By Lynda Lopez
What makes a good business in a gentrifying neighborhood?
The above question is difficult to unpack because there are a lot of factors that change the definition of what that means. It can’t be as simple as a business that is open to everyone because inherently some businesses are exclusive (bars are for those over 21) and some are not meant to be family-friendly (night clubs, anyone?).
There should be room for a variety of businesses in every neighborhood because the demographics of a community are varied. There are young adults that may want to have a bar to go to and they should have a place in their neighborhood. There are families that want to take their kids to eat and they should have affordable options too. There are high school students that also want places to be able to hang out with their friends and we should create spaces where they are welcome as well.
Much has been written recently about the controversy of up-scale restaurants coming into gentrifying neighborhoods, much of it centering on Pilsen. There is increasing backlash against them because of their perceived role in gentrification. S.K.Y. Restaurant is the most recent to face the staunch opposition from community members, and there are continual debates about other establishments and their place in Pilsen.
Thalia Hall, Dusek’s, and Punch House are establishments that are frequently pinpointed as “gentrifying” businesses. Last year, Dusek’s fired a dishwasher after he didn’t show up to work on the day of a big immigration strike (after outcry, Dusek’s offered him his job back, though he declined to return). Owners Bruce Finkelman and Craig Golden partnered in 2013 to renovate Thalia Hall and to open the adjoining bar, restaurant, and retail space. Finkelman is also behind Beauty Bar in West Town and both Finkelman and Golden partnered to open The Promontory in Hyde Park in 2013. They have a range of projects throughout Chicago and are partners at 16’ on Center. On their website, it says “Collectively we take on projects and build in neighborhoods where we can’t wait to hang out.”
In a South Side Weekly article from 2013, Finkelman is asked why he chose to develop in Pilsen.
“You’d be surprised how much it is that a project picks you. A business acquaintance of Craig [Golden] showed him this property, he took a walk through, called me and told me to get my ass down here. When we started working on it, it just became a no-brainer to do.”
According to the South Side Weekly article, Pilsen Alliance tried pushing for community benefits at Thalia Hall. Nelson Soza, former executive director of Pilsen Alliance describes what they sought.
First, noting the eight apartments above the main theater space in Thalia Hall, he wanted a commitment to ensuring that a portion of those residences would be affordable. “We wanted twenty percent of the apartments rented for people who had fifty percent of the state’s median income, low-income people making $22,000 a year.”
Secondly, he raises the issue of employment in the local community. “We asked them to help us create a program that would create a pipeline of local people to fill the jobs that he has,” he says.
Neither of these demands materialized.
What struck me about reading about the history of the redevelopment of Thalia Hall is how quickly land ownership can shift and how drastically it can be reshaped depending on the owners. I’ve never been to Thalia Hall, but it elicits strong feelings on both ends. Some say you should never set foot in it as a form of resistance, while others know the context but visit the space anyway. I personally stay away because I have friends who grew up in Pilsen who stand by this and I follow their lead as someone who didn’t grow up there.
Consumer boycotts are always tricky, though, because money flows in many ways. I know some people who stay away from Thalia Hall but go to Beauty Bar or The Promontory. As young people, is there any way to ethically engage in nightlife? What does that even mean under capitalism?
For me, it all boils to community ownership of spaces. If we want more of a say in how neighborhoods are shaped, there needs to be more avenues for owning land, such as community land trusts. Thalia Hall had shifted hands many times over the years and developers merely needed to swoop in and buy it.
The core question remains: How do we create spaces for more people to experience a neighborhood while addressing the very real issues of housing affordability? Over 10,000 Latinos have left Pilsen since 2000 and new businesses are coming into Pilsen.
Issues run deeper than any business, but I think there is an opportunity here to come together as a community and create standards for new businesses and what community benefits they should bring. With a cohesive message, it may also create greater avenues for holding people accountable. If certain businesses do not meet the standards, what leverage is there to keep them out of the neighborhood?
I don’t have the answers to these questions and I doubt anyone does. However, we need to grapple with them. Other questions I want to address in another post is the role of young Latinxs in gentrifying Pilsen and what ethical consumerism means in gentrifying neighborhoods (if there is such a thing)…but that’s for another day.