By Lynda Lopez
While walking in Pilsen on 18th street last week, I noticed some graffiti that read “Pilsen is not for sale.” Since the uproar over the proposed 500-unit luxury development, there hasn’t been a visible public conversation around gentrification. Despite this apparent lull, the issue is never far from the surface. I visit Pilsen twice a week and there’s a palpable tension that pervades the community. Latino moms and dads pick their kids up from school while white joggers run by. Closer to Halsted, new homes bear the familiar “Jameson Sotheby” sign and a slew of white joggers can be seen running by. Art galleries and boutiques replace the feeling of “Mexican Pilsen.”
Similarly to walking through Pilsen, any conversation around Pilsen is interconnected to gentrification. Whether it be a joke about the “expensive” Pilsen thrift stores or a jibe against the term “East Pilsen,” the Pilsen identity is constantly under scrutiny and being redefined to fit different perceptions. “East Pilsen,” for instance, seems to be a way to demarcate gentrified Pilsen from the rest of the community. With the complicated nature of a neighborhood in transition, it is no surprise that the Bow Truss in Pilsen is once again the target of anti-gentrification messages. “White people out of Pilsen” was one message written on a Chicago flag sticker on the coffee shop window earlier this week. Bow Truss has a reputation of catering to a white hipster clientele, which fuels the feeling of the neighborhood starting to represent a new, less Mexican demographic. In a Facebook post, Pilsen Alliance describes the tension as follows:
In general, newcomers and historic residents live parallel lives, not interacting with each other. Bow Truss is the result and expression of that trend, as is Thalia Hall and other new businesses, clearly catering to the new neighbors. The newcomers are given all the green lights (Thalia Hall easily got all trimmings, even the church across the street got on board for the liquor license), while the Mexican businesses and families that forged the community leave without as much as a “thank you.”
With this context in mind, it is clear the anti-gentrification signs on Bow Truss stem from the frustration residents feel towards decisions being made without them and in their exclusion from the apparent remaking of Pilsen. As Pilsen Alliance notes, “Low income families are being displaced from Pilsen and replaced by wealthier, more educated, mostly white single people. Census and city data show this to be a fact.” Despite the understandable frustration, attacking Bow Truss won’t get Pilsen any closer to addressing the root issues of neighborhood stability and affordability. Throughout Pilsen’s history, displacement has been a common theme. In the 1950s, the city razed a Mexican neighborhood just to the north of Pilsen to construct a superhighway, later named the Eisenhower Expressway. Less than a decade later, thousands of Mexicans were displaced to make way for the construction of the University of Illinois at Chicago.
Past and present challenges in Pilsen all reflect city policies and elected officials that work in tandem with developers at the expense of working people of color. To chart a new course, Pilsen residents must channel their visceral reactions through organizing. In Gentrification before Gentrification? The Plight of Pilsen in Chicago, UIC Professor John Betancur explores some of Pilsen’s past organizing successes, such as the fight against Concord Homes. In May of 2003, Concord Homes, Inc. presented plans to build a high-end development from 16th Street to 18th Street and Peoria Avenue (which is now the sight of a current proposed development). 13 buildings were to be included in this residential community with a total of 132 condominium dwellings units with a starting price of $280,000 for a two-bedroom, two-bath unit. 10% of the units would be set aside as “affordable.” The Pilsen Alliance, in collaboration with other community groups, were against the proposal and developed a strategy to fight it. After a summer of action that included a petition and an action with 150 residents, Alderman Danny Solis withdrew support for the project.
Pilsen residents have an opportunity to seize the attention sparked by the Bow Truss signs to organize around real solutions to the issues posed by gentrification. The Pilsen Alliance, for example, is working on a proposal for the future of a diverse and affordable community and are welcoming people to their next general meeting on November 12th at 6pm at Rudy Lozano Library. Residents can join this effort and/or start a new one. With such a pressing issue, the most visible conversation on gentrification can’t revolve around anti-gentrification signs on a coffee shop window.