013. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.
  2. Timiraos, Nick. “The Most Expensive Cities in the World to Live.” WSJ. Dow Jones & Company, Inc., 10 Mar. 2016. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.
  3. Kearney, A.T. “Global Cities 2015: The Race Accelerates.” A.T. Kearney. N.p., Nov. 2015. Web. 10 Apr. 2016. Link.
  4. Florida, Richard. “The Rise of the Creative Class.” Washington Monthly. The Washington Monthly, May 2002. Web. 28 Mar. 2016.
  5. Hot Spots 2025: Link.