Can Pilsen be a destination for young, Latinx people in the context of gentrification?

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Caminos de Michoacan bar in Pilsen (flickr.com)

By Lynda Lopez

Pilsen is frequently at the center of conversations about gentrification and there always seem to be additional layers to explore.

What makes Pilsen unique is that while it gentrifies, it still retains this marker as a destination for young, Latinx people in Chicago, whether to live or hang out. I always say “It all leads back to Pilsen.” It’s close to impossible to find anything like Pilsen in Chicago in regards to the concentration of spaces geared towards young people that aren’t majority-white, where you can walk down the street and almost always bump into someone you know, where it can sometimes feel like you’re in a college town. You can see these attributes as assets or potentially detriments, particularly if you’re trying to be anonymous in a neighborhood where it’s close to impossible to be.

There has been much attention paid lately to the role of upscale restaurants and bars in gentrifying neighborhoods. It often centers on the white people who end up frequenting those establishments. It’s important to call out establishments that are clearly marketed to attract people not currently inhabiting the neighborhood. However, I am also interested in interrogating the role of businesses, particularly bars, that attract a mostly, Latinx crowd.

On a typical weekend; young, Latinx people converge in Pilsen. Whether it’s for karaoke at Caminos de Michoacan or for a bite to eat at Simone’s or for a sweat-induced dance at Twisted Cantina, it is undeniable that Pilsen is the place to be on the weekends.

I don’t say that as a gentrifier-inspired way to attract people to the “top spots in Pilsen,” I say that to acknowledge a fact of nightlife in Pilsen.

I don’t see it as a harmful thing necessarily that young people want to come to Pilsen to have fun, drink, and dance. After all, that is what young people do. In the context of urban life, if you’re not a white person, you can seldom find places where you can experience your culture if it’s not part of a special “themed night.” Pilsen offers an environment where young, Latinx people can indulge in their culture unapologetically and I think that’s important to acknowledge.

I don’t believe any neighborhood has to represent any one thing to any one group of people. Pilsen is the prime example of that.

The question for me boils down to: “Can Pilsen be a destination for young people and also be a place where families can make a home?” It is undeniable that part of the attraction of Pilsen is the nightlife, which is undeniably part of the process of gentrification, regardless of who is indulging in it. If we are indulging in the nightlife, we also have a responsibility to be part of the struggle against displacement.

It is an opportunity to think about where our money goes and how we can simultaneously be allies to anti-displacement efforts. It is also a challenge to work towards reimagining what a Pilsen can look like that can incorporate various identities, ages, and backgrounds and one that pushes back against the homogenization of gentrifying Pilsen.

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