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

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.

pilsenalliance

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.

ghostchurch

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. http://www.chicagobestcity.com/getting-around.html
  2. http://www.thepilsenalliance.org/about-us/
  3. http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/pilsen-zion-evangelical-lutheran-church-empty-19th-peoria-podmajersky/Content?oid=14795977

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!
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