by Paulina Carrillo and Valine Centeno | University of Illinois at Chicago | May 1, 2019
Welcome to the Pilsen neighborhood, a place in the Lower West side of Chicago that is known for its vibrant Mexican culture and home to many friendly faces. Walk down 18th Street, just a little over Racine and there sits St. Procopius Church, which has been in the neighborhood since 1875.
Just along Racine, visitors and long time residents are greeted to all sorts of businesses like Bombon, and Tino’s Tailor Shop Inc. Although, if one pays close attention, these two businesses are part of the very few that have been in the neighborhood for a long time. Every other shop, business or restaurant is relatively new and does not necessarily fit the “vibrant Mexican culture” that this community is known for.
“I’ve lived in this neighborhood my entire life which is 20 to 22 years, my family’s been here for more than 60 years. It’s crazy to see how much things have changed since I was a kid,” says Alex Aguilar, a Pilsen resident residing on 18th and Racine.
Those words alone definitely pull a couple heart strings to many — it’s the reality of people who have been calling Pilsen their home for decades.
“I started to notice changes in my community around 2010, once I was older and in highschool and started to understand and realize what was going on.”
Pilsen has been one of the many neighborhoods in Chicago that have been dealing with gentrification over the last ten years. There have been many new developments in the city, including high-class dining options replacing family-owned restaurants, implementing J.C Deaux billboards right on neighborhood streets, and high-rise apartment complexes that start at $1,800 per month for a studio unit.
“To me, gentrification is all about money and not about the people. It’s an opportunity for the wealthy to keep on getting wealthier without thinking about how it affects others.”
When asked if he’s witnessed gentrification first hand, Aguilar recalls the Casa Aztlan, a former community center in the neighborhood.
“The old community center displayed a beautiful mural in the front of the building featuring Latino heroes, which served as a symbol in the Pilsen neighborhood for many years. But a couple years ago, the building was bought to be made into a apartment complex. Unfortunately, the mural was painted over.”
When the new owner painted over the famous mural, residents quickly protested and even went as far as vandalizing the new grey painted wall, writing things such as ‘Viva La Lucha Proletaria’ which translates to ‘Live the working-class struggle’ and words such as ‘Gentrification’.
“Local Pilsen residents and activists helped protest the vigils because they felt like a piece of their culture was taken away from them. They fought for the building to have affordable units but the owner refused. He did offer to repaint the mural in front, which is there now.”
Ray Patlan, who was the original artist, recreated the mural in 2017. The mural was created in 1970 and hasn’t been painted over until the new owner bought the building.
Casa Aztlan was the one of many gentrification related problems in the neighborhood. The community has been making efforts to put a stop to gentrification thanks to the Pilsen Alliance. The organization strives to preserve every single cultural aspect of their community. Their mission statement on their website says:
“Pilsen Alliance is a social justice organization committed to developing grassroots leadership in Pilsen and neighboring working class, immigrant communities in Chicago’s Lower West Side. We work for quality public education, affordable housing, government accountability and healthy communities.”
Just last December, a marketing firm named Bisnow hosted an event that brought real estate brokers and developers from all over the city to talk about the “potential” these unique communities have for multi-billion dollar projects, Pilsen being one of those communities.
“I think my neighborhood was targeted because of the location. It is close to downtown, close to the expressway, and close to colleges like UIC.”
“In the next 5-10 years I see my neighborhood having many new buildings, many familiar faces gone, many places I remember as a kid gone. Coffee and juice spots opening up in place of mom and pop shops. My neighborhood will no longer be the Pilsen I know.”
3 Gentrification Sites in Pilsen
Location 1: The Pilsen Neighborhood, Zipcode: 60608
Location 2: “Casa Aztlan” mural was made by Ray Patlan in 1970. The building was a former community center but was then bought out to be a apartment complex.The mural was recreated again in October 2017 after the new building owner painted over the mural in June that year which shed light on the ongoing gentrification issue in the community. Address: 1831 S Racine Ave, Chicago, IL 60608
Location 3: La Luna . The location used to be a ‘Super Food Mart” grocery store for the community but was then bought out to be a neighborhood bar and restaurant called La Luna, attracting “hipsters” from all over the city to experience “authentic” Mexican cuisine. Address: 1726 S Racine Ave, Chicago, IL 60608
Location 4: Wintrust Bank and Giordano’s used to be the former location of Yollocalli Arts Reach, an after school matters program for the youth. The location was bought out by the bank and the restaurant and relocated to Little Village. Address: 1401 W 18th St, Chicago, IL 60608
‘Positive Aspects of Renovations’
Although gentrification has been negatively noted by many, there are also others that have valued the positive aspect of the development of the communities. Wicker Park and Pilsen still continue to portray the original Hispanic culture it inhabited, but now is given a ‘touch up.’
These neighborhoods reconstruction has given job opportunities to those in need. The building of restaurants, stores, offices, etc. have all been a component of financial aid to those in need of a new occupation. Residents have taken advantage of the new additions in the neighborhood. Restaurants are being teared down, but replaced with a modern portrayal of new Chicago architecture.
We had the opportunity to sit down with a direct participant of the development of gentrification in both the Pilsen and Wicker Park neighborhoods.
“I have been doing projects in Wicker Park since 2002, but have only been working in Pilsen since 2007, but we stopped for a while because of the recession and picked up again in 2012 when UIC pushed that neighborhood to investors,” said Ramon Carrillo, owner of Carrillo’s Construction, a Chicago–based company.
“I’ve noticed accumulative renovation on all aspects, such as commercial, streets, buildings, etc. Everything is starting to fit the modern style Chicago shows downtown.”
When asked about if he believes the new projects placed in these neighborhoods respected the old culture that it resided, he said,
“I think these renovations are improving the neighborhood, not destroying it,” he said. “Although, I do have to say that with these new buildings and projects, people with low incomes can’t afford renting in this area, and even then, some people with a bit higher income still need to share a place with other roommates.
It can be seen as a disadvantage, but I have also seen gentrification before my own eyes provide many benefits for incoming residents. The development of the community has offered many more job possibilities for people.”
Most of the population in the areas in which Carrillo has participated in renovations are majority Latinos, with an increase in recent years of a majority white population.
The projects are mostly gray stone buildings, but now that new construction styles vary in the categories of fresh, modern, classic, you will start to see the futuristic architectural style, while still incorporating old school Pilsen and Wicker Park culture.